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Arnez J Biography - Selected works

comedy career dispatch television

1966?-

Comedian

Diverging from the hard-edged raunchy and streetwise observational styles of other contemporary African-American comedians, Arnez J offers comic routines reminiscent of an earlier era of comedy. His improvisational comic style is primarily physical, with a strong reliance on impressions and exaggerations of familiar personalities. "J is a whirling dervish on stage—he runs, jumps, spins, slides, slips, and mugs through a performance, acting out many of his bits while describing them," wrote Doug Kaufman in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. His idols are the classic television comedians of the 1960s: Flip Wilson, Red Skelton, and a performer who might be considered an unlikely inspiration for a modern African-American male artist. "There was never a nicer and funnier comedian to me than Carol Burnett," Arnez J explained to Daniel Neman of the Richmond Times Dispatch. "The Carol Burnett Show, to me, will never be replaced."

Arnez J has been close-mouthed about his age and, in recent years, about much of his background including his full name. But various media have given his name as Arnez Johnson, and the Times Dispatch reported that he was 12 years old when The Carol Burnett Show went off the air in 1978, which would place his birth date in the middle of the comedy golden age that shaped his own style. Some newspapers reported that he was born in Atlanta, but he grew up in a military family and never called one place home for long. That fact, according to Arnez J, shaped his choice of career. "I think most people remember things beginning when they were seven," he told Neman. "But I remember things from when I was four, because when I was four I was in Germany, in Hannover. My father was in the military, and I remember he was in the field a lot. I think I was more of a studier of human nature."

Television had a strong impact on Arnez J. After watching Superman one time, he tied a towel around his neck and jumped off the roof of his family's home, landing in some bushes. He was a convincing enough liar to land a job at a gas station when he was 14. Spending part of his teenage years in the Denver area, though, Arnez J excelled not in performing arts but in sports. He attended Aurora High School, where he was both a baseball star (at third base) and a strong professional basketball prospect. Baseball was his first love. But a criminal act that Arnez J refuses to discuss landed him in prison for a year in the early 1980s and scuttled his chances to win a spot with the Philadelphia Phillies organization. "All I'll say is that I was young and stupid and somebody got hurt and I did some time," Arnez J told Ed Condran of the Bergen County (New Jersey) Record. "It hurt real bad, because I was being scouted, and you only get one or two chances to play serious baseball."

After his release from prison, Arnez J thought about his broken dreams of sports stardom and sank into what he described as a two-year depression. In the late 1980s, however, he put his life back together, going through training and landing a job as a Continental Airlines flight attendant. His talent for getting a laugh from passengers wedged into jets made him think about a new career. "I entertained the passengers—always," he recalled to Bruce Westbrook of the Houston Chronicle. "If I went to San Francisco, I'd be a gay flight attendant, or for Boston, I'd be real hard and snobby. But people knew I was putting them on." His talent for impressions carried over into his career as a comedian, and he boasted to Kaufman that "I can basically do anybody I study."

Arnez J began trying out his comedy skills at Atlanta-area clubs, making his debut at the Comedy Act in 1990. At first he was booed, but he stuck with it. Three months after he started doing comedy, a performance he gave at Zanie's in Mount Prospect, Illinois, was taped for broadcast on cable television's Showtime Comedy Club Network. Five months after that, he was booked into Lake Tahoe, California, for the network's Comedy Club All-Stars special—and found himself a fish out of water. "My live comedy was about what my life was in the inner city," he told Allan Johnson of the Chicago Tribune. But at Lake Tahoe, he faced audiences "45 and above, and white."

Finding a more comfortable niche on programs like Black Entertainment Television's Comic View and becoming a finalist in the 1992 Bay Area Black Comedy Competition, Arnez J also began to appeal more and more to racially mixed audiences. One factor in his broad-based appeal was his avoidance of profanity in his shows, which attracted family-oriented fans of all races. "I'm not going to sell myself short by [cursing]," he told Kaufman, "because No. 1, I have a son. I'm just not going to do that. And No. 2, I don't curse in my daily life, why would I do it on stage? Then I'm contradicting myself."

In 1995, Arnez J got a chance to combine his ambitions as an athlete and performer: he was recruited by scouts for the famed Harlem Globetrotters basketball team. In 1996 he joined the team, but three months later a knee injury ended his Globetrotters career. "Apparently I'm meant to make a living as a comedian, which is fine," he observed to Condran. In the late 1990s, Arnez J became a familiar face on the comedy circuit and landed plum television spots on Russell Simmons' Def Comedy Jam A&E's An Evening at the Improv, and Comedy Central's Make Me Laugh, among other shows. After a half-hour solo special on BET, Arnez J became the host of Comic View in 2002.

As his career developed, Arnez J branched out into new activities. He toured with actor Billy Dee Williams in a play called The Maintenance Man, playing a nightclub owner, and he performed as an opening act for the Artist Formerly Known as Prince. Arnez J moved to Los Angeles, and indeed film seemed to offer the best new potential avenue for his talents. He starred in the independent film Up Against the 8-Ball, and hoped to make more movies. "We've missed good slapstick comedy," he told Westbrook. An enterprising director might find in Arnez J an ideal performer for the revival of a type of comedy that had gone out of fashion.

Selected works

Films

Up Against the 8-Ball, 2004.

Plays

The Maintenance Man, 2004.

Television

Showtime Comedy Club Network, 1990.

Comic View, 1992-.

At a Glance …

Born c. 1966; grew up in military family and traveled frequently; married; children: JeLaney (son).

Career: Continental Airlines, flight attendant, late 1980s-early 1990s; comedian and actor, 1990s-; Harlem Globetrotters, basketball player, 1995-96.

Selected awards: Bay Area Black Comedy Competition, finalist, 1992.

Sources

Periodicals

Chicago Tribune, September 28, 2001, p. 8.

Columbus Dispatch, September 5, 2002, Weekender sec., p. 11.

Commercial Appeal (Memphis), July 9, 2004, p. G34.

Houston Chronicle, June 19, 2003, Preview sec., p. 16.

Post-Tribune (Gary, IN), April 23, 2004, p. D4.

Record (Bergen County, NJ), May 28, 2004, p. G16.

Richmond Times Dispatch (Richmond, VA), July 31, 2003, p. D30.

Sacramento Observer, July 8, 1998, p. E3.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch, August 1, 2002, Get Out sec., p. 29.

Tennessean (Nashville), November 29, 2003, p. E6.

—James M. Manheim

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