A Conversation with Bill Hill about Comedy in Detroit/Kwame Kilpatrick, Monica Conyers, and Martha Reeves as Comedy in Detroit

I stood on Woodward Avenue cowering behind a tall building while in the next lot, occupied only by grass, gravel, and orange plastic netting, a wall of dust blew through, propelled by gale-force winds that had been steadily rising in strength for the last couple of hours.  A dust-storm, I thought, Detroit has actual dust-storms.  I was careful not to rub too hard to get the accrued particles out of my eyes, for fear of dooming myself to hours in an emergency room waiting area.

Later that night, a comedian at Taste Pizzabar provided an explanation for the duststorm that seemed plausible.  “Martha Reeves said she didn’t know that demolition on Tiger Stadium had begun,” he said, referring to the former lead singer of Martha and the Vandellas, who was elected to the City Council of Detroit in 2005.  He mocked her: ” ‘Really?  Demolition’s started on Tiger Stadium?’ ”

Then, making the point that anyone with a shred of common sense would know that the Tiger Stadium demolition had long since begun, he demanded, “Why the the hell do you think there’s so much dust downtown?” 

 

Bill Hill (left)

Bill Hill (left)

 

 

The comedian’s name is Bill Hill.  Bill has been doing comedy in one form or another for the last 22 years.  His first TV appearance was on HBO’s “Def Comedy Jam,” when Martin Lawrence was still the host.  Recently, Bill finished shooting a comedy film in Detroit, “Pawn Shop,” starring Garrett Morris, Joe Torry, and Reynaldo Rey, and directed by Parrish Redd.

The eponymous pawn shop in the upcoming movie "Pawn Shop"

The eponymous pawn shop in the upcoming movie "Pawn Shop"

After the show at Taste, I asked Bill if he could spare a few minutes to talk about the Detroit comedy scene and what makes it unique, and he was kind enough to agree.

The dining and performance area at Taste is designed in such a way that no audience members can conceal themselves from the performers.

The dining and performance area at Taste is designed in such a way that no audience members can conceal themselves from the performers.

First, however, I should note that I received a lot of attention at the show because I was the only white audience member.  I didn’t know what to expect–all I had seen was an ad on the Internet which said that there would be a comedy show at a pizza bar, and I was in the mood for comedy and pizza at the time.

When I entered Taste, I found a space lit with bright ceiling lights, so that there was no shadow to hide behind in any corner.  Everyone in the room was seated in tables of between two and four, and the crowd was big enough that there was only one table left, directly beside the microphone.

The waitress sat me down at that table, in front of a comic whose set had already begun.  Essentially, I had been seated onstage, which is where I remained, essentially if not literally, for most of the evening.

 The comedian onstage was Mike McDaniel, who acknowledged me by getting down on one knee, grinning wildly, and bugging out his eyes, all with his face one inch from my face, in other words, the horrific face of minstrelsy.  One inch from my face.

Comedian Michael McDaniel, who seriously tried to destroy me the other night at Taste Pizzabar.  I'm pretty sure I pulled through OK, though.

Comedian Michael McDaniel, who seriously tried to destroy me the other night at Taste Pizzabar. I'm pretty sure I pulled through OK, though.

I viewed it like a question, asked with gestures but not words of me by Mike, namely: “Is this what you wanted to see?”  I felt pretty embarrassed, but I also thought it seemed like a decent question to ask of the solitary white dude who just ambles into an African American comedy show by himself.

Mike asked me if I was the owner, and I shrugged.  But that wasn’t good enough, so he asked me again, “Are you the owner?”  This time I said, “No,” projecting a little bit so the whole room would hear me.  Mike nodded, smiled, and continued on with his set with an air of considerable satisfaction.

Later, he pointed to me and said, “This is a real slavemaster right here.”  He apologized when the laughter died down, then, when I shrugged like, “It’s OK,” Mike took the apology back.

Bill Hill came on next, and the way that he dealt with me was that he kept trying to get me to tell the crowd that I wanted to eat black pussy. 

“I want you to say, ‘I want some!’ ” Bill commanded.

I remained mute, but held eye contact. 

It’s hard to be the white-dude foil in a predominantly African American comedy show; you have to strike just the right balance of impassivity and pleasure at your own humiliation.

Bill repeated, “Say, ‘I want some!’ ” and extended the microphone so that it was right in front of my mouth.

In the most casual, matter-of-fact, and yet confident way that I could, I said, “I want some.”

There was a lot of laughter, and some applause.

Then, for the time being, Bill moved on to a different topic.

After more than four years living in New York, where he performed at marquee comedy clubs like Caroline’s and Comix, Bill moved back to Detroit this year, where he was born and grew up, to help care for his father, who had fallen severely ill.  Before New York, Bill spent long stints in L.A. and Washington D.C.

I asked Bill how the comedy market in Detroit is different than cities like New York, L.A., or Chicago, that are more well-known than Detroit for their vibrant and competitive comedy scenes.

“There’s more opportunity in New York because that’s where stars are made.  But,” Bill added, “Detroit helps you get that thick skin that gets you ready for the big leagues.”

Young, inexperienced comics in Detroit can get exposure in clubs like Bea’s Comedy Kitchen and Mark Ridley’s Comedy Castle. But most of the scene consists of “workout rooms,” bars where stand-ups get tough by trying to get a laugh out of crowds of drunken, riled-up, frequently hostile customers.

The key, Bill said, is that Detroit “is not a laid-back city.  So you have to be sure you’re saying something.”

