Originally created 06/03/01

Converting yucks to bucks is serious but risky business



Comedian Shaun Jones lives in Atlanta, appears regularly on the Black Entertainment Television program Comic View and travels to gigs all across the country. But he's in Augusta each Sunday.

In one respect, it's his way of giving back to his fans and friends in Augusta. In another, it's a business opportunity, one more stop for a stand-up comic on the road.

May 27 was Mr. Jones' 17th week as the host of comedy night at the Word of Mouth Cafe on Broad Street. In the past four months, Augusta has become sort of his adopted home.

He said he supports Augusta because the city has supported him. Mr. Jones, 31, began appearing at the old Paragon Lounge five years ago.

Picture an impeccably dressed traveling salesman with the power to make liquids spurt out your nose. That's Mr. Jones. His suits are tailored more for night than day, but he's still all business when he's not busy being funny.

Mr. Jones said the salesman analogy is close to the truth. The jokes are his pots and pans, his encyclopedias. He has knocked on a lot of doors in his eight years of performing stand-up. Now he has an agent, so he can knock much more loudly.

Even with his bank account expanding, he said, work isn't always predictable. He left a full-time job with benefits in the national deposits division of Chase Manhattan's operations in Wilmington, Del., to pursue his dream.

So how do you know when you've made it as a comedian? "When you don't have a job," Mr. Jones said. "I spend all my time doing this. I'm not happy working for someone else."

Having a wife and three children has been added incentive to succeed.

Mr. Jones said enjoying his vocation doesn't make it stress free.

Take, for example, a recent Sunday. Mr. Jones was in travel mode from 5 a.m. until noon. When he arrived in Augusta, he learned that the featured act wouldn't be able to make the show. Mr. Jones got on the phone and rounded up the three comedians who ended up filling in. All three - G-Man, Hurricane Andrew and Shawn Cornelius - have done spots on BET programs. Two of the comics drove in from Atlanta, the other from Charleston, S.C.

They arrived on time and produced - even if at times they were a little edgier than Mr. Jones felt appropriate for Augusta on a Sunday night.

"Comedy has little to do with being funny. It's 80 percent about business and 20 percent about being funny," Mr. Jones contends. "You have to conduct yourself as if you were running a Fortune 500 business. You have to have ethics and professionalism. Not everyone in this business has that."

THE WORD OF MOUTH has seen a bit of a slowdown in its Sunday crowds in the past three to four weeks. The club started with two shows but has scaled back to one. With most of the 140 seats filled each Sunday, the crowds are still sizable - and at times downright boisterous - but insiders worry that the old Augusta axiom for local music is true for comedy, too.

People will support it - just not consistently.

Since the Augusta Comedy House Theatre closed its doors in April 2000 after an eight year-run, several clubs have stepped up to the microphone. Coyotes on Peach Orchard Road offers Wednesday-night shows, and the Holiday Inn on Stevens Creek Road near Interstate 20 delivers Friday, Saturday and Sunday shows.

Many people still wonder what went wrong with the popular Comedy House Theatre, which operates clubs in Macon, Savannah, Columbia and Greenville, S.C.

Aubrey Pippin, whose Savannah-based CHT Entertaiment founded the chain, blames mismanagement and landlord decisions for the Augusta closing.

"We just love Augusta. One of the hardest things I ever did was close that club," he said. "It was a lease problem and that we couldn't get good management. I was going through managers about every six months."

Mr. Pippin said when the lease ran out on the first location, at 2740 Washington Road, the landlord decided not to renew the agreement. That forced a move to a less conspicuous location in the National Hills Shopping Center. The new spot was harder to find and farther from I-20.

Given the problems he had, Mr. Pippin said he has no plans to reopen a club in Augusta in the near future. He said, however, that Augusta remains a viable market for comedy. He claims to have a marketing list of 20,000 people who at one time or another visited his Augusta club.

"I think there's room for another weekend club," Mr. Pippin said. He said that Augusta is a big enough city to support a comedy scene but that clubs need to provide diverse offerings. Comedy alone won't pay the bills.

"We had a full-time club, and it only operated roughly 20 hours a week," Mr. Pippin said. "You need to have something else-slash-comedy."

CHT Entertainment serves as a booking service for 2,700 comedians in the Southeast. Popular Comedy House performers such as hypnotist Gary Conrad and Faye Woodroof, better known as "the Grandmother from Hell," will return to Augusta at Coyotes and other venues, Mr. Pippin said.

Bonkerz, the comedy club in the Holiday Inn West lounge, also will have nationally known names. It is the most recent comedy spot to open, having had its first act last month.

Backing performances with marketing is essential, Mr. Pippin said. Response cards, radio and newspaper are all part of the mix.

Anne Weston, the owner of Word of Mouth, does heavy radio advertising on Power 107 and Kiss 106. Ms. Weston, a former backup singer for James Brown, said although her comedians appeal primarily to a black audience, diverse crowds regularly attend the shows.

"My whole thing was to have an adult crowd, mixed, be comfortable and be able to laugh."

Appropriately, word of mouth has been another useful marketing tool, she added.

AS STEVE MARTIN once said, comedy isn't pretty. For every success story, there are countless other flops and almost-weres in the extremely unsympathetic world of stand-up.

Joe King is one of the hopefuls. At age 19, he has his own local comedy program, which airs at 11:30 p.m. Sundays on Comcast. He started doing live performances in Savannah when he was 10. Mr. Jones, one of his mentors, bought him his first leather jacket to wear onstage.

Kurt G. - aka Kurt Green - is another local funnyman. He's one of many who will gladly accept a warmup slot preceding a featured talent. It's about making a name for himself right now, not about making a lot of money.

But applause and laughter are always welcome.

"Is that the best you can do?" he asked the audience when he took the stage May 20 at the Word of Mouth. "I came all the way from Hephzibah."

Most featured names at comedy clubs have some type of part-time or full-time job. Mr. Cornelius joked after the Sunday show that his day job allows him to practice his comedy; he's a baggage handler for a major airline.

Having performed in New York and other large markets, Mr. Cornelius said the competition for work can be cutthroat.

"If G-Man and I, for example, were up for the same show it might be kind of tense for a while," the comedian said, "at least until we find out who gets the job. Then we're all right again."

Mr. Cornelius and Mr. Jones agreed that professionalism - even in an environment where flatulence and booger jokes are told - determines how far one goes. He said that applies to both comedians and club owners. Failure to honor contracts is one of the frustrations of the industry, and drugs and other distractions can come into play.

Mr. Jones said he avoids drugs and alcohol in order to keep a clear mind.

And he carries his own contracts with him - just in case a club owner forgets to provide one.

Reach Eric Williamson at (706) 828-3904.