On any given Thursday night in the late 1980s, Michael Williams would watch from the wings as up-and-coming black comics, including Jaime Foxx, Martin Lawrence, Bernie Mac and Chris Tucker, performed at the comedy club he founded in South Los Angeles.
The Comedy Act Theater was one among the first comedy clubs in the country to cater to the black community and was the launch pad for many successful black comedians.
For 12 years, comedy fans packed the house. The first night, 200 people crammed into a room that could accommodate only 160. Within a few weeks, the place regularly sold out — a streak that lasted five years. Williams opened outposts in Atlanta and Chicago.
Williams, who had worked for six years as a stage manager and event producer, was an experienced theatrical manager who started the club after being frustrated by the way L.A.'s comedy scene failed to speak to black patrons like himself.
“Everyone who does black comedy on the West Coast owes him,” says standup comedian and actress Angela Means. “He is the real godfather of West Coast black comedy.”
“I hope somehow in the annals of history, Mike will get his just due for what he tried to create,” adds comedian Buddy Lewis.
Originally an aspiring photographer, Williams might never have pursued comedy had he not signed up for a workshop in the 1970s with legendary composer Quincy Jones, and got to know Jones' manager, Peter Long.
Their first meeting got off to an awkward start.
“My name is Michael Williams,” Williams told Long.
Long asked Williams to repeat himself. Williams said his name again, this time louder. Long again didn't seem to hear him. Williams introduced himself once more, even louder. The fifth time, Williams yelled out his name.
“Now doesn’t that sound better?” Long replied.
The exercise had a profound impact on Williams.
“Long talked for the next 30 minutes about how we as black people need to project, need to announce who we are, let the world know we exist,” Williams says.
That night, Williams gave away his photography equipment. For the next two years, he shadowed Long, thinking, “There was something fascinating about him, but in order to find out, I had to be around him.”
Williams learned how to organize workshops and stage shows, manage talent and raise funds. He developed a reputation as a reliable behind-the-scenes guy. But he got disillusioned with working for free.
“I said to myself that the next time I raise money for somebody, it’s gonna be for me,” he recalls.
One evening in 1985, when Williams was feeling particularly low, he visited Hollywood’s Comedy Store. As the audience started filling up, Williams noticed he was the only black man in the room. As the evening progressed, he realized that he hadn’t laughed at a single joke.
“I said to myself ‘Man, this sucks; this would be funny if all of them were black,’” he said. “And that’s when it hit me.”
Williams decided to model his club after The Comedy Store in Hollywood, but with a line-up of black comedians targeting a black audience. He traveled across the country to look for others pursuing this concept, and was surprised to find that there weren’t too many.
Black comedians were performing in nightclubs, filling the time before and after musical performances. Or they were performing in mainstream clubs entertaining primarily white audiences. But very few black comedy clubs were dedicated to entertaining black audiences.
Black comedians in white clubs, Williams says, were told, “‘You’re too black, can you please tone it down?’”
With his last $1,000, Williams placed an ad in Variety (cheaper than the Hollywood Reporter), rented a place in Leimert Park and launched the Comedy Act Theater on August 5, 1985.
On opening day he was ready with fliers. “He would stand around street corners and hand fliers to everyone on the road,” said Williams' longtime friend, writer Emory Holmes. “That was his style. He liked to do everything himself.”
Williams chose Leimert Park not only because it was an African-American cultural hub, but also because it was a middle-class neighborhood and safe for women.
“Guys follow where the women are,” he says. “If a woman is comfortable or if she is by herself or with her girlfriends, that’s a win-win.”
The beginning of the club marked the beginning of a long partnership with comedian Robin Harris. Harris had planned to open for another performer, but Williams liked him so much, he asked him to stay on as host. Harris became the guy who tied the whole show together.
Andrea Scott, a carpenter in South L.A., quickly became a club regular. Scott felt a strong cultural connection with the comedians and their jokes, Harris in particular.
