ou have to have a special tolerance for pain and punishment to do stand-up comedy, says every comedian ever known. And Michigan sure does produce a lot of them: David Alan Grier, Keegan-Michael Key, Sinbad, Tim Meadows. And those are just some of the notable Black funnymen. Expand the group and you've got Robin Williams, Lily Tomlin and Tim Allen to name a few.
And then there are these three: COCO, Christopher 'CP' Powell and Amaru, who we've singled out as high achievers in the Motor City's abounding comedy class. But just how did life give them such a good sense of humor? Here, the three class clowns share there's more to being a comedian that just being funny.
The first thing you'll notice about COCO is the sheer magnetism of her presence-she's 6-foot-1 without heels, boldly blond and brazenly self-deprecating in conversations. And then she makes you her punch line.
It's slow; sometimes hours later or mere minutes into your shared tête-à-tête. But in that moment you realize: COCO's been sizing you up since the first "Hello," giving you an imaginative backstory to fill in any blanks, and suddenly you're the butt of the joke. It's humor from a bird's-eye view, and classic COCO.
"We all see the same thing, but based on what we believe, who we are, where we are, we perceive some things differently," explains COCO. She's relaxed and at home, sitting in an empty conference room in Radio One's downtown office, after her morning broadcast on 105.9 Kiss-FM's Mason & COCO in the Morning. Her laugh is infectious, like a contact high.
"I'm sort of that alter perception that you may think about but you won't say it. So you look to somebody who is going to say what you really think. And that's why comedy is so important."
Becoming a stand-up comedian
COCO's stand-up comedy career spans an impressive 20-plus years, with an equally impressive radio career (spending more than a decade at FM 98 WJLB), at one time regularly hosting a Wednesday comedy night that christened her Detroit's "first lady of comedy." But as a girl growing up in Highland Park who was constantly teased about her height and weight, being funny was about fighting back.
"It's interesting when you think about bullying then and bullying now," she says. "Back then when you were bullied, if you came home crying, your parents were like, 'You go back there and fight. Either you fight them or you're gonna have to deal with me.' But today that doesn't work. Because there are so many young people who are being bullied."
Humor was a coping mechanism and weapon, she explains.
"Somebody will say something like, 'Yo mama bald head.' Then you come back and say something really good like, 'That's why your daddy ain't there. That man ain't yo daddy. Quit acting like he yo daddy,'" she teases, remembering the playground faceoff, the dozens, with a nostalgic grin. "So I became really good at that. It was not from a place of maliciousness. It was from a place of, 'I'm defending myself.'"
From pain she found her purpose, says COCO. Working as a nurse at Pembrook Nursing Center in Detroit by day, COCO tested her chops at stand-up comedy by night.
"So comedy, it's a lost art form. And this is the part that really bothers me: Everybody knows everybody can't sing. But everybody thinks they're a comedian," says COCO. "Nowadays, everybody wants to be a comedian. And it's a science. Exact. Deliberate. Intentional science to being a comedian."
And getting that science exactly right can be an agonizing process if you're not ready, says COCO. "And now, a lot of people want to heckle. They just want to holler out random shit," she says. "Then they'll tell you after the show, 'I made your show funny.' I be like, 'No you didn't. That's why security kept coming over to you.'"
She continues: "So you go onstage with a vengeance like you got a point to prove. If you want to heckle me, you can. But I'm gonna go back to that little fat girl that was in elementary school, and I'm going for your jugular and you not gonna to like me. I try not to be that way … but it's that way."
Laughter as medicine
When COCO is on stage, therapy is in session and no subject is off limits-big girls, being a grandmother, dating older men and the "booty sweats" of menopause.
"My greatest freedom and my greatest release, outside of when I am in church, is being onstage in front of thousands of people and hearing them laugh as I tell, share life experiences and things that I see," COCO says of her comedy, which she adjusts if she's hosting a black-tie affair or a comedy night. "I was able to take my comedy and disarm people because sometimes, people come and they're armed. They come with a knife or a gun."
To be a comedian is to find the funny in your own problems so people can feel better about their own, she explains.
"So my intention is to leave you with a nugget. You may not get the whole bullion. You may not get the whole brick of gold. But you are gonna walk away with a nugget, something that makes you feel a little better, that makes you say, 'OK, I get it," she says. "And that's what I like."
Amaru's stand-up comedy routine is purely personal, with stories about stepchildren, cheap Father's Day gifts and other asshole kids. And then it gets too personal: "Don't worry, I ain't high. I ate something last night I had a reaction to … she all right though."
With 16 years of stand-up experience under his belt, finding the humor in a life chock-full of highs and really lows has been a long time coming, says Amaru.
"I started off 20 years ago as a wannabe actor and it evolved into writing movies," he explains, dabbling in his share of odd jobs in between: military, chemical engineer, club bouncer and flight attendant. "I was so big it took them three months to build me a jacket," he remembers. "I was unable to walk down the aisle with my arms to my side because I was that big. I hit a guy in the face one time."
But it's the ability to laugh at life that keeps him going, says Amaru, assuring, if he can laugh at his struggles, he can make you laugh at yours.
Becoming a stand-up comedian
Raised in Kalamazoo, a young Amaru ran away from home 39 times while constantly being abused by his father before he was put into a foster home. His father is now serving a life sentence in prison.
