A week after Hurricane Isaac squatted over Southeastern Louisiana, bowel movement jokes fill a room on Tulane Avenue. A deejay drops intros for comedians who lament, decry and ridicule recent events. Power outages and long drives are laughing matters when the levees work. Tonight the audience lounges on white chairs and sips cold drinks in crisp air-conditioning. At the center, generating the most laughs and controlling the pace, is our host, Mark Caesar, a performer who has energized comedy in New Orleans.
Raised on Valmont Street, Caesar grew up as a wisecracking Uptown kid who staged backyard concerts and music video reenactments. A friend was the niece of Jedda Jones, a.k.a. Ms. Dupree, the “Voodoo Priestess” comedienne famous from her appearances on the Tom Joyner show. “She said, ‘You’re pretty funny, Mark, but can you write that stuff?’” he recalls. The answer was affirmative, and Caesar began venturing onstage at La Nuit Theater on Freret Street. “Then I started running with a group called the New Orleans Bad Boys of Comedy. At the time, I hadn’t really performed in front of a lot of black people. All my crowds were Caucasian because I’m on Freret, that’s my neighborhood, and I’m by the universities. We started doing shows and I got in front of more people and my crowds are starting to be a little more mixed. Those guys hadn’t performed in front of a lot of white people before, so it worked great. I started getting paid when I started gigging with them and I’ve been getting paid ever since.”
Two tours overseas in the Army Reserves interrupted his local ascent, but provided invaluable experience. “Afghanistan and Dubai, six months each. We had a big old stage on base, in the courtyard, where all the troops could come and watch you perform,” Caesar says. “So you’re performing in front of a thousand people. And they’re there to watch you. They don’t have to, but there’s nothing else to do. The people who were working because they had a shift, they wanted to know if people had recorded it, and then they had videos of me performing going on around the base. Now when I drop a video, I have views in Aviano, Italy, Spangdahlem, Germany and Bagram.”
Back home, Caesar’s growing reputation and online presence led to out-of-town shows where stories about the 13th Ward were well received. “When you’re from somewhere else, they want to hear about what’s funny where you’re from,” he explains. “I talk about being a product of the Orleans Public School system. When I talk about the slang, they like to hear me say ‘baaay-be.’ So I make a joke about a girl asking me to say ‘baaay-be’ and then recording me and putting it on Maury.”
Rather than mimicking stand-up stars, Caesar says his routine evolves from his roots: “I think my style’s a little bit of my grandma, my grandpa, a little bit of my mom, the people inside the store on Freret and Robert. It’s a little bit of everything.” The result: the grand prize in the 2012 Louisiana’s Funniest Person at Boomtown Casino, his #TeamPissYoPants comedy crew’s burgeoning YouTube stardom and Laugh n’ Sip, a weekly comedy night at Therapy Wine Bar.
The videos “Sh*t New Orleans Girls Say” parts 1 (228,000 hits, watch below) and 2 (156,000) riff on neighborhood vernacular, coupling teenage boy humor with the deft comedic delivery of Caesar and #TeamPissYoPants partners Jose Nacho Negro, HARDaway Jr. and Courtney George. If you remember the ’90s Cash Money Records, watch “The Lost Hot Boys” — but bring a fresh pair of drawers.
“‘Sh*t New Orleans Girls Say’ went viral in five hours,” Caesar marvels. “We put it out at about 9 in the morning, and at 6:30 p.m. before Laugh n’ Sip started, we were over our head with people hitting us up. Twitter followers went from 1,000 to 2,000 in an hour. It was crazy. That’s where most of our gigs come from now. People know what we do. Now they know there’s comedy in New Orleans.”
Overflow crowds are the norm at the Thursday gigs, proof an audience exists for stand-up and that the young man working the door, booking the band and emceeing onstage has hustle for days.
In early September, Isaac humor buoys the evening. Headliner Nacho Negro notes that “evacuating ain’t the same” and imagines hours in the car with Toni Braxton. When his friend “Brady” calls, Caesar puts the phone on speaker as Brady discusses post-Category 1 looting. “You looted a Chinese buffet?!” Caesar exclaims. “It’s Chinese food — you know it’s spoiled when you get it!” The crowd stays with him as he introduces performers, exchanges commentary with DJ Cousin Cav, and switches gears effortlessly. “Don’t trip,” he calls. “Laugh and sip,” the audience responds.
The show is one platform in a growing portfolio. Recent acting roles include a part in Seth Rogen’s upcoming The End of the World and the lead in a planned short film about Mark Essex, the 1977 Howard Johnson sniper. “When we finish, we’re gonna pitch it to Spike [Lee],” Caesar says. The robust local film industry lifts the bar on a young comedian’s aspirations in New Orleans, and Caesar thinks big. Still, the stage remains his focus.
“There’s never been a show like that in the city, where there’s a live band, a deejay and good comedians,” he muses. “It shows I can hold down a room that can be known around the nation. And that’s the whole objective: when comedians come to New Orleans, they want to come to Laugh n’ Sip.”