It’s a lucky thing for Tucson’s live entertainment scene that Matt Kearney has ADHD and knows how to use it.
The Community Bridges Behavioral Health caseworker spends off hours as the proprietor of the sublimely-fried-seafood truck, Off the Hook. When he can, he volunteers with Mass Liberation AZ, a group promoting fair treatment for former prisoners who served time for nonviolent crimes.
Evenings, he’s churning out entertainment for Tucson’s Black community diaspora: rap nights, poetry slams, comedy nights, dance parties — whenever and wherever he’s able to put together a good time. He promotes all that, and Black-owned businesses, on two busy Facebook pages he maintains, Strictly Grown Folks and Strictly Grown Folks Entertainment.
“I just like seeing people laugh and having a good time.” Kearney said. “Basically, I do it for myself, to be honest.” But he acknowledged that he also does it for other Tucson folks who miss the entertainment scene where they came from.
“I grew up in Connecticut in the nineties,” he said. “It was 40 minutes outside New York City. I loved standup comedy from seeing it on TV, so I started going to comedy clubs in Manhattan. I saw these comedians and I’m like, ‘Wow! I want to bring this back to Connecticut.’ So, I just started talking to comedians after the shows, getting their contact information and I’d go back to Connecticut and find a venue and just put it together.
“I was in my late twenties,” he said. “and I just up and did it.”
In 2010, Kearney accepted a position at the UA and moved to Tucson. It was as if a saguaro had landed in Manhattan. Tucson was a different place in ways he could not have imagined.
“This city is not strong with Black culture,” he said. “Usually in Black communities, you have Black businesses, there’s a Black culture within itself. . . because they were segregated. They couldn’t go anywhere else.
“Tucson is different. It’s hard to get people together here because everybody is spread out.” He said the most Black people he ever sees in one place are at his shows, “and I’ve lived here 20 years.”
Things are changing here, though, he said. “The Black population is growing. There are more people moving here from big cities and North Carolina, South Carolina, Ohio. The real estate’s cheaper, they love the weather and they’re looking for things to do.
“My food truck’s been successful because I cook seafood. I see people come from Detroit and Milwaukee and they’re like, ‘Oh man, I’ve been looking for food like this forever.’ I offer something that’s not normally here, like the food, the entertainment, the bands.”
Kearney said that audiences of color are often more demanding. “When I bring headliners in it’s hard work, especially in what they call ‘urban rooms.’” That’s comedy-scene shorthand for venues with mostly Black and Latino audiences. Jokes tend to be more explicit around sex and vulgarity, he said. Subtle story-spinning and jokes you have to think about don’t stand a chance.
“I don’t know if it’s the way people were raised, but they paid their money to see somebody make them laugh and they want to laugh right away,” Kearney said. “People have to work their craft. If you don’t make it in the first two seconds, they cue you.
“But I’ve seen people cuss like sailors and still master gospel comedy. You gotta multitask.”
Tucson’s biggest local comedy show
Kearney started producing his LOL Comedy Jam in 2010. He’d been in town less than a year. Before COVID-19, he always booked them in the restaurant of the Viscount Suites on Broadway. Word got around and he was packing the place for every show by 2020.
Since lockdown lifted, he’s been trying out other venues. The next LOL Comedy Jam is Friday, Aug. 19, at The Rock, 136 N. Park Avenue. Doors open at 8 p.m. and the show starts at 9 p.m. Advance tickets are $20; VIP tickets are $35 via ticketleap.com. Entry costs more at the door.
Headlining the show is Shang (Forbes), a long-time friend of Kearney’s from the New York City comedy scene. A comedian, actor and poet, Shang is known for ruthless wit. He unpacks the irony, fury and outright hilarity in contemporary political and social malaise. Featured frequently on Def Comedy Jam and BET’s Comic View, he’s released two half-hour comedy specials, appeared on the Jamie Foxx Show and debated incendiary topics on “Politically Incorrect.” His comedy album, “Shangry,” is one of the most-played comedy CDs on Sirius XM.
Detroit comic Black Pedro (Hernandez) is the show’s featured comedian. Jamaica born and Detroit raised, he wears his Princeton education lightly and sometimes subversively. He was bullied as the only Black kid with a Spanish name. His humor saved him. Now he lives in Los Angeles where he performs regularly at the Improv and the Laugh Factory.
Rob Rodriguez always emcees the Jam when he’s not touring as an opener for Gary Owens, who has appeared frequently on BET and starred in “Daddy Day Care” and “Little Man,” among other films. Rodriguez, another friend of Kearney’s from New York City days, now lives in Glendale.
Also on the bill are Casa Grande comedians Ryan L; Greg Beck, who claims firearms and trumpet as his special skills, and Wolf Brown, aka Gilarious Wolf, from the Gila River Indian Community. Brown’s comedy will be a hit with fans of Hulu’s “Reservation Dogs.”
“I try to keep the shows diverse,” Kearney said. “I don’t want anybody to feel left out. I’ve always felt that comedy is a universal language.”
Shang’s Word Up debut
“When I used to go to New York, I’d watch a lot of poetry, too,” Kearney said. “So, I wanted to bring poetry back to Connecticut. The first artist I booked was Shang Forbes. He’s an excellent, talented wordsmith.”
On Thursday, Aug. 18 at 8 p.m., Kearney hosts his first Tucson poetry slam, Word Up, at Janet and Ray’s Caribbean, 5443 E. 22nd Street. Admission is $10 and a $50 prize will be awarded to whoever gets the most applause.
“If you know anybody who’s a storyteller,” Kearney said, “or a poet or they want to read something or if they sing, they’re welcome to come. We’re going to sign people up the night of.”
• Arte Bella, 340 N. Fourth Avenue, Tuesday, Aug. 23; $10 at the door, 420-friendly Blazed and Amused comedy showcase with music by Lew Lepley, features Celia Contreras, Hector Garcia, Liam Williams, Jen Blanco, Phil Gordon, Rebecca Fox, and Paul Fox.
• The Screening Room, 127 E. Congress Steet (presales at eventbrite.com), Saturday, Aug. 20, 8 p.m., $10; Chicano Comedy Show, featuring Humberto Roman, Cari Medina, Steena Salido, Edgar Garcia, Hector Garcia, and headliner Ernesto Ortiz.
• Tucson Improv Movement/TIM Comedy Theatre, 414 E. Ninth Street (presales at tucsonimprov.com) Thursday, Aug. 18, $7, 7:30 p.m., Improv 301 and 401 showcases; $7, 8:30 p.m. CageMatch. Friday, Aug. 19, free, 6:30 p.m., improv jam. 7:30 p.m., $7, The Soapbox with storyteller and comedian Alexis McKenzey; 9 p.m., $7, Stand Up Showcase. Saturday, Aug. 20, $7, 7:30 p.m., Battle of the Boasts; 9 p.m., $7 The Dirty Tees.
• Unscrewed Theater, 4500 E. Speedway Boulevard, (presales at unscrewedtheatre.org), $5 kids, $8, live or remote; Friday, Aug. 19, 7:30 p.m., Family-Friendly Improv. Saturday, Aug. 20, 6 p.m. Unscrewed Family Hour with Comic Chaos. 7:30 p.m., Family-Friendly Improv.