Comedy’s greatness is magnified by its malleability. All you need is a comic, a mic, an amp and you’re basically in business. An audience, walls or permission are garnish. Stand-up transforms the most unlikely places, and no place is more unlikely—and more Oakland—than the black-owned sex parlor: the Feelmore Gallery.
Every third Wednesday, comedians Shanti Charan and Arthur Ballesteros present “Oakland Comedy Shop” in the Town’s Downtown. It’s the first monthly series either produced. After a successful one-off show in the area, they approached Feelmore for a more regular residency. “I was just walking by and I thought Feelmore would be a different, unique and fun place to have a comedy show,” recounted Charan. “I walked in and asked and she said yes instantly.” This isn’t Feelmore’s first fling with comedy: they’ve sponsored the Ladies Love the Layover series for years with pleasure product giveaways.
I’m curious to see the space au naturel; hard to imagine what it would look like without seven or so rows of folding chairs packed with people. Shelves lined with oils, toys, bondage gear, coming of age booklets, erotica, manuals, vintage albums, and a copy of Boogie Nights on VHS. House music ambiance. Fragrant aroma. It was a uniquely chill enclosure for what turned out to be a respectable night of lewdness.
Ruby Gill, of Yum and Yummer, hosted with huff and enthusiasm. Carla Clayy, more later, closed us out, equally stern and serene. Kudos to the organizers: the show moved very fluidly and the producers were graciously hospitable. A creamy mix of different voices, diversity galore. Kelly “Smart Alec” Anneken purveyed her penchant for acerbic snark. Sam Meeker casually milled polished angles of that set-up punch variety. Charan bubbled and shined, her conversational pluck coming off as familiar as a hangout with friends (which may be the mission statement of the show: a hangout with friends).
For a shop owned by an award-winning feminist pornographer, there was a surprising amount of “bitch” usage. Some of it self-referential, some self-defacing, some of it in pantomime confrontation, some alluding to misbehaving children. It wasn’t gratuitous or unusual—the word is like duct tape on the comedian utility belt, temporarily effective if not tacky—and everybody seemed cool with it. “Neena from Feelmore normally has headphones on,” stated Charan after the show. “I’m not sure if she’s always listening, but she has never had an issue with what was being said.”
I’ll say it now and forever until it’s untrue: Carla Clayy is one of the most untapped, under-appreciated and under-utilized talents in the San Francisco Bay Area. She is brilliant. She can rock an audience with an eyebrow raise. The space between her words are as potent as her staunch staccato. A storyteller, with cropped orange hair and a no-nonsense demeanor, Clayy possessed a presence and command akin to the Empress of Soul, Nina Simone. I’m not a Nina Simone expert but from what I’ve seen she possessed a capacity for humor, regality, and confrontation that I couldn’t un-see as Clayy worked over the adult gallery’s congregation.
“Black people don’t like when people are behind them,” stated Clayy, remarking on Feelmore’s proprietor, stationed conspicuously at the register behind the performance space, grinning at the comic’s playful paranoia. “You good, are you okay? You? No, you!” she calling out a dazed audience member who elected to stare, slightly smiling, rather than laughing out loud (like they should have). I’ve witnessed Carla Clayy’s act intermittently for five years, it’s consistent in quality and context; what makes it unique, even on second-third-fourth viewing is the comedian’s mindfulness. Clayy was not lazily reciting some tired routine, she was reliving her experiences in real time, giving it life for the audience. Every motion, every expression, every prop, every reiterated detail rolled over and over until it reached a mental stickiness, was fashioned into a new yet familiar sensation: love. I walked out with a deep love for Carla Clayy, deeper than the reservoir that was already present; the fact I found it at a sex parlor is a happy coincidence.
Oakland Comedy Shop happens every third Wednesday of the month. The July 15th installment will be their one-year anniversary. Arrive early for comfortable seating.