About 300 people are crowded inside Skandalos — a comedy and music club on Independence Boulevard — most sitting in groups at tables, while others stand near the bar. Top hip-hop songs mixed in with old-school favorites are blaring through the speakers. This, combined with the drinks being served, is getting the crowd livened up as they anxiously await the start of the show. Most of them arrived on time, if not early — something any church service would envy (there'll be a little pulpitting here, but more on that later). The scene is taking place on what is typically an unpopular night of the week for nightlife. And it's all going down on a side of town that in recent years has also become unpopular.
Don't underestimate the power of laughter.
Each Tuesday night, Tone-X and Friends is center stage at Skandalos. The event has been going strong, gaining momentum even, since launching in April 2008, and is now one of Charlotte's leading weekly comedy showcases. Comedian and Power 98 FM radio personality Tone-X is the star of the show -- as the name of the event implies -- along with his co-host Chris "Funnyman" Robinson. They have a strong supporting cast in what is at once a comedy night, talent showcase, recession-proof event, and family affair. For Tone-X, it's the highlight of his week, which says a lot for a man who has as much going on as he does.
"We live for this night every week," says Tone-X, 41, backstage at a recent show. "As soon as Wednesday hits, we can't wait for Tuesday."
For someone who's been up since 4:30 a.m., when his day started with the 6 a.m. airing of The Morning Maddhouse radio show, Tone-X has a surprising amount of energy. It's 8:30 p.m., and he and Robinson will be hitting the stage in a few minutes. But in the meantime, he's backstage and has picked up a makeshift dumbbell and starts doing curls. It's like he's got energy to burn -- and there's not a Red Bull in sight. A few of the local comedians who'll be participating in tonight's improv competition pop in to give their customary fist-bumps and handshakes. A few VIPs, like Carolina Panthers wide receiver Dwayne Jarrett, stop by to briefly chop it up also.
It's about 8:45 p.m. and it's showtime. Tone-X huddles up with Robinson and leads the two in a prayer. He thanks God for bringing them all together again, and asks Him for another successful show. He says he knows it's already a success because they are here.
"A lot of people didn't think it would work because of the location, being on Independence and all of that," Tone-X says. "But it's a blessed event and it's the funniest night in Charlotte."
Tone-X and Robinson open the show with a banter that's to the audience's amusement. "If you ever doubted whether Michael Jackson was black, you know now. Michael Jackson and Farrah Fawcett died on the same day. Farrah has been buried already, while the Jacksons [were] talking about 'We're still making arrangements.'"
There's also a funny moment in which Robinson reads off the drink specials for the night, while Tone-X translates it in Spanish -- though it ends up sounding more like a combination of Ricky Ricardo and James Brown speaking. Clearly Tone-X doesn't know Spanish, though Skandalos is a Latin club. This is indicative of the diversity you'll find in both the humor and the audience. While the crowd is predominantly black, peppered throughout you'll find people of all races. And there's a large age range, too.
"Our core audience is just people who like to have a good time -- that's 21 or 101," Tone-X says. "Black, white, pinstriped, plaid -- it doesn't matter. Laughter is the best medicine and right about now, a lot of people need to laugh because society is crazy. And we just take the load off."
Tone-X got that successful night that he asked God for at the start of the evening. A group of local and aspiring comedians served as the opening acts and competed in an improv competition in which they were divided into teams. Tone-X anchored one of the teams while Robinson served as the moderator -- think of MTV's Wild 'N Out with Tone-X being Nick Cannon and Robinson being D-Wreck. The format of the show rotates week to week, with one week featuring improv and the next featuring open mic. The night is capped off with the headlining act, usually a nationally known comedian. On this night, it's Double D from Atlanta.
While many comedy shows draw their crowds based on the headliners, this show takes a slightly different approach. Oftentimes the audience won't know who the headliner is until they've arrived, meaning they've already bought their ticket.
