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Thursday, May 4, 2017 12:01 am

What’s so funny about Philly?

Comedy is serious business to Ray Phillips



Growing up in the Philly projects with an African-American father and Italian mother, my Mom would try to cook soul food for my Dad and we appreciated it. But I’m telling you, spaghetti and pig’s feet is not good. And chili lasagna is worse.

So goes the joke of Raymond “Philly” Phillips, one of the first quips he came up with back in 2000 when he broke into the business at Springfield’s Funny Bone Comedy Club (now Donnie B’s). The 51-year-old Springfield resident spends his day hours working at Computer Banc and some nights at Casey’s Pub, but during off times he’s on the road bringing his raw and insightful brand of comedy to anyone who will listen.

His remaining free time is dedicated to his 13 children. The oldest lives in Philadelphia; the rest live in the Springfield area and all but the youngest four are out of school and working. The younger kids live in Chatham with their mother and are getting old enough to not need Ray as much, so he plans on traveling more this summer to work on his comedy career. The challenge he recently set for himself consists of doing “20 mics in 60 days,” as he counts getting onto stages in whatever form over the next two months to broaden his reach in the comedy world.

On May 7, Ray will attend the St. Louis Entertainers Award Ceremony where he is up for a Best Comedian award. Nominees win by popular votes through the FoYo Entertainment website, hosts of the annual event (Ray hopes you take the hint here). Locally he hosts the Comedy Summer Kick-Off on Friday, May 26, at Casey’s Pub in the Knights of Columbus Hall on Meadowbrook Road, featuring fellow comedians Joie Krack and Jaylee Thomas.

Ray with Tommie Wofford and friends holding a big check to charity from Making You Laugh Mondays.

Back in 2000, “Philly Ray” was still Raymond when he worked security at the Funny Bone. After watching the comics come and go, he reasoned he could do the same or better. When the challenge came from fellow workers for him to prove it, he did. After hearing the laughter following the Italian soul food bit, Ray was hooked. The joke still works and he successfully played it with some variation just last Thursday during a comedy night at Winner’s Lounge in Bloomington for a roomful of other comics and some onlookers.

Many of Ray’s funny bits are like that; anecdotal, based on real-life incidents. After his first on-stage experience he dug into his past and came up with enough material for longer performances. While continuing to open for headliner comedians at the club (his promo photograph from back then still hangs on the wall at Donnie B’s), he honed his act at open mics and over the past decade booked himself into clubs in Chicago, Philadelphia, St. Louis and Peoria, all on his own time.

Ray picked me up early Thursday evening and we talked on the drive to the Bloomington show, discussing life as a working comedian with a full-time career, a part-time job and plenty of parental duties. Ray keeps a perspective on the whole comedy thing, giving credit to his belief that life is too serious for most folks and laughing at our issues helps to ease the pain and break down barriers. Much of his humor is based on situations from his life as a biracial person, allowing him to address both his Caucasian and his African heritage.

When a race riot breaks out, which side am I on? I’m from the projects and I’m not ashamed of that, but I’m not stupid. I’m going on the side that’s winning!

His facial features definitely favor his mother’s side, with many folks assuming he is of Latino descent, but he’s turned that into a stereotypical joke as well, by claiming he’s his father’s son from the waist down, an Italian everywhere else. As he reminds me, part of being a working comedian is knowing your audience. That joke may go over better in certain venues than others, but knowing what to say, and where and when to say it, is the key to good comic timing. His time working at Donnie B’s, Springfield’s longtime comedy club featuring national touring acts, helped establish his routine for conservative or predominantly white, middle-class audiences. After hitting the St. Louis market, doing what he termed “urban rooms” of mostly African-American audiences, he varied the use of certain words within a comic routine, telling the same stories, but altered to fit the desires and attitudes of listeners.

His respect for the craft of comedy became evident as he described how he created a joke. Becoming more animated than usual, he talked about taking an experience and making it funny through self-reflection and readjustment of the material until it works with an audience. Taking the completed wisecrack and fitting that into a set with several related jokes to create a performance of 15 or 20 minutes, the usual time for most entry-level comics, is another part of the process. Keeping a cohesive act together by weaving jokes into a standup routine is more difficult than it appears. As Ray told me, if you think it’s easy, then you haven’t tried it. He doesn’t write jokes down but turns them over in his mind until he’s ready to pop one on a crowd. Even after careful planning, some jokes bomb, but he’s proud to claim he’s never been booed or not asked back to a venue. The open mics or the comedy nights like the Thursday at Winner’s, where the sets are short and the listeners consist mostly of fellow comics, is his preferred place to try out the new material. To describe the low-pressure get-togethers at smaller clubs, he uses a sports analogy of working out to be in shape for the game. Usually he records his show on his phone, then evaluates what works and “moves things around” as needed to improve his performance.

On the drive Ray reflected about being a real go-getter when he was younger. He thought he was funnier than others seemed to believe, as he “just pushed it, pushed it, pushed it and never got anywhere.” Now he’s committed to a slower, more reasonable pace, and by “taking my time and working on my craft, everything’s starting to open up.” Tonight he’s contemplating trying out a fresh piece about stepfathers. He had a few stepdads while growing up (his Mom made him call them uncles, he said with a sly grin), but until recently he had never been in that position himself. During a relationship with a woman who had a 10-year-old child, the new perspective led to a joke. He decided to save that for the evening performance and didn’t share it with me during the drive. The night slipped away and I never heard the joke in his set, so we will all just have to wait for another time to hear his take on being a stepfather. But here’s one he’s been working on lately that relates to learning things about having a gay son.

Lizzy Padilla performs at Winner’s Lounge in Bloomington on Thursday, April 27.

