Funnier than hell

After doing uproarious impersonations of a clueless kindergartener, a droning preacher, and a decrepit deacon in the space of five minutes, celebrated comedian Lester Barrie let his voice drop into a deadpan. “I’ve been thinking a lot about heaven lately. Do I really want to go? None of my friends are going to be there. Brothers and sisters, the party’s going on downstairs.“ It’s an odd angle coming from a man who, when he’s not pursuing a successful stand-up career in L.A., fills the pulpit every Sunday morning as a minister. But Barrie struck a delicate balance between thorough ribbing and a subtle reaffirmation of the central role of the church in his life and his community.

The “Gospel Comedy Explosion” that took place at the Harold Washington Cultural Center (HWCC) last Friday night had an unusually long fuse. The assembly–made up of 30 or so souls, mostly African-American 40-somethings dressed in their Sunday best–fanned out into a spacious beige theater that comfortably seats a thousand. They languished in the divine din of the Gospel music blaring through the theater for over an hour until, finally surrendering to technical glitches, the performances began. Judging by the enthusiastic applause that followed every act, for many it was definitely worth the wait.

The show summoned some of the nation’s best comedic talent onto 47th Street and featured hip-hop artist Vessel, frequent Comedy Central performer Ron Baker, and D. L. Hughley collaborator Lena Green. While most of the comedians successfully skirted the profane as the program had promised, they didn’t hesitate to plunge into the political. The humor dealt with issues ranging from absent parents, to sex, to domestic violence. “Our comedians don’t have jokes,” Lester Barrie said. “We have problems we’re willing to let you laugh at.”

Mr. Barrie, a look of absurdly delineated dejection on his face as he stared into the all-but-empty theater, immediately commented: “Man, I came all the way from L.A. for this… I could have e-mailed y’all my jokes. Ain’t enough people here to start a rumor that I ain’t funny.”

And that was tragic because Mr. Barrie and his fellow performers were, in their affectionate mockery of church life, hysterical. In an age when most popular comedians don’t even attempt to separate swearing from their shtick, the evening at the HWCC proved that comedy can still be explosive without dropping F-bombs. (Christopher Riehle)