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Standing across from the National Portrait Gallery in Penn Quarter, D.C. comedian Eddie Bryant has a simple question: “The fuck is that joint?”
Here he is, sitting with fellow comedian Lamont King, at a bar. “We ain’t even got no grocery stores in Southeast. We gotta take care of ourselves, eat good, know what I’m sayin’?” Then he bites into a McDonald’s French fry.
There he is in a car, coasting through what looks like downtown: “This joint right here used to be the ’hood right here,” he says, his D.C. twang as crucial as his self-effacing message.
Bryant and King’s February video, “Shit People From D.C. Say,” was a homegrown response to LivingSocial’s “Shit People in D.C. Say” video, which has racked up nearly 900,000 views since it appeared on YouTube in January. In the coupon company’s version, a scruffy-faced white guy—in an apparent satire of other scruffy white guys—delivers obnoxious one-liners like, “Eckington is basically like the new Bloomingdale,” and “Isn’t Anacostia, like, really dangerous?” Contrast that to Bryant’s take, which has clocked around 73,000 views. “Fuck is these?” he screeches, appearing mystified by a Capital Bikeshare dock.’
During a June performance at Liv Nightclub, the comic’s distinctive grumble is more tempered than usual. “They’re building condos across from the projects,” he says. “Who’s gonna buy a $400,000 condo across the street from Barry Farms?”
The crowd laughs, but there’s an undercurrent of seriousness there. Bryant is a comedian who jokes about gentrification, which for many D.C. residents is no laughing matter. The Brentwood native, who grew up during Marion Barry’s heyday, speaks to the other side of D.C.’s demographic shift. The town he knew as Chocolate City faces an identity crisis—one he addresses in his “Shit People From D.C. Say” video. “Where all these white people coming from?” he asks, repeatedly.
Bryant’s knack for sociopolitical comedy stems from his upbringing. His grandfather was a community activist during the Civil Rights era. From him, Bryant learned to study his surroundings and keep up with current events. He watches the news every day, mining it for material. Bryant’s father, a recovering drug addict, was an insightful and fastidiously honest storyteller. That taught the budding comic to pull no punches in his routine.
Now, as swaths of D.C. become playgrounds for the upper middle class, Bryant finds himself hustling on shifting tectonic plates. He loves D.C., from its late-night carry-outs to its growing arts scene. He works hard to get gigs wherever he can: When he isn’t performing, he’s hosting a small show on U Street NW or dropping punchlines at the Rock & Roll Hotel. Elsewhere, he hosts the weekly, Web-only BubbleGuts Radio show with promoter Dre All Day and Mambo Sauce frontman Black Boo.
Gentrification, while he’s ambivalent toward it, is his muse. “The same thing is happening in Columbus, Ohio, and South Bend, Ind.,” says Bryant, 35. “You gotta look at what’s going on around you and use it.” He likes to joke about the streetcar being built along H Street NE. It’s a robbery waiting to happen, as he puts it: “You don’t have to be a comedian to know that a trolley in Northeast is not a good look.” Then there are the changes happening near his Navy Yard apartment: Bryant mocks unsuspecting out-of-towners who take the Green Line to Anacostia when they mean to get off near Nationals Park. “You ever see their faces?” he asks with a big laugh. “They get the fuck up outta there.”
On stage, the funnyman is insightful and inviting, whether he’s cracking wise about a cigarette-smoking deer looking for a ride home (times are tough in this economy), or about his drug-dependent dad who used to fall asleep while helping Bryant with his math homework. In his relaxed way, he methodically engages the audience and slowly peels off each joke. By show’s end, the audience might go home feeling like they just shared a few laughs with their uncle, not one of the city’s most promising comedians.
“He keeps it honest,” says veteran D.C. comedian Sylvia T. Morrison. “I think that’s why good things are happening to him. There are comics who want to be like him.”
Bryant grew up listening to Richard Pryor albums on the weekends. A self-described class clown at Bladensburg High School, he used to perform in stage plays. In 1994, he enrolled in Morgan State University on a music scholarship, but switched to communications to pursue stand-up comedy. He always talked trash, he says, so he wanted to put those talents to good use behind a microphone.