“You didn’t have to interpret them,” she said. “You would just get them. It would be a joke about something that your grandma always said back home.”
Next: How a tragedy altered Comedy Act Theater's course
The club started attracting black talent from around the country. Amateurs and well-known black comedians including Robert Townsend, Redd Foxx, Sinbad and D.L. Hughley performed there during its peak. Williams would give everybody a chance to perform, so long as each could muster the courage. He designed the lineup to include a mix of established and up-and-coming comedians. That way, the audiences stayed engaged even if the newcomers didn’t perform well. It allowed room for experimentation.
Means, the stand-up comedian, recalls that upon leaving the stage after her very first act, people looked away. Audiences didn’t tend to be harsh with amateurs. Still, she was nervous. “People repelled me like I was a mosquito,” she says.
Williams pushed her to open the next show anyway — it was “now or never.” “The stage is waiting for you,” he would tell her.
Within six months, Means was touring the country. “I owe everything to Michael,” she says. “He gave everybody a chance.”
But tragedy struck after five years. In 1990, a week before opening the Atlanta location, Williams received a call: Harris, the beloved host of the Leimert Park shows, had died of heart failure.
Williams was devastated.
“It was too great, too overwhelming of a feeling that something like this could last,” he says.
For several months, audiences in L.A. dropped to single digit numbers. Harris had created such strong emotional connections that many people simply never came back.
Williams refers to Harris’ death as the “first crack in the armor.” A second crack followed three years later, when Williams was diagnosed with stage IV non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a rare form of lymphatic cancer.
The cancer swallowed him like a rogue ocean wave, spitting out a beat-up version of his once-flourishing life. He lost his appetite, and his weight dropped from 240 pounds to 112 pounds. Unable to keep up with mortgage payments for his home and clubs, Williams filed for bankruptcy.
He closed all his comedy clubs one by one, ending with Leimert Park in 1997.
“L.A. was my baby,” he says. “But trying to hold on was probably the worst thing. It was better to just understand that things happen in life and at least I have my life. I could always start over again.”
People painfully came to terms with the club's closure.
“It was like hearing of the loss of a beloved institution in your community,” Holmes says. “Something that has helped shape your development. It was a little bit like a death in the family and that’s the way most of us felt about it.”
The Comedy Act Theater’s run lasted for 12 years. At its height, the queue of people waiting to get in stretched around the block. Parking lots were full. Patrons would fly in from all over the country.
Now, that stretch of 43rd Street is desolate. The only shop open on the block is a nail salon. But people on the streets still remember Williams, welcoming him like a long-lost friend.
Obinne Onyeador, the owner of an African artifacts store, sees Williams, opens his arms wide open and yells, “My brother from my other mother! How are you doing?”
As Williams turns the corner, a woman stops her car and runs towards him, hollering, “Michael, I love you!” She hugs him and asks, “Where have you been?” Lady Mahasin frequented Williams’ comedy club as a teenager, and now says, “His club was one of the best entertainment spots for black people in those times.”
Williams now walks with a slight limp on his right foot; radiation caused permanent nerve and muscle damage. He battled cancer for 10 years and won. The limp is his war wound.
He spends his days scouting for venues and chasing down producers and comedians to put up his next big gig: a four-day festival next year to reunite black comedians across generations from all over the world.
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Breaking into the circuit he once ruled after a decade-plus hiatus is no mean task. Even though the Comedy Act Theater jumpstarted the careers of several famous comedians, now they don’t always return his calls.
Still, Williams is optimistic that he will be able to organize this festival by next year. At 61, he has dreams as big and bold as when he was 32.
“I want to create a historical moment,” he says. “Something like no one has ever created before.”
This article was produced by Intersections South LA, a student-run news website at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. Intersections features in-depth reporting about South L.A. covering an area from University Park to Watts. Contact the site at firstname.lastname@example.org.