"So when abuses would happen at home physically, my escape was my imagination. Whatever was going on physically, I was not there. So my comedy was my escape, my creativity," he explains. "That's more powerful than having a superpower in itself."
But when did he know he was ready for stand-up comedy? After a divorce left him chronically homeless, he moved to Hollywood to try and break into the entertainment business as a writer.
"I couldn't find a job. I went everywhere," says Amaru. After a chance meeting with a comedian by the name of Celia Fox, where he told her she "sucked" at stand-up, he became one of her writers. And then he was hooked to the comedy circuit.
"I was fortunate enough to work with celeb comics, people who have a name in the game-and that's what I learned from them," says Amaru.
"I actually got on stage as a comic out of envy. (Celia) would take me to shows and I would see people you see on TV telling jokes. I was like, 'I can do that.'"
After begging to perform at a local comedy club, he quickly found out comedy looks easy when you're not the one on stage.
"I had prepared all these jokes and had my nice little outfit on. Whew, I was so nervous I sweated out my clothes," he remembers. "And I bombed."
Harnessing that same resilience that helped him survive abuse, he came back for a second performance. This time he nailed it.
"This was the same mentality I can laugh about it now," says Amaru, about his struggles. "I can laugh about it and get through it on stage or I can let it consume me and be dead 20 years."
Laughter as medicine
"Every now and then a comic, no matter what their level is, questions their abilities," says Amaru. "Every comic has self-reflection; as extreme as my case was, there are more extreme cases out there."
Amaru's validation came after a gig in Wisconsin.
"I was the headliner. I was probably the only Black dude in a 400-mile radius of this town. And there was an Indian guy sitting at the bar and he was sitting down at a distance from me, and he looked down and said, 'Hey, brother. I heard you were the comic for tonight. Well, I'm gonna need you to bring it tonight,'" he remembers. "The show was awesome. We rocked it."
After show the man approached him in tears.
"He said, 'You know when I asked you to bring it before the show? The reason why I asked you to do that is because two days ago my 17-year-old son committed suicide. I needed your show tonight and I want to thank you.' And he gave me a hug and a kiss. And that's why I do comedy."
You've met guys like CP before; maybe you've even dated a few in high school-sharp as a tack, but never in class. Tsk-tsk, if only he would apply himself.
"I felt like Spider-Man at that time. I was the class clown. And to be in (high school) and have these big audiences, I was getting bit by something I didn't know was going to affect me later," says CP.
As a freshman at Cass Tech, he left to attend Mumford High School after his grades slipped.
"You get to high school algebra. You miss three days, it's like Japanese. I had like 65 absences sometimes," he remembers. "I was missing class to roast people at lunch. That's where I learned my social maneuvering at Cass." And through social maneuvering, CP gained an early appreciation for making people laugh. But could it be a real career?
Becoming a stand-up comedian
"People talk a lot about pressure in making diamonds, right? Now you have the literal sense in that only certain materials will push together tightly enough to create a diamond. You find the diamond. You win, right?" he asks, intently. "Comedy sort of makes you metaphorically the diamond."
Born and raised in Brightmoor Detroit, CP explains his comedy was born out of the pressure to make his parents proud.
"Nobody wants to disappoint their parents. Pressure. Pressure," he explains. "Like a brainwashed person, I fell into that. And halfway through college I hit a wall. I was an engineering student and it wasn't fun because I am a people person, and engineers work alone."
Later, switching to advertising, he found success in pitching creative campaigns with GlobalHue. But not before deciding to give being funny one more try. After hearing about a stand-up comedy show on WJLB during a broadcast with COCO and Foolish, he showed up for his chance.
"So (Foolish) comes up to me like, 'Hey ni**a, you better be funny,'" remembers CP. Added to the list of performers for the night, it was his moment to shine. And he passed with flying colors.
"I had five minutes and got a standing ovation. They were going crazy," he says, still excited from the memory. Hooked, he came back for more next week, only this time he got drunk and bombed.
"So in seven days, I had understood the polar differences of what it meant. I knew what it felt like to be the king of the night. And I knew what it felt like to just want to sink your head inside your shoulders and just get out of there. So I was like, 'All right, that wasn't that bad. I can keep going.'"
Giving up his job, car and comfortable living, CP moved back home in 2009 to unsupportive parents to pursue stand-up full-time. His family didn't understand. But under pressure, his life was changing fast.
"All of these things create that pressure. Now the diamond comes in the resilience. That's comedy," says CP. "It's overcoming the hardest shit and if you can even possibly be funny with all the bullshit you going through, and you can go higher, that's a skill. Then it's like, I'm getting so good at it I can make you have a good day."
He adds, "In that regard, the comedian is the diamond."
Laughter as medicine
With a strong local following on the comedy circuit under his belt and popular web series-check out CP's Shit Detroit N*ggas Say on YouTube-CP says his focus has been on Hollywood. Currently, he can be seen on Fox's hit show Empire as Lil Prince. While the character doesn't exactly deliver comedic punch lines, CP says it's one step closer to being Hollywood's next "it" comedian.
"If you never try comedy, and you're just the funny guy at the office, then that's fine," he explains. "But when you try comedy and you don't do good, then you gotta stop being the funny guy at the office and grow up," says CP about success.
"It's such a power up there. That is where I am my best. That is where I don't want any advice when I am up there. I don't want to know how it can be done better, because it can't be done better. That's where I am."