When Bryant made his debut at a Morgan State talent show, however, he pretty much bombed. “The whole auditorium booed me,” he says. “I was funny, but I wasn’t stand-up funny.”
Two years later, he went to a college party and met King, with whom he co-hosts the monthly Inside Jokes showcase. The two clicked when they started laying into another partygoer. “I didn’t even know Eddie,” King recalls, “but we had the whole bathroom laughing.” The two would reconnect after college. By that time, Bryant had stopped practicing comedy and started working odd jobs around the city. “I said, ‘You need to quit your job and hit these open mics,’” King says. “He has the natural talent, but he’s the consummate student.”
In 2001, Bryant was planning to move to Chicago with his girlfriend, but she broke up with him a week before they were supposed to leave town. He had already quit his job, donated his car, and given up his apartment. He was left with no choice but to move back in with his mother. “She was like ‘You crying and shit, but you’re getting off this couch in 30 days.’”
That was the push he needed to dive back into comedy. He enrolled in a course taught by comedy instructor The Fat Doctor, where he learned how to write jokes. Soon, he was hitting four open mics a week. “I got the bug because I was so angry and I needed to vent,” he says. “It made for good material.” In a 2003 performance at the D.C. Improv—one of Bryant’s early gigs—he riffed on finally moving out of his mother’s house (“right to my father’s house”), his misbehaving nephews (“there’s a new form of birth control called ‘babysitting’”), and going to prison (“my family goes to jail like we’re supposed to go to college”).
In 2008, Bryant was a finalist in the Bay Area Black Comedy Competition. That same year, he landed a spot on Martin Lawrence’s 1st Amendment Comedy showcase. There, he joked about the hidden amenities of poverty. “If you’ve never lived in the ‘hood, get yourself a summer home in the ’hood. It’s the best investment,” he says. “Instead of a doorman, I’ve got a dope fiend on my front porch.”
From 2006 to 2011, Bryant managed the Laugh Out Loud Comedy Club in Temple Hills, Md., one of the few black comedy venues in the region. During that time, he split his days touring and helping establish the club as a go-to spot. Bryant was more a promoter at the club than a performer; as its manager, he booked shows and arranged transportation for comedians. If the club had a leaky roof, he fixed it. He swept the floors and cleaned the tables and bathrooms. At one point, he saw a patron defecate in one of the club’s sinks.
Black comedians don’t have it easy in D.C., according to Bryant and his peers. As they put it, they are relegated to black comedy clubs and black showcases, and don’t get too many invitations to play other places. The D.C. Improv, while Bryant has gigged there before, mostly books national acts with TV credits. Bryant and King launched their Inside Jokes showcase at the new Riot Act Comedy Theater last year, and it was a comfortable home until March. (The downtown theater shut down this month.) Now the showcase moves venues each month.
“Black comedy is hurting across the nation,” says veteran D.C. comedian Tony Woods, who’s performed on Comedy Central and Def Comedy Jam. “The town has a comic sensibility about it. People here are so serious, but comedy is born here. If you can make them laugh here, you can make them laugh anywhere.”
D.C. is the hometown of numerous high-profile black comedians—like Dave Chappelle, Lawrence, and Wanda Sykes—which isn’t necessarily good for other local black comics. D.C. is an intimidating place to come up as a comedian: In Bryant’s view, the popular thinking goes, He may be funny, but he’s not Dave. “They have set a bar so high that, if you say you’re a comedian from this market, they expect you to be Martin Lawrence, Dave Chappelle, Earthquake funny,” Bryant says. “You’ve got to be on that level.”
Like any working comic, Bryant wants to be booked for more legitimate gigs. He recently opened for New Edition and hosted a show for R&B group Jagged Edge. Still, he says it’s tough to get booked nationally because he doesn’t have the connections or TV credits. So while Bryant values the experience of managing a comedy club, he’s going back to his roots on stage. Gentrification, divisive though it may be, could also be his ticket to crossover notoriety.
“I’ve put a lot of cats on,” he says. “But I’m impatient at times. I just gotta put in the work because that’s the fun part. I’m always gonna be a comedian.”
Photos by Darrow Montgomery