Recently, Detroit has seen local politicians in positions of high importance–former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and former City Councilwoman Monica Conyers–leave office after being convicted of felonies (Kilpatrick for perjury, obstruction of justice, and assaulting a police officer, and Conyers of bribery).  When Bill wasn’t offering to procure me an attractive black prostitute to sit on my face for between three and four hundred dollars, his routine drew a lot of energy, most of it funny and a lot of angry, from the hallucinatory atmosphere of Detroit politics in this era.

It wasn’t that Bill said especially much, but what he did say conveyed a lot.  In the context of standup, a sentence like “Kwame fucked this city up!” can have the effect of opening up a treasure chest of laughs and anger, even if you can’t say how or why for sure. 

Of Councilwoman Conyers, Bill said that “Anyone with a good last name can run for office in this city.”  (Conyers is the wife of John Conyers, Jr., who has represented Detroit in the House of Representatives since the 60’s, and is current chair of the House Judiciary Committee.) 

Bill also talked about how it had recently come to light that Conyers stole a number of laptop computers from the City of Detroit on her last day, when she resigned after pleading guilty to felony bribery charges.

House Judiciary Committee Chair John Conyers and former City Councilwoman Monica Conyers

House Judiciary Committee Chair John Conyers and former City Councilwoman Monica Conyers

 

 

Mayor Kilpatrick at the height of his power.

Mayor Kilpatrick at the height of his power.

 

 I asked Bill if Kilpatrick’s resignation has been a big loss for the comedians of Detroit, material-wise.  Kilpatrick made national news in early 2008, when he and his chief of staff, Christine Beatty, were indicted for and convicted of perjury.  A vast archive of 14,000 text messages was found to contradict testimony, given by both Kilpatrick and Beatty in a 2007 civil trial, that Kilpatrick and Beatty were not and never had been horizontal with each other for any reason.

The text messages were discovered by the Detroit Free Press, as the Press triumphantly announced in a January 24, 2008 article.  In the end, the Freep was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for their efforts, which include the following (“Kilpatrick, chief of staff lied under oath, text messages say: Romantic exchanges undercut denials,” Detroit Free Press, Jan. 24, 2008, by Jim Schaefer and M.L. Elrick):

“Kilpatrick and chief of staff Christine Beatty denied during testimony in August that they had a sexual relationship. But the records, a series of text messages, show them engaged in romantic banter as well as planning and recounting sexual liaisons. [. . .]

” ‘I’m madly in love with you,’ Kilpatrick wrote on Oct. 3, 2002.

 ” ‘I hope you feel that way for a long time,’ Beatty answered. ‘In case you haven’t noticed, I am madly in love with you, too!’ ”

The article goes further, as though these examples were not sufficiently hilarious.

“Other texts contain sexual content, like this exchange on April 8, 2003:

 “Beatty: ‘And, did you miss me, sexually?’

 “Kilpatrick: ‘Hell yeah! You couldn’t tell. I want some more. ‘ ”

In Detroit, the first term and truncated second term of the Kilpatrick administration had meant a constant, unrelenting deluge of scandal for six years.  Yet it was only with the text messaging scandal–and the charmingly blatant, red-handed guilt on view in those text messages, excerpted in the above–that Kilpatrick became a full-fledged, national-league laughingstock.  Naturally, I was curious about how comedians in the area felt about Kilpatrick.

“When the Kwame thing went down I was one of the only comedians who was talking about it,” Bill said.  “The other ones were scared to.”

When I asked what other comedians were worried about, Bill suggested that Kilpatrick, at the height of his power, had commanded real fear in the Detroit area.  “They were worried about his people coming after them,” Bill said.

I asked if comedy served a special purpose in a city where life can be as difficult as it is in Detroit, where unemployment is over 20%, the almost total lack of public transit means the water torture of constant trips to the pump, and crime is as high or higher than anywhere else in America. 

Bill said, “It’s a major stress reliever.”  Yet if there is a major difference between how stand-ups configure their routines in Detroit and how they tell jokes elsewhere, Bill again emphasizes that audiences expect standups to “say something” in the process of doing their routines.

“The comedy scene in Detroit can be bigger than in any other city as long as the comedians continue to get great material,” Bill said.  “Great material is what makes a great comedian.  In order to have great material, you have to be worldly.  You’ve got to be in the know about politics, entertainment, global shit . . . I’m just givin’ you what I see, and puttin’ a punch line on it.”

 I asked Bill if he was thinking about going back to New York anytime soon, and he said no.  The reason is because over 70 films are slated to be filmed in Detroit during the next year, and Bill is working with talent agency I-Group to arrange auditions for some of them.

“It’s because of the tax break,” Bill said, referring to the 40% tax cut Detroit is offering film production companies to shoot here.

I asked what other types of projects he is working on at the moment, and he refused to go into too much detail.  Years ago, an idea of his had been stolen when he let word of it get out at an inopportune time.

It was when Bill had been living in New York.  “My shit was called Next Celebrity Top Chef,” he said.  Since then, “Top Chef” has emerged as an audience favorite.  “I don’t pitch my shit in the Viacom building anymore,” he concluded.

Bill is working on a number of reality TV concepts at the moment, but only told me about one of them, “Divorce.”  “We would take three couples, put them in a house, have them do things and get them into having to communicate, and see if they can stay together.  The ones that don’t, get divorced.”

As far as any of his other plans, Bill was mum.  “If I tell you shit, then you tell your friends shit, and they tell their friends shit, and then they do shit.”

Bill performs regularly at a number of venues in Detroit, and hosts a burlesque night at the Crazy Horse second Tuesday of every month.  I asked Bill what his duties as host at the venerable Lower West Side strip-club entail, and he said, “I just talk shit and get guys to throw money in the air.”

~ by electrorefutedrobo on August 14, 2009.

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