All's not well tonight. The show has begun at Garvin's Comedy Club downtown, but laughter has not yet arrived. Two dozen people sit waiting for it, twirling their forks and vacantly gazing at the emcee as he works his way through a listless routine. At the back of the room is a gangly youth dressed all in black -- hat, shirt, baggy trousers, shoes -- noisily sucking at an almost-empty glass of soda.
Finally, the emcee's time is up. He grins weakly to the half-hearted applause, then steps down from the stage to make room for David Edwards, the one in black. Someone from across the aisle leans forward and slaps his back: "Go, give it to them, man."
The 18-year-old smiles, puts down the glass on the nearest table, ambles to the stage, takes the microphone, clears his throat with a hollow cough. And gives it to them.
For the next 20 minutes, Edwards leads his listeners from his mother, a "liberated woman" who nonchalantly hurls expletives ... to a woman whose two-foot-high hairdo, "full of toxic chemicals," explodes at the bus stop ... to his "sweet, gentle grandma" who sends him a heartwarming eviction notice ... to his sister, who apparently refuses to trade her virginity for a " 'lousy pocketbook... . What kind of a woman do you think I am? I want a pair of boots too.' "
He smiles, he grimaces, he shouts, he whispers.
Laughter has arrived.
Twenty hours later, in the quiet of his ninth-floor apartment on 16th Street, the laughter and applause still echo in his ears as he stands in front of the smudged bathroom mirror, holding a hairbrush as a microphone, rehearsing for the evening show.
"I look at myself," he says, "and think I am on stage. That my eyes are the eyes of the audience. And I enter another world."
It is the world of stand-up comedians -- raucous nightclubs where affluent clients pay to see solemnity's nose get tweaked. But laughter is not only an innocent response; for some, it also delivers the daily bread.
For Edwards in particular, it has delivered the fruits of his struggle against adversity, steering him into a sheltered haven of laughter and smiles, far away, he says, from "the killings, the dope dealing and the crime" of Southeast Washington, where he grew up with his two brothers and a sister. "My mother was on welfare and we lived on food stamps. Often, we went hungry to bed," Edwards says. He seems to have no bitterness about his recollections, no adult cynicism. "When I was 14, I grew tired of the whole thing. I was tired of waiting for the food stamps, of watching Mom struggle. I decided to see what was on the other side of the wall. I wanted to struggle outside my home. I wanted to leave through the hard way."
He turned the restricting wall into a launching pad. He relates how he first learned the tricks of the comedy trade by watching his mother "put down people in a funny way," how his first stand-up routines were impromptu bursts at the dinner table to "make the family smile when they were sad, when things went wrong."
The food stamps often ran out, the welfare checks came late. Several Christmases passed without presents. Because he grew up without a father, Edwards says, he had to "figure out a lot of things for myself: putting on cologne, playing baseball, and talking to girls." And on the day he graduated from the sixth grade, his mother took him to a nightclub his father owned, where he saw his father for the first time.
"He came up to me, shook my hand and said, 'Congratulations.' We spent about 30 minutes together. And we have never been together after that."
He suddenly stops. As if he were groping for words, he bounces a ball against the Bob Marley poster on the wall, gets up from the weathered couch and paces the floor. "But it was okay," he says.
Other distant memories swirl into focus. "I was frustrated at my mother. Here was this 29-year-old woman with four children and we were going nowhere. Deep down I was hurt and I felt helpless," says Edwards. To the 14-year-old, the world outside appeared promising. But he soon realized that what he had thought to be "my mother's fault" was otherwise.
Driven by his ambition, Edwards moved to his grandmother's house but soon was evicted because he couldn't pay the rent. He got a job bagging groceries at a Safeway and trundled customers' grocery bags to their cars. The chore gave him opportunities to try out his routines. "I would talk to them, ask them about something that had happened that day and make them laugh."
Then there were his pals at school, a daily audience. "He brought his skills to the classroom," remembers Brett Berliner, Edwards's math teacher at Bell Multi-Cultural High School in Mount Pleasant. "His home life was difficult, but his excellent talent gave him an outlet for his feelings and prepared him for the very difficult path he had chosen."
The first milestone on Edwards's chosen path occurred two Decembers ago when he saw an advertisement for Garvin's. The city's oldest comedy club, which has featured Jay Leno, Eddie Murphy and Rodney Dangerfield, was announcing "Open Mike Night," a weekly event that encourages amateurs to display their talent and professionals to try out new routines.
"It was the first time I was facing a nightclub audience," says Edwards. "I knew that they had spent money and they expected me to make them laugh. I was very nervous; I put my hands on my face and talked too fast. It was bad." But Edwards says he didn't allow that experience to faze him. "I had made it from the streets of Southeast Washington. I had made it from the shootings and the drugs. I knew that I could make it here too."
Edwards only barely understood that he had stepped into a fiercely competitive world: 4,000 professional stand-up comedians, writers and agents spread across 500 comedy clubs nationwide where people spent more than $200 million last year, up from just more than $4 million a decade ago.
He was also unaware that every rookie who aspires to become a headliner, and be booked by well-reputed clubs or television talk shows, has to go through two stages: first, as an opening-act emcee, and then as a middle-level featured performer.
The emcees have little stage experience, and are limited to a brief opening routine, after which they remain in the background. A "middle" gets 15 or 20 minutes on stage, warming up the audience for the headliner. Most aspiring comedians don't make it past the second stage. In the frustrating equation of show business, success is a function of innumerable variables, talent being just one of them.
