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Is Comedy Dead?
Not in Philly. Not when Na'im Ali's in the room.
What killed comedy? Ask ten people and you might get ten different answers. Someone is bound to say “cancel culture” — damn snowflakes can’t handle a joke. Someone else will push back: no, actually, what killed comedy was stale jokes told by “old white men” who just won’t go away. Another might point the finger at “snark,” which, they’d tell you, is a lazy substitute for authentic cleverness.
This dynamic was on display during the most recent round of controversy generated by Dave Chappelle. His latest standup special invoked the wrath of Netflix employees. They protested against Chappelle for being transphobic and against Netflix for platforming him. Their protest attracted counter-protesters who are tired of being made to feel guilty for thinking things are funny (they were chanting “we like jokes”). The whole ordeal was narrated in real time by the Twitter intelligentsia, who wasn’t laughing along with Chappelle (his special was too preachy), or cheering on the protesters (you work at Netflix, he’s a wildly popular comedian, grow up), or joining in with the counter-protesters (outrage has given way to numbness). The intelligentsia was most focused on criticizing mainstream media coverage of the affair (hey, AP, your caption on the picture of the counter-protester was misleading).
Everything started with a comedy special, but it was only at the meta-level, after stepping back and soaking in the absurdity of it all, that anyone was laughing at any of this. So, observing this latest edition of The Chappelle Discourse, it wasn’t hard to see why so many people say that comedy is dead. Sure, maybe people can’t agree on the cause of death, but everyone’s looking at the same body, and everyone’s calling it a corpse. Maybe everyone is right.
But maybe everyone’s looking at the wrong body.
The best comedy scene in the country. Na’im Ali was born and raised in Philadelphia. He’s always been good at making people laugh and he’d often been encouraged to give standup a shot. But he never really had the time: he played sports in high school, worked full-time as a young adult, then got married and had kids. Then, in 2018, he went through a divorce, and suddenly he had some free time on his hands. So, at 31, Ali finally decided to try his hand at comedy.
“It was the first thing I was ever really good at right off the bat,” he said. He was a good athlete when he was younger, but he had to really work at it. Standup came more naturally to him.
Not that it’s always been easy. He started off going to open mic nights around the city — the Grape Room in Manayunk, The Raven Lounge in Center City, Ortlieb’s in Northern Liberties. He quickly learned how to do a solid five-minute routine, and his first few performances went well — well enough that, after only three months, he got booked for a ten-minute show.
Turns out, the extra five minutes makes a difference. A big difference. Especially when things get off on the wrong foot.
Ali was excited for his first “real” performance. But when he showed up, he was surprised to see a room full of old people — “like, really old.” He asked the host if his routine was supposed to be clean. The host assured him that explicit content was okay, but Ali wasn’t comfortable delivering his jokes to an elderly audience: “I say some fucked up shit. And I swear a lot.” He couldn’t bring himself to do the routine he had planned, so he decided to wing it — he went up on stage and tried to be funny without offending the sensibilities that he ascribed to the crowd.
It went about as you’d expect. “The place was silent,” he said, “I mean silent.” A few minutes into his routine, he paused for a moment, trying to figure out how to salvage the time he had left. A woman from the crowd pierced the silence: “it’s okay, baby, keep going!”
But hey, “that’s how you learn,” Ali says. He didn’t let it slow him down. He kept on practicing at open mic nights, which he likens to going to the gym. You want to get stronger? Lift weights. You want to get funnier? Get up on stage and tell jokes. Most people in the audience at open mic nights are fellow comedians, so they all test their material out on each other and give each other feedback.
If you shine bright enough on the open mic stage, you’ll start to get booked for paid gigs. The pay isn’t much, but you get to have a longer routine and a bigger audience. And if you do well enough, other opportunities might start to fall in your lap.
For instance, Ali has been invited to perform at a few birthday parties. These events have been out on the Main Line, where people can afford to book a comedian for a birthday — except most people have no clue what kind of money comedians normally make. When he’s booked at a club in the city, Ali pockets around $40 on a good night. He joked about milking money out of the Main Liners: “Oh, you want to give me $300 for 15 minutes? Well, normally I make more than that, but I guess I can make an exception…”
The lack of money can be a serious issue for standup comedians. Ali works a 9-5 during the week, so he doesn’t rely on comedy as a source of income. If you want to tell jokes for a living, though, Ali says “you can’t make it on standup alone anymore.” He says that “every comedian should have a podcast.” Somehow, between working 9-5, having his kids on the weekends, and doing stand-up on weeknights, Ali finds the time to make two podcasts — one with a group, called Durag & the Deertag, and one solo, called The Ramble with Na’im Ali.
He said that, as a comedian, you used to be able to just focus on standup, try to shine on stage, start making a name for yourself. Then, a network would reach out to you, and you’d get your shot. But now that entertainment has moved online, it comes down to numbers. Agencies can see your followers, podcast streams, video views — low numbers, no offers.
But all that only matters if you’re looking to make it big. For now, Ali is mostly just enjoying himself. He loves doing standup, and he’s jumped at every opportunity to do it for over three years now. He doesn’t even go on normal vacations anymore. Instead, he’ll go to, say, Seattle for a week, bounce around from comedy club to comedy club, and hop on open mics when he can. It’s a great way to network, try out material on new audiences, challenge himself by trying to tailor his routines to regional sensibilities. He’s been all over: Austin, D.C., New York, etc.
