BLACK COMEDY CLUB PIONEER RETURNSAn Interview
by Thomas Dorsey, SoulOfAmerica.com
Comedy Act Planet PHOTOS
His comedy clubs gained recognition as a launching pad for bigger things. Robin Harris was the first MC. Sinbad performed at the LA club for 3 years until Tony King, a writer for the Red Foxx show, signed Sinbad to a TV show. Robert Townsend worked here before he blew up. And there's many more. Considering that so many comedians used his venues to refine their craft before branching out to a wider range of high-profile entertainment projects, its clear that the tentacles of Comedy Act Theater ... oops! I slipped up. Michael calls his reopened venue "Comedy Act Planet." For those of us who frequented Comedy Act Theater back in the day, its going to take some time before Comedy Act Planet roles off the lips. But that's cool. As I was about to say ...
Today Black comedy is still one of the highest grossing forms of concerts. So when you think of how the Black Comedy genre took off in the early 1990s with BET and HBO comedy shows, national comedy tours, Black TV sit-coms, and then Black comedic movies, you might wonder like I did, "Why didn't this brother become an entertainment mogul like Russell Simmons?" It seemed to me that Michael mastered the most crucial factor of success in his industry -- tons of successful comedian relationships. So I wondered did he blow a big concert contract? Did he do jail time? Did the mob have a contract on him? Any one of those things could make a brother disappear or keep a groundhog level profile. Turns out his back story is a lot more interesting, very personal, and very much above ground. With a break or two, Michael Williams could have rivaled Russel Simmons.
Robin Harris, the first MC and early comedians at Comedy Act Theater
MW: I opened it in 1985, in the heart of LA's black community (Leimert Park/Crenshaw) because I felt a need to keep dollars in our own community.
The first night we opened in LA, based on the audience reaction to the level of talent performing, I realized that I had created something special. So I'm proudest to know that I accomplished something that opened the door to the comedy industry for Black comedians.
On that first night, August 5th 1985, we featured 17 comics. Robin Harris was the MC and it seemed like a match made in heaven. We two had been longing for each other, but had been wondering where each had been. Sinbad was also on the opening line-up and a bunch of other folks. Robert Townsend and Daman Wayans began performing in the second week. After the first 5 weeks, the LA club sold out every week until the untimely death of Robin Harris (in 1990).
TD: Was that your greatest challenge?
MW: The initially realization that I wasn't prepared for how fast the industry would respond to the Comedy Act Theater (CAT), a show hosted in the Regency West building. I also underestimated business needs. I was not fully funded to buy certain things for the club, such as equipment and props or to properly staff. Then, talent started requiring more pay and worse, competition entered the scene, falsely convincing certain comedians that they could not make it big with a Black comedy club.
I wanted people to give CAT a shot, but could not get a cable deal like some other places. There's always a fight to position yourself to stay on top of things. You can't let comedians think that CAT can't land them TV and movie deals. So I tried to build an institution and infrastructure where we benefit from each others assets - making sure the comedians saw it as a "we"goal, not a "me" goal. You guys come with the talent, I'll come with everything else. Not everyone saw or shared that goal.
TD: What was the lowest point for the club?
MW: In January 1993, noticed something wasn't right with my health, jsut the industry was opening huge opportunities. Def Jam, ComicView and other comedy concerts arrived. Comedians moved on to further their careers. With deteriorating health, I became bedridden by August. My staff couldn't run everything as well as I did, but everyone chipped in to the best they could. I dropped from 240 down to 112 pounds. A month later, I was diagnosed with terminal cancer at age 40. Simultaneously, I learned that my 16-year old daughter was pregnant, creating an additional stress factor.
Chicago Comedy Act Theater opened in 1992, closed in 1993. Atlanta Comedy Act Theater opened in 1989, closed 1994.
In July 1994, he began remission, but it was slow process to get back on your feet. Somehow he managed to keep the LA club open until October 1997, but physically, he could not keep it going. As a cancer survivor who needed to relieve the stress, he found it better to let it go.
TD: What's the list of famous Black Comedians who performed at a Comedy Act Theater?
MW: These famous comedians performed at one or more Comedy Act Theaters (listed in alphabetic order):
J. Anthony Brown
Cedric the Entertainer
Rudy Ray Moore
Keenan Ivory Wayans
TD: What do you best remember about Robin Harris, the first MC at Comedy Act Theater?
MW: His willingness to just entertain everybody. He felt that people were spending their hard earned money, so he wanted to give them their money's worth. Working at Comedy act Theater, for the first time he felt that his talent was appreciated. He just came to life and that was special. Of course I took it hard when I heard he died (March 18, 1990). He had just left LA on Friday night and went to Chicago, where they found him dead on Sunday morning (Robin had acute respiratory problems; he was 36).
TD: Since you reopened the club in May 29, 2008 and are limited to Thursday nights at the time of this writing, tell us about your future plans?
MW: I plan to expand the number of nights and much more.
For more information, see our listing for Comedy Act Planet.