The careers of some of Hollywood and comedy’s biggest stars can be traced back to one place, Russell Simmons’ Def Comedy Jam. The HBO stand-up series, which premiered in 1992, ran for five seasons and helped launch some of our faves, including Sheryl Underwood, Dave Chappelle, Mike Epps, Jamie Foxx, Chris Tucker, and Martin Lawrence.
Now, 25 years later, many of the legendary alums return to reflect on how Def Comedy Jam changed their lives. The “Def Comedy Jam 25” special, which was taped on Sept. 10 in Los Angeles, mixed live performances from Def Jam legends like Cedric the Entertainer, Adele Givens, Eddie Griffin, Tracy Morgan and Mike Epps with pre-taped messages from stars like Chris Rock and Kevin Hart as well as footage from classic sets. It’s now available on Netflix.
Simmons and television producer, Stan Lathan started Def Comedy Jam to give “edgy” comedians a shot at mainstream. The first up-and-coming comedian to get a big break courtesy of the groundbreaking program was Lawrence, as Simmons tapped the House Party alum to be the host and face of Def Comedy Jam.
“When I look back, I was a young kid and I was fearless, so I just wanted to seize the moment every chance I got to get onstage,” Lawrence said. “I tried to have fun and make it as big as possible.”
And soon, he was as big as possible, thanks to the hosting gig and his own Fox sitcom, Martin. Within a few years, Lawrence was starring in franchise blockbusters like Bad Boys.
“Martin Lawrence was a star waiting to happen,” adds Simmons, refusing to take credit for the success of his famous alums. “Chris Tucker, Dave Chappelle, Steve Harvey. I could go on. There are so many that deserved a break and Def Comedy Jam gave them that break.”
Not everyone saw an immediate meteoric rise following their appearance on the stage, though. For some, like Craig Robinson, the “brilliant and necessary” series was the first step to “putting them on the map.” But for others, the sitcoms and big movies never came — or in one case, it just took a while.
Tiffany Haddish was one of summer 2017’s breakout stars thanks to her scene-stealing performance in Girls Trip, and although her recent success has been treated like a surprise, the actress — who appeared on Def Comedy Jam in 2008 — has been grinding away for over a decade.
“I feel grateful and thankful and honored that they even thought to call me,” she said. “Out of all the people they could have called, they called me?! When I was trying to get on Def Jam, I submitted a tape and was showing up at all the auditions and they wouldn’t let me get onstage, and someone saw that tape and said, ‘We got to get her on.’”
The comics who appeared on the stand-up show were known for their takes on the current events of the time – everything from O.J. Simpson’s freeway chase to the beating of Rodney King and subsequent L.A. riots were fair game. So the special is ripe with commentary on the politics of today.
Not all of the renowned alums were able to attend the reunion. One king of comedy was missing — but not forgotten: Bernie Mac.
“I remember Bernie Mac telling me, ‘Just be whoever the f— you are. Either they’re going to like you or they’re not,’” Hughley fondly recalls his late friend, who died in 2008, advising him before his first Def Comedy performance. “And I’ll never forget that.”