CHICAGO – She may be in the comedy business, but Mary Lindsey runs her club like a drill sergeant, and the young comics spilling in and out of her door know better than to ignore her commands.
Watch your mouth and the clock. Foul language is offensive. Entertainers who exceed their performance time get hit with fines – $100 for going over and $50 for every minute thereafter.
Lindsey is the owner of Jokes and Notes, one of the few comedy clubs in the U.S. that are owned and operated by a black woman. The club features emerging comedians, and Chicago native Milton "Lil Rel" Howery is among those who has honed his talents there. For a third year in a row, the club on Chicago's South Side is also a venue for one of the nation's largest and most prestigious comedy festivals, TBS Just for Laughs.
"The more I see these young comics achieve, the more I want to help them," said Lindsey, who also co-owned an earlier Chicago club known to feature minority comics before she left to start a house-cleaning company. "Yes, I put this fear in them, but I've given up-and-coming comedians opportunities that other club owners wouldn't.
"I'm a nice person, but if I displayed that, none of this would work."
TBS Just for Laughs convenes scores of comedians in the city for six days, and Jokes and Notes is its only South Side venue. The festival features well-known acts such as Sarah Silverman, Janeane Garofalo and Hannibal Burress, while also providing venues for the kind of emerging talent Lindsey promotes.
"Some of the best talent is coming out of that club," Just for Laughs programming director Robbie Praw says of Lindsey's club.
Lindsey's career has taken twists and turns. She spent 10 years working at the Chicago Board Options Exchange before getting into the laugh business and opening All Jokes Aside with Raymond Lambert and James Alexander. A burned-out Lindsey left that club shortly before it closed in 1998 and started a successful residential cleaning business. Then, seven years ago, she decided to get back into comedy.
Howery is the most recent sensation to step out of Jokes and Notes and into the mainstream. Howery is set to star in the reboot of "In Living Color," a sketch comedy series that debuted on Fox television in the '90s.
"I've been coming to Jokes and Notes since they opened," Howery said. "I used to come here every Wednesday for the open mic to work out. This club has opened a lot of doors for me."
Comedian Dean Cole, who writes for Conan O'Brien's late-night show, also performs at the club. Cole said Lindsey's tough style brings structure to the business. The veteran comedian says he's careful with his performance time because of Lindsey's mentorship.
"It can be a business of recklessness. You can wear what you want, you can do as many drugs as you want, but Mary always brought this focusness," Cole says.
The decor of Lindsey's cozy, 150-seat venue lacks frill, but the walls tell a story. The faces of such comedians as Academy Award winner Mo'Nique, syndicated radio host George Willborn and Howery adorn one wall. A tribute to the legendary Bernie Mac is on another.
"I have history with a lot of comics," says Lindsey. "Instead of articles or pictures, I decided to use paintings to illustrate the people who have been my house emcees."
Her former club, All Jokes Aside, was the premiere spot for black standup acts in the '90s and helped jumpstart the careers of Steve Harvey, Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle. It's the focus of the 2010 documentary "Phunny Business: A Black Comedy."
"Mary was the glue to All Jokes Aside, which is why she has been able to recreate the whole movement," said Bob Sumner, founder of Showtime's "Laff Mobb Presents" and the original producer of HBO's "Def Comedy Jam."
After her first foray into comedy, Lindsey changed courses by opening a residential cleaning service.
"I have a passion for cleaning," says Lindsey. "If I've had a hard day, I come home and clean."
When her zeal for that business faded, she decided to look for a new venture. She kept bumping into comics, making her think again about comedy. Finally, a former Chicago alderman persuaded Lindsey to support re-gentrification efforts in the city's Bronzeville neighborhood by opening a new club. The club is in a historic arts enclave amid a mash-up of hair salons and clothing stores.
Praw said he couldn't think of anyone else in comedy – "black or white, male or female" – who has accomplished what Lindsey has.
"Many clubs owners go out of their way to make sure that they give three extra people a drink at night," he said. "But few make sure that they give three extra people an opportunity that night."