It’s a warm April Sunday evening, the sun’s still out, and about 35 people are crowded around an oval bar in the historic Central West Trenton club. Tirese Topp Flight Rhone is wrapping up his MC duties and asks the audience to stand. On the back stage, DJ Fatha Ramzee pumps up the music, while in the foreground, Rhone announces the headline comedian.
“You’ve seen him on Showtime at the Apollo, Def Comedy Jam and Comcast Channel 66, but y’all probably don’t have cable anyway . . . put it together for Matt Black y’all,” Ramzee says.
Live comedy is often cathartic, usually self-deprecating and sometimes controversial. Every third Sunday of the month, Laff Out Loud by Nina and Landy brings these elements to the Candlelight Lounge on Passaic Avenue. The Candlelight is more famous for its jazz on Saturdays, but now thanks to Nina Dawkins and Yolanda “Landy” Robinson, the city also has a budding comedy scene.
Dawkins and Robinson, both single mothers, are versatile Trenton activists: Dawkins works with the Trenton African American Cultural Festival and won a 2014 MLK Drum Major Award, while Robinson is an author and talk show host. Since Robinson was already promoting various events around town and already had comedic elements on her talk show, the two agreed that Trenton needed a regular live comedy show. The duo started Laff Out Loud about four years ago and, for the past two years, the monthly shows have been at the Candlelight.
Each performance has a different theme, this April’s was “Young Guns,” a show that highlighted younger comedians from New York City, Philadelphia and New Jersey. Nina and Landy also provide some emerging local comedians with a spot (Nina refers to them as “New Jacks”). The monthly showcase features comedians of all ages and genders, but this April had a youthful all-African American male lineup. The content ranged from gentrification to dogs, safety to being black in America. Surprisingly, or maybe not so, the one comedian to lampoon Trenton was the one and only New Jersey comedian, “New Jack” McKelle Barksdale from Willingboro.
“I’m from the suburbs,” Barksdale said. “When I come into Trenton, not even the squirrels want to be here. Seriously, there’s no squirrels in the trees.”
Barksdale then continued that if the creek outside only had one body floating in it, then it was a good day (the D&R Canal runs across from the Lounge). Barksdale’s set seemed to unite the crowd with a defensive, but proud laughter that recognized the hyperbole, but acknowledged the city’s challenges.
An obvious strength of Trenton, however, was evident by just glancing at the night’s poster and noticing where each comedian came from. The city’s location between Philly and NYC gives Laff Out Loud a competitive advantage, with accessible roads and regional rail that runs regularly to both cities. Nina also noted that many past comedians have chosen to experiment with new material in Trenton before and after doing out-of-state gigs, giving the event an underground vibe.
The acts had some profanity, but the overall language was moderate by live comedy standards, possibly due to Laff Out Loud’s early Sunday evening schedule. Dawkins and Robinson chose Sunday because people often told them that there were a lack of options in Trenton after church and family time, so the show’s slogan became “in early, home early.”
The two would like to see Laff Out Loud branch out by keeping the homebase at the Candlelight, but having proceeds from certain performances go to local nonprofits with a possible hope of revamping a brownstone as an artist performance studio with a comedy house on the main floor. They want to grow into a place “where all comics must appear or perform,” Nina said. Laff Out Loud also has a regular photographer and videographer to help expand the show’s online footprint. Another goals is to have the program featured on local television.
Expansion plans may also take Laff Out Loud to church, where Dawkins and Robinson would like to create a B.Y.O.B. (Bring Your Own Bible) extravaganza – a clean gospel comedy program at a Trenton place of worship for residents who are not comfortable in bars.
For now, the pair is content producing the show once a month at the Candlelight, where the brick walls and raised stage give the show an intimate and personable feel. It’s also a good way to transition to the weekday, according to Dawkins.
“Laughter is healing, it makes you relax, forget about issues for a few hours and gives you a fresh new start to begin your week right,” she said.
With Laff Out Loud, the capital city now has consistent and hip live comedy directed by talented residents also looking to branch out soon.
The next show is Sunday, May 17th.
The Laff Out Loud April 2015 lineup:
Host – Tirese “Topp Flight” Rhone – Philadelphia
John A. Phillips – Philadelphia
Elijah Bullock – Staten Island
McKelle Barksdale – Willingboro, NJ
Jermaine Jones – Philadelphia
Shawn J. Jackson – NYC
Matt Black- Philadelphia
Find Laff Out Loud by Nina and Landy on Facebook, Youtube, Twitter and Instagram.