Shang - formerly known as Shang Forbes - appears an unlikely comedian for our jaded age. Instead of keeping an ironic distance or an overheated ghetto sensibility more common to - and more expected of - black performers, he makes a commitment: wrestling with alligators that his peers won't touch, and placing himself squarely in the middle of little-tried material that he often doesn't have a handle on. His show, Ism (Theater at the Improv), consists of his musings on a slew of "isms" - from racism to sexism.
The 34-year-old comic helpfully describes himself at the beginning as "Negro lite - less calories than most brothers, but more filling." Shang then wanders through a dense thicket of topics, while firing on everything from Hollywood ("They all think: 'We need a cool black person.' Like we all come with our own theme music"), to black militarism ("Oh yeah, like going back to Africa's really an option"), even to abortion ("Pro-life people shoot up a clinic and then say, 'Jesus told me to do it.' It's always somebody you can't get on the phone and verify"). Though he's gotten plenty of ink for being controversial, the native New Yorker insists that he proceeds not from politics but merely a point of view - something he finds shamefully lacking in black comedy these days.
Where Dick Gregory and Richard Pryor once gave the battered black psyche robust voice and form, "Now a black guy does a pussy joke, and he gets over immediately," muses Shang, who counts Gregory, the young Eddie Murphy and George Carlin among his inspirations. "It took me longer. It took me two years to get on Def Comedy Jam. I was told to be more street, less political. I did work to make my act more aggressive, condensed, but I wanted to do it my way."
If Shang doesn't act the part of a standup, he doesn't look it either: clean-cut, smoothly handsome, with a megawatt smile that he generously employs in his routine. His sharp features and light complexion may further confuse folks looking for the physical archetype of funny black men that dates back to Topsy and continues in modern times with the likes of Fat Albert and Robin Harris.
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Shang may not yet be on a par with those comic greats, but wait. His willingness to enlist the audience in his battle for unlikely yuks is a potent element of Shang's appeal. The largely black crowd, after initially straddling the gulf of silence between squirming discomfort and acquiescence, makes the leap of faith. Shang rewards them with provocative if not entirely laugh-riotous material, which runs the gamut from thoughtful to bitingly funny to borderline maudlin. Still, he's satisfied for now. "We need to show people that we think more," he says. "Not just in my case - there are guys out there who will be funny and poignant and move a crowd, but the industry always wants the lowest common denominator, the guy with the plastic shower cap on his head." Shang's banking on being the next black guy who stays clean - and gets away with it.