"It can be a many-year trial-and-error process. It is like a game of dice, and all that the comic can do is trust his sense of humor," says Nick Cosentino, president of the New York-based Professional Comedians Association.
Edwards's trust in his sense of humor prompted him to persuade school authorities to let him intern at Garvin's last summer.
"It's the first time that we got such a request," remembers Lee J. Nelson, vice president of Garvin's and booker for its five venues in the District and Maryland. Nelson says he was initially skeptical of Edwards: "I felt that he had a chip on his shoulder. He told me that he didn't trust anyone and I told myself, 'We'll have problems here.' "
But he was wrong. Fiddling with the audio controls in the dining room at the Chevy Chase Holiday Inn, Nelson beams with satisfaction as the lights dim, the music stops and Edwards takes the stage to emcee the Friday evening show, featuring New York-based comedian John Carney. With his distinctive charm, Edwards verbally goes around the room, making the members of the audience share their day's experiences with him, effortlessly introducing bits of his routine into the exchange.
"He's a natural," says Nelson, a former actor who has been instrumental in Edwards's becoming an emcee in less than six months. "He has a great personality and he tells the truth. He pulls no punches and makes the house feel at ease. He tells them things that are real and takes his personal tragedies and relates them to humor." This sincerity, Nelson says, makes the audience sit up and listen to Edwards's stand-up routine.
"He has had his share of pain but he always bounces back. The events he has lived through have given him strength," says the Rev. Yvonne Seon, a minister with Sojourner Congregation who is the mother of Edwards's best friend, David Chappelle, also an aspiring stand-up comedian. Seon, whom Edwards considers his "second mother," is confident that his "sense of persistence, responsibility and optimism" will help him scale all walls.
"Being an emcee is a tough job," says Carney, dabbing at his forehead after his 30-minute routine at the Holiday Inn. "You have to set the tone and get the people laughing. Edwards has done a great job. He prepared the audience so that when I went up to the stage, half of my job had been done."
Edwards, Carney adds, has a "great advantage because when you start so young, you can take some bold steps and even if you fall down, you can get up and start again. The anonymity also goes away so that people start noticing you."
But Nelson says that the young comic should not consider his age as "any special attribute." Although he has a head start over other aspiring comedians -- he has appeared twice on "Capital Funnies," a Washington cable show -- and has the potential to "be someone really big some day," he needs to "develop an act and write more material."
Edwards admits that his routines are limited to "things that have happened to me, that I feel and see every day" -- skirmishes at home (like his eviction by his grandmother), on-the-street observations and parodies of television commercials. "I don't do a lot of political jokes," he says, "or jokes about the mess in the society. I don't know enough of those things yet. But I am learning."
Edwards graduated from high school in June and he plans to take a year off before applying for admission to the theater program at Howard University. Although he says that he is satisfied for now with the $200 that he earns every week, he anticipates obstacles.
He has to be noticed by bookers in New York and Los Angeles, the meccas of stand-up comedy. He is also wary of the odds that daunt minority entertainers, despite the recent success of so many. But he says he has never experienced any racial discrimination, except for an incident in which "one day a lady who was hiring came to the club and said that she was looking for a young, funny, black comic."
He was hurt and upset, he says. "Just being black doesn't make me funny... . I stay away from racial humor because racism is something that frustrates people and I don't want it in my routine. I know that if I am not mean or aggressive, people of all colors will accept me and appreciate my work." Edwards says Bill Cosby is his role model.
Yet some comedians feel that racial humor gets the most laughs because it shocks. "When you poke fun at different races, people laugh because they have said some of the same things in their living rooms and don't expect anyone to say it in public," says a Washington-based professional comedian.
"Unfortunately, it seems that many minority comedians who have now established themselves first made their mark by making fun of their own people," says Felix Gutierrez, vice president of the Gannett Foundation, an Arlington-based private organization that funds research projects and awards scholarships in journalism and journalism education. But Gutierrez, an authority on minorities in the U.S. media, says it may be easier for minorities to make it in stand-up comedy because "they are able to define themselves rather than be typecast, as in Hollywood where they play roles written down and handed to them by other people."
Edwards echoes this. "I am my own director, producer, writer and actor. I want to use this freedom to be a positive black role model and help remove the stereotype that a black man impregnates women, does drugs or kills people."
Edwards also says he wants to use stand-up as a "vehicle" to go back to his family. "There is a great treasure there and I want to give everything back to my mom, who gave everything to me. But she pulls away whenever I try to get close to her. It's like a yo-yo," he says. His mother admits that "David works very hard," but declines to talk about anything else. "That's all there is to know," she brusquely says in a brief telephone conversation.
"She's like that," Edwards says later. "And I can't do anything about it. All that I can do is work hard and make her happy." The words betray a sincere adult responsibility that doesn't seem incongruous in the teenager, who excitedly flips through his album to point out photographs of giggling schoolgirls, "my former girlfriends," and Alicia Parker, his present 16-year-old girlfriend. "We hang around the mall or go to the movies," he says.
There are no signs of this teenage indulgence when he puts words to his dreams. "One day there will be a huge crowd," Edwards says. "About 2,000 people. No, 3,000. And I'll have my own show. Me and my friend Dave will be on the stage. It will be called 'The Dave and Dave Show.' "
But this evening at Garvin's, it is just another show, with just a couple of dozen people. He fixes the microphone on the stand, wraps the cord -- and his routine.
"You guys were great. Thanks a lot," he says, waving, his arm silhouetted against the harsh brightness of the overhead lights.