Near the end of Quincy Jones’ stand-up set at this weekend’s Pittsburgh Comedy Festival, it looked like he might have gone too far — the room quieted as he playfully tried to riff on a hypothetical scenario in which black people enslaved whites.
Jones commented on black people’s ability to take over previously white-only activities from national sports and composing music to becoming the president of the United States. He later speculated what would happen if the theater’s doors locked and the white people in the audience became enslaved.
“The only thing black people haven’t gotten a fair opportunity to do — I really feel like you need to open up your hearts to — is to be slave masters,” Jones joked. After seeing the nervous faces of several white audience members, Jones, who is black, tilted his head back and cackled loudly.
“I’m in control,” Jones said after the show. “Even if it doesn’t seem like I am, I know exactly what I’m doing. It’s just organized chaos, like the Libertarian Party. For me, when I riff, I know exactly what the audience is feeling and how far I can go.”
Jones performed at Pitt’s Henry Heymann Theatre as part of the third annual Pittsburgh Comedy Festival, which was held last Thursday, Aug. 25, through Sunday, Aug. 28. The headliners included Jones and improv troupes, such as Sheldon, Friendly Neighborhood Improv and LGBTQ*Bert, Pittsburgh’s only all-LGBTQ+ improv group, who all performed in the basement of the Stephen Foster Memorial last weekend.
By the end of his set, Jones had the audience roaring once again by ending the show with a light joke about a teenager patronizing him for not knowing how to use filters on Snapchat.
Thursday and Friday’s headliner, Jones, 32, is a stand-up comedian diagnosed with Stage IV Mesothelioma in August last year. After raising $50,000 on Kickstarter for his dream of filming an hour-long comedy special, he appeared on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” and was given his first HBO special, “Burning the Light,” this year.
The Pittsburgh Comedy Festival, a nonprofit organization, was founded in 2013 and is a project of Comedy Arts Pittsburgh, an arts organization that aims to promote the awareness of comedy as an art performance as well as the growing comedy scene in Pittsburgh.
In addition to the live performances, the festival also offered workshops for incorporating comedic skills into everyday life, improv for beginners and more advanced workshops for experienced comedians. The festival implemented a pay-what-you-can program, letting attendees choose their own price when purchasing tickets for both workshops and performances.
Anna Reilly, marketing director and executive committee member of PCF, said the festival attempts to “bring comedy out from basements and smoky bars — where it’s usually done and associated with — and put it in a theater with red velvet seats — a beautiful space — so it feels like a performance.”
Reilly said last year’s festival, which hosted “Parks and Recreation” star Aubrey Plaza, further exposed Pittsburgh’s bustling comedy scene, adding that “there’s a lot more packed houses in the different theaters that are having comedy performed. There’s more people doing it, and there’s more people seeing it.”
In his hour-long set, Jones dissected the presidential election, fast food gimmicks and how the struggle of abstaining from cheating on a woman can be compared with turning down free samples at Costco. Amid controversial topics, Jones crossed social and comedic barriers by asking attendees to raise their hands if they are racist.
At one point, Jones teased specific audience members, such as mocking a woman’s choice of cereal, imitating a man’s British accent and sitting down in an empty seat in the first row to berate a man for having the “audacity” to wear leopard-print shorts but not to laugh throughout his entire set.
“People from Pittsburgh have a certain type of strength to them and are not sensitive,” Jones said. “[Pittsburgh] is a friendly city. It’s a hard-working city. It has a history. How can you not like a city like this?”
Although the festival will not be around again until next year, there are several comedy venues in Pittsburgh to help pass the time. Downtown Pittsburgh’s Arcade Comedy Theater, a sponsor of PCF, is open to college-aged students, as is Unplanned Comedy in Lawrenceville.
“I think that [after PCF], the people of Pittsburgh are pleasantly surprised at the different voices that exist here, what is happening here, names they may have never heard of, genres and styles they may have not been familiar with,” Reilly said. “We are trying to inspire people and unite our community in a creative way.”