“I might be biased, but I think Philly has the best comedy scene in the country,” Ali said. According to him, Philadelphia is the only city where it’s rare to see a booked comedian completely bomb. And here, comedians are mostly “silly” as opposed to political — not that they avoid politics altogether, but it’s not their primary focus. “In Philly, we got 20 other things to be mad about before we figure out if you’re Democrat or Republican.” He described the comedy scene in other cities:
DC: very political
Seattle: super woke, super depressed
Austin: a bunch of dudes who followed Joe Rogan from California
New York: hot shots trying to make it big
When comedians from Philadelphia start to make a name for themselves, they often go to New York. When they come back, they always come back to The Raven Lounge, which has a special place in the heart of every Philly comedian. It’s their stomping ground and steppingstone, the weight room in which they acquired their comedic muscle. In fact, “special place” might be underselling it a bit — in this episode of The Ramble, around the 20:30 mark, Ali discusses warding off a group of looters from The Raven Lounge during a protest in the summer of 2020:
Let me tell y’all something man: y’all Philly comedians, y’all owe me… I was out there protecting our establishments. You know, out there protecting the places we love… I’m up there where Raven Lounge at, I see this group of fuckin’ looters and shit, I mean a whole pack of ‘em… they ‘bout to fuck with Raven Lounge. I immediately jump in front, I’m like nah, yo, ain’t shit in this spot, I been in here already. This shit’s ass, this shit’s dead. Man, it got three floors of bullshit… and the floors sticky as fuck, you feel me? You don’t wanna come in here. Like, this spot is bullshit, don’t fuck with this jawn. So, then they went past Raven Lounge. I’m like, yes… I’m that superhero comedian, I’m out here protecting our establishments.
Ali in action. December 14, 2021. Three weeks after the Chappelle ordeal. Comedy night at Ortlieb’s in Northern Liberties. The host introduces the first comedian of the night: Na’im Ali.
Ali starts by asking how the audience is doing. Then he looks down, scratches his head, looks back up: “so… who here survived an abortion? Put your hand up.”
The crowd is still.
“I don’t see any hands. No one? So that was just me, huh?”
And his routine only got more subversive from there. Luckily the crowd had an affinity for dark humor — Ali had us rolling out of our chairs for the entire performance. And the comedians who followed him were pretty good, too. It was a diverse cast of characters both in terms of outward appearance and comedic style. High energy, low energy, some dark humor, some lighter-hearted stuff. None of it was preachy or stale or snarky.
And this wasn’t just some one-off miracle. January 13 at The Raven Lounge was much the same way. This time, Ali’s routine was a little less subversive: “anyone ever had to shit so bad that, you’re rushing to get your pants down and sit on the toilet, and you twist your ankle?” His demonstration of the poop-induced injury was icing on the cake.
Again, the rest of the routines backed up Ali’s contentions about Philly’s comedy scene. Every now and then someone would throw in a cheap shot about Trump or race relations, but for the most part, it was just comedy for the sake of comedy. Those who took the stage at Ortlieb’s and Raven Lounge largely defied the sky-is-falling rhetoric that’s so prevalent in America’s national discourse on comedy.
Take the trans woman who made light of some personal sexual misadventures. An ex-boyfriend was taken aback when he found out she didn’t have a penis. “Yeah, I’m trans, but the transition is complete, honey!” Apparently, that was a problem for him. He seemed to lose interest, despite insisting to her that he was straight. This has become a pattern in her life that’s led her to develop a theory: “trans women are the gateway to gay.”
After her routine, the host introduced the next comedian as “also trans.” Onto the stage walked a very cis-looking white guy who picked up the mic, laughed, and said “yeah, uh… not trans. Actually, I’m at a big disadvantage here. I have the least funny identity.” And then he proceeded to do his routine, which was pretty mediocre. After a few jokes fell flat, he said “so… I’m a trans woman” — and that got a few laughs, including from the actual trans woman who had just finished a much funnier routine.
A lot of the comedians were beating up on each other, and by the end of the night, all of them were beating up on the two obnoxious drunks at the bar who were shouting during the routines. One comedian, a soft-spoken, nerdy-looking guy — he looked like he’d have been more comfortable in a cubicle — paused during his performance when the drunks got loud for the umpteenth time: “No, please, order another drink, assholes!”
Ali was right: Philadelphia has a thriving local comedy scene. It’s not poisoned with political toxicity; no one is walking on eggshells; no one gets shouted off the stage. It’s just a bunch of people who love to make each other laugh. In an environment like that, Ali says, there’s no need to worry about getting cancelled. “It’s fine until you’re famous, and then even once you’re famous, you might get dropped by a major network, but that’ll get you name recognition, and you can still be big on the local scene.”
So, regardless of what’s going on at Netflix, if “you come around here, you can say whatever you want.”
No, really, Ali does it all the time. Here’s him:
Asking a room full of white people to shout the n-word
Arguing that white people don’t know how to handle the mentally ill
Again, though, he’s funny even when he’s not being overly subversive. Here’s him looking back on an odd childhood habit that got him kicked out of school:
Even when he’s not being subversive, he’s still being subversive. Here’s a set that he opens by encouraging the audience members to drop roofies into their own drinks before moving onto yet another strange childhood habit of his:
Ali’s strength as a comedian is evident in that he can be funny talking about anything. But he seems most in his element when he’s crossing lines others might have left uncrossed. He says what he wants, because the only rules here are that there are no rules.
When in Philly, it’s laugh or leave. But if you leave when Ali’s on stage, it’ll be your loss.
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