It’s close to 10 PM on a Tuesday night. On the second floor of Tattooed Mom’s, a popular bar on Philadelphia’s ever-busy South Street, a crowd full of twenty-somethings and thirty-somethings has gathered within its famed graffitied walls for “Tattooed Momedy,” a free monthly stand-up comedy show.
Clutching dollar tacos and cans of PBR, the signature drink of the “millennial” crowd in the city, the audience members are a unique blend of local area comedians and actual audience members who are not friends nor family of said comedians.
The enthusiastic crowd, who have responded to each comic’s set with actual, legitimate laughs (not the fake kind that you typically reserve for your friends or HR managers) gradually cease their applause as Tattooed Momedy host Michael Kelly takes the microphone following yet another set from yet another local Philly comic.
“This next one is a treat,” Kelly begins. “She is visiting us from California and I am very happy to have her here. Please give it up for Nikki Black!”
Cheers abound as Nikki Black breaks away from the crowd, hugs Kelly, and confidently grabs the microphone–and command of the stage.
Sporting a pixie cut and innocent smile, Black gazes out at the sea of familiar and unfamiliar faces which have gathered in the back room of Tattooed Mom’s. In town from Los Angeles, as Kelly described, the southern New Jersey native is spending the week between Christmas and New Year’s visiting with family members and friends who still reside in the New Jersey and Philadelphia areas. However, such a visit in no way deters her from her true home on the stage: almost every night of her trip back east, she has been booked on stages in Philadelphia and also New York City.
“I’ve been doing stand-up about six years now,” Black told me in an email message prior to her Tattooed Momedy show. “The first three were in college, though, and Ithaca isn’t exactly a hopping comedy town or wasn’t when I was there (though there were two comedy clubs on campus), so I’m not sure if they count, really. I was on stage maybe once a month, if that.”
Through a delivery that is soft (when compared to the loud, boisterous, and bordering on obnoxious deliveries of most comics, local and national), almost deadpan, Black’s comedy has audiences rolling shortly after taking the mic in her hand. Her routines tread into familiar comedic territory (dealing with conservative family members, trials in love and sex) and also into surreal–yet nevertheless just as hilarious–realms, such as her routine about “ghost boners,” which she often presents with illustrated accompaniment.
While personally very humble about her role in any city’s stand-up comedy scene (“I’m not exactly established,” she wrote), Black has nevertheless made a significant name for herself during her stint in Philadelphia. Engaging in “the grind” at weeknight open mics all over the city, she ultimately worked her way up to feature spots on paid showcases not only in Philadelphia but later on in New York and Los Angeles, among other areas. For several years, she also created and co-hosted the monthly comedy showcase “House of Black,” which featured her Victorian-themed alter ego “Mistress Black” presenting local comedians, sketch groups, and improvisers to an always-packed house at Philadelphia Improv Theater in downtown Philadelphia.
“I will say that in terms of maybe bigger cities versus smaller ones, my experience has been that the bigger ones, if not more welcoming to women, have bigger pockets of performers that are,” Black said.
Like many women comedians, Black is a proud and passionate feminist. Joining forces with fellow women comics in Philadelphia and elsewhere, she made sure that audiences and comedians alike knew that stand-up comedy at any level was not just a boys’ club. Her efforts at the local level certainly echoed the efforts of golden age comedians like Joan Rivers, Phyllis Diller, and the like, who showed audiences in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s that Robert Klein, Rodney Dangerfield, and Richard Pryor weren’t the only comedic voices onstage. Along with Philadelphia comedians Rachel Fogletto and Hannah Harkness, Black created and co-hosted the feminist podcast “Wait, Wut?” which found the women discussing the local comedy scene, women’s’ role in comedy in general and other topical issues.
“I would say all of my material is done with feminist intent because I am a feminist and that comes through very clearly, in my material,” Black explained. “Loud women are still wildly unacceptable by societal standards, so when you identify as a woman, a stand-up comedian, and a feminist, it just sort of ups the likelihood that people will try to disparage you or make you feel inconsequential, or wrong.”
Black lamented, “Some people see these identifiers of a kind of challenge, unfortunately.”
She supplemented this with a story about a former male comedy co-host of hers dismissing her passionate stance on women’s issues as “bitching” and also replying to her “creepy” experience with an unnamed comedian with “Don’t ruin him for me.”
“That sucked, but it says a lot about how people view loud women,” Black wrote. “A big reason I left Philadelphia was the scene there was just too toxic for me. Male performers will corner you in bars and ask you about your personal beliefs and stuff like that. It just always felt very suffocating and aggressive.”
She concluded the sentiment with “As a feminist, as a woman, the onus is always on you to make the situation comfortable. I really wish men felt more responsible for the comfort and safety of the entire scene, but we’re still a long way away from that, unfortunately.”
Thankfully for Nikki Black–but unfortunately for audiences in and around southeastern Pennsylvania–she has applied her personal philosophy of “in order to grow, you need to move around” and relocated to Los Angeles. Needless to say, she has continued her hard work and unique brand of comedic amazement there, working on a multitude of projects.
“As long as you’re experiencing different scenes, different people, different cultures…it informs your act and opens up the ways you relate to the audience. I think sticking in one place too long, your point of view can become sort of stagnant and unchallenged, and there’s no growth in that. Performers should be seeking discomfort (the safe kind).”
Mike Fenn is a writer, storyteller and ramen consumer living in Philadelphia. In little league, he once struck out while using the tee. Follow him on Twitter at @mikecovers