When my daughters were younger I was a real protective father. When a guy would come to take them out, I’d tell them whatever you do to my daughter I’m going to do to you. It would intimidate them, you know? Well that doesn’t work the same with my gay son.

When we arrived at the Bloomington bar, the portable outdoor signage announced the names of some area hard rock bands that play the stage at Winner’s on the weekends. Ray and I stepped out of his van and headed into the old-fashioned bar that one might not think of as the best place for budding comedians to ply their trade. Hosted by a comedian named Khamandi and interestingly titled “2 Turnt 2 Funny,” the night consisted of 12 listed acts and two more additions, all doing bits of about 10 to 15 minutes each. Ray was the most experienced of the group, and they asked him to close out the night. The hosts, hoping for a few more folks to wander into the neighborhood bar, waited until about 7:30 to begin, pushing the show back from the original start time of 7. We settled in for several hours of local comedy.

Hanging around with the comedians, I heard lots of joking going on, combined with serious shop talk about upcoming gigs and gossip on the current state of the area comedy scene. The ethnicity of comics was diverse and their material covered a wide range of topics, with the majority focusing on race or sex or both. There was Larry Smith, a funny, normal, white man from Springfield (he actually ended up closing out the night) expounding on getting his purchase of a large sexual toy through airport TSA security, as well as Dr. T, a retired woman professor from ISU who requested a round of applause for being born in 1949, and got it. Aviv Hart from Normal, the winner of the Top Comic Award for 2017, discussed issues about being Jewish and having a lesbian mother, while Lizzy Padilla gave us her take on contemporary Latina topics. There were African-American males – Elon Rich, Grant Jones and Jay Avery, each with a take on being young, black and alive, taking turns roasting audience members and each other. Ron Hall, an ex-military, big white guy joked about craft beer snobs, and Jaime Guzman, an experienced Latino comic, explained how he loved, and also obeyed, his wife who just happened to be a nationally ranked Kung Fu champion.

There were more, but I was overwhelmed by the talent on the stage and even more amazed by the attention given by locals hanging out in the bar. From the many controversial statements, including lots of swearing, f-bombs, sexual innuendo and explicitness, political opinions, racial slurs and race discussion, there were plenty of laughs, a few groans and occasional applause. But most importantly, there was patient and pointed attention. None of the participants were touring, working comedians, but they all showed poise and practice. By the time our man “Philly Ray” hit the stage the crowd had thinned, but he took it all in stride, calmly sitting on a stool and captivating the audience with a deliberate style of fast-hitting quips that belied the intensity of the jokes behind the smile. When it was all over, we quickly said our goodbyes to the remaining comedians and hit the road, talking during the hour ride home about the evening.

Ray posing in front of his signed promo picture on the wall at Donnie B’s Comedy Club.
The dedication, not only to the craft, but to a belief in the lifestyle and importance of standup comedy, was clearly evident in the attitude of the performers. But all the attitude in the world doesn’t help without a place to perform. Organizations like Blo-No Comedy (Bloomington-Normal) and C-U Comedy (Champaign-Urbana) bring the budding comics together for shows and support at various venues and Ray gives both groups a big thank you. In Springfield, Donnie B’s hosts a comedy open mic twice a month and when booking touring comedians on the weekends, they occasionally use local comics as warm-up acts. Mason City Limits, the only comedy club in Mason City, Illinois, continues hosting shows on a regular basis.

During our conversation, Ray showed in different ways how he takes his work as a comedian seriously, not only as a comic but as an agent for social change and personal improvement. His friend and closest confidant and collaborator, Tommie Wofford, is the guy who helps out with comic ideas and commercial plans. In 2015 Ray and Tommie hosted “Making You Laugh Mondays” at Bar None for about eight months. They donated all the proceeds to local charitable organizations Better Life, Better Living and One in a Million. In his day job as a manager at Computer Banc, some of those same ideals carry over into helping others. The company obtains used computers and makes them available at a reasonable cost to community members in need. They also aid school districts in purchasing low-cost computers for classroom use.

As with most aspiring comics, musicians, actors, playwrights, authors, visual artists and others interested in a life involved in artistic endeavors, the daytime job pays the bills, while the creative work feeds the soul. Some of Ray’s comedian friends are successful in the business. One fellow in particular performs some 48 weeks out of the year. A schedule like that forces a good deal of road travel, mostly consisting of one-night shows in clubs all over the U.S. Though Ray dreams of being that busy, the reality of being away from family and on the road for such a length of time doesn’t sound like a life he’d enjoy. Then again, he’s not opposed to trying it out if the cards of the comedy business played out that way for him. In the meantime he continues to delve into his own world for comic material, while expanding his live performances to other cities, always keeping a positive attitude front and center.

“I don’t do it for the money. I do it because I love it and because it makes other people comfortable and makes other people laugh. From dealing with everyday news of 17-year-olds getting killed, babies dying, house fires… you know, the abuse of the world is tough,” Ray explained. “For me to take 10, 20 minutes or an hour of their time to help them forget that, that’s what sets my soul at ease. I may not have much to give the world, but this little bit here, I’m glad to give it.”

Let’s end with one more joke. You know, “Leave ’em laughing.”

When I was growing up in the projects, my mom tried to adapt to what other moms did. Once a friend of mine, who was so black he was almost purple black, got in trouble, for throwing rocks or something. His mom told him to come inside and she was going to beat the black off him. We thought he’d be dead or we’d never see him again. Then one day, Mom tried that on me, and I was worried for a minute, then I thought, this won’t take long. I’ll be back out after lunch.

Tom Irwin, a local singer-songwriter, has secretly dreamed of being a standup comic since watching the Johnny Carson show while growing up in the 60s. Send jokes and one-liners to tirwin@illinoistimes.com.

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