MAKING INROADS THROUGH COMEDY; COMPETITION GEARED TOWARD EXPOSING MINORITY TALENT TO BROADER AUDIENCES

When it comes to the Bay Area Black Comedy Competition, laughing is a political act.

“It’s comedy affirmative action,” says Tony Spires, a Portland-born talent agent who founded the competition in 1987, after he came to study creative writing and theater at San Francisco State.

“I saw great performers,” he says, and wanted to bring them to broader audiences. Comedy, at its height in clubs, television and films, seemed a natural direction.

Although the competition began 13 years ago, this year is its 12th go-around. A hiatus came after 1996, when the winner a skinny fellow from Florida culminated his act with a striptease down to his G-string.

It was time to take a year off to let the talent pool replenish itself.

Meanwhile, the laughs resume this weekend, with preliminary rounds hosted by Kim Whitley (“Next Friday”) that will feature talent including Jason Murry of Richmond, Raymond Poole and Marceline McDonald of Oakland, William Wesley Walls of Union City and Roger Rodd of Alameda. The March 18 finals return to Oakland’s Paramount Theatre, where comic artists have played to sold-out audiences since 1990.

The competition survives despite the waning popularity of live comedy. Wannabe funnymen and women overloaded the ’80s’ roaring comedy circuit, cable shows and sitcoms. On the black comedy scene, now-defunct shows such as “Def Comedy Jam,” “Apollo Comedy Hour” and the BET series “Comic View” saturated the genre as well.

Spires credits the comic resurgence to up-and-coming artists and wide acceptance of, as the euphemism goes, “urban comedy.” The contest’s purse is $5,000, but the pipeline into Hollywood careers is the real prize. The competition’s Web site brags on the Cinderella stories of past participants: former Berkeley Pay’N’Save manager Mark Curry later starred in ABC’s “Hangin’ With Mr. Cooper”; 1991 winner Jamie Foxx (“Any Given Sunday”) penetrated the Wayans’ world of Fox’s “In Living Color”; Chris Tucker’s motor mouth didn’t even get him into the semi-finals, but it did get him into movies such as big-budget sci-fi flick “The Fifth Element” and the hugely popular comedies “Friday” and “Rush Hour.”

While open to all races since its inception, the contest has been accused of instigating “derision and division,” especially with the San Francisco International Comedy Competition in the same town. Then and now, though, Spires says, “the minority comedian has to be twice as funny and have twice the draw” to land lucrative gigs.

“It’s still hard for the urban comedian’ to get a fair shake,” he says. The latest club trend, for instance, is relegating an off night as urban night. “It’s never the main thrust of the club, but oftentimes it pays the bulk of the bills.”

Complaining about this ghettoization, though, might cut off those few avenues for minority comics. “Are you shooting off your nose to spite your face? Even if comedians make fun of urban nights they still need (them).”

At the same time, though, comics such as Tucker, Foxx, Sinbad and Chris Rock have brought their brand of humor to the mainstream.

“It’s hard for the mainstream industry to deny it. You see it from fashion to lingo to slang. When you hear people like Jerry Springer, Ricki Lake, mainstream sportscasters using ghetto slang, you know that we have – how can I say it? we have seeped into the infrastructure.”

The effects remain to be seen. After all, TV shows with black casts proliferated in the ’70s; decades later, “there’s nothing that parallels those kinds of efforts now,” Spires says. Minorities, for the most part, have been relegated to such modest sidekick roles that the situation has drawn well-publicized protests from media industry watchgroups and the NAACP.

As for film, he points out that “Next Friday” will gross five times its $10 million budget. “It’s a low budget by any Hollywood standard, and it was No. 1 in the box office for two straight weeks.” To Spires, that’s yet another black film that had to start off with less, but makes more.

The current trend of over-the-top, broad comedy also harks back to turn-of-the-century minstrel days. “What society wanted was for black people to be humorous, either to sing or dance or tell jokes. Flash forward to now, it’s still what the industry wants,” Spires says.

Running a comedy competition would seem to undermine this mission of being taken seriously, but Spires sees it as a practical approach to playing Hollywood’s game. Stars such as Whoopi Goldberg, Richard Pryor, Bill Cosby and Eddie Murphy began in comedy. Will Smith went from rap and “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” to become a “huge iconoclastic leading man.”

“We’re not trying to perpetuate comedy only. We’re trying to find the open door to expose people. Comedy is one of those open doors,” Spires says.

What: Bay Area Black Comedy Competition 2000

WHEN: Preliminaries 8 p.m. Friday through Sunday; finals 8 p.m. March 18

Where: Preliminary rounds at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Theatre, 701 Mission St., S.F.; finals at the Paramount Theatre, 2025 Broadway, Oakland.

How much: $25-$35. Tickets can be purchased through 762-BASS or the box offices: Paramount Theatre, 510-465-6400; Center for the Arts, 415-978-ARTS

Call: 510-433-9923 or browse www.blackcomedycompetition.com.

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