"The measure of how good the show is, is the next week," Tone-X says. "You're only as good as your last show. If they come back, the same way they did the previous week, then -- that's why we try to put the focus on the show and not the comedian that's coming because that's fickle. So, if the majority of the crowd doesn't know who he is, then they might feel compelled to stay home. But if you talk about Tone-X and Friends -- you don't want to miss the experience."
This Tuesday night show has brought things full circle for Tone-X. When he was just a fledgling comedian, he began hosting a weekly comedy night in 1995 at The Comedy Zone, which was the same venue that Skandalos is today. At that time, he was still living in his native town of Wilmington, and was only a few years removed from serving in the military. He would drive to Charlotte each week for the show, and that led him to making appearances on Power 98 to promote that week's comedy acts. In 1997, a spot on the station's morning show opened up, and Tone-X got the gig.
Years later after he was no longer hosting a weekly comedy show in Charlotte, his friend and fellow comedian Chris Robinson brought him back to what he'd been missing.
Pissed off with the promotion guys he'd been doing local shows with, Robinson was driving along Independence Boulevard one day and saw a sign promoting live comedy and music. He realized that the old Comedy Zone was now reopened as Skandalos. He went in to talk to the owner and presented him with an idea of hosting a weekly comedy night. The owner liked it.
"I walked out of Skandalos happy, but then it was like 'OK, I got a room, but who am I going to partner with?'" Robinson says. "Then I remembered what Tone's mom said -- that we should do something together." He took the idea to the Belsers, they liked it, and they spent about a year working on getting it started. "Now it's one of the hottest nights in Charlotte," says Robinson.
Tone-X and Friends is put on by Y Square Management, which is run by Yolanda Belser and Kimberly Edmonds. After running in similar social circles and both having experience in entertainment, Belser and Edmonds began doing promo work together about seven years ago. They established Y Square in 2005, and Tone-X is their top client. He's also Belser's husband.
"When we created the show, it was going to have two hosts, Tone-X and Chris 'Funnyman' Robinson, and we were going to incorporate live entertainment and give local, amateur comedians a chance to spotlight themselves," Belser says. "So we didn't go into it saying we were going to bring all these other comedians in because it was going to be centered on Tone. We wanted to showcase his talents and give people a chance to see him. They hear him on the air every morning, but they were forgetting this dude is a comedian and not just a radio personality. When people realized that there was a Tone-X and Friends comedy show going on, we had comedians calling us out of the woodwork to be booked. And it's become a blessing because our calendar is booked up." And if you can't make it out to the show, you can watch it live on SwaggerTV.com, an online venture Y Square Management co-owns.
Tone-X, who has gone on the road with or opened up for just about every major black comedian on the circuit (including The Original Kings of Comedy and has appeared on Diddy's Bad Boys of Comedy), has been touring this summer with comedienne Mo'Nique. He's been opening up her show during many of its weekend dates. The schedule has led him to occasionally flying out of Charlotte on a Friday afternoon and flying back late on a Sunday night, which means he doesn't miss his weekday morning show gig or his Tuesday night show. (On one particular trek, he did shows with Mo'Nique in Connecticut on Friday, New Jersey on Saturday, and New York's famed Beacon Theatre on Sunday.)
"He does whatever he has to do to be here on Tuesday nights," says Edmonds, his co-manager. "He's only missed one show, and we've been doing this every week for over a year. That show he missed, he called in -- you can tell how much he cares about it and how much the audience loves him."
For as much as Tone-X loves the stage and has a pension for making people laugh, he's not one of those comedians who's always "on." That, coupled with his frequent discussion of social issues and mentions of God, makes him somewhat of an inspirational speaker. Some of that eases into his stand-up at times. In another life, he'd probably be a preacher.
"You understand that as you get older, you have a responsibility," Tone-X says. "When you talk through the microphone, it's more than just entertainment. It's more than buffoonery. You have an obligation, and you should feel entitled to give as much information to your people as possible. It's not about just being funny. It's about being informative. You can be informative and funny."