American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
What Second City was for "Saturday Night Live," a Chicago comedy club was for virtually every black comedian who emerged in the 1990s. All Jokes Aside was a black-owned enterprise that seemed to have infallible taste in talent, perhaps because it was the only club in the country that didn't relegate blacks to "special nights" or "Chocolate Sundays." Its opening-night act was Jamie Foxx, then unknown. It introduced or showcased talents such as Bernie Mac, Cedric the Entertainer, Steve Harvey, D.L. Hughley, Carlos Mencia, A.J. Jamal, Sheryl Underwood, George Wallace, Bill Bellamy, Dave Chappelle, Adele Givens, and on and on, including the personnel of the touring Kings of Comedy and Queens of Comedy.
"Phunny Business: A Black Comedy" is a most unexpected documentary about the rise of a club that often sold out three houses a night for 10 years, wasn't on the radar of many Chicagoans and closed, in a way, as the victim of its own success: When the young comics it launched made it big, they found more money doing concerts on big stages than gigs in a small room.
This is a film not so much about black comedians, although we see and hear a lot of them, but about black entrepreneurs. Raymond C. Lambert, who co-founded the club, began as a stock trader for the firm of the black Chicago millionaire Chris Gardner (who himself inspired the character played by Will Smith in "The Pursuit of Happyness"). After a visit to Bud Friedman's Improv in Los Angeles, he wondered why a club like that wouldn't work in Chicago.
Turned out, it would. He opened on Wabash Avenue in the South Loop, booked the best of a new generation, insisted on impeccable manners, dress and training for his staff, made headliners wear suits and ties, and drew affluent crowds. He was also providing almost the only venue in the nation for black female comedians, the threatened subspecies of a threatened species, and booked black gay comics at a time when that was unheard of. He even booked one white comic, Honest John, who backstage one night advised Deon Cole, "try some of this real California weed instead of that Chicago !+," after which Cole went onstage and found himself suddenly gifted with telescopic tunnel vision.