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Comedy - ATL gets a new comedy label

Shalewa Sharpe builds a legacy with Stay Eating Cookies

 

Braving the smoke and stage nerves, getting a spot on Star Bar's Monday night comedy show is one of Atlanta's most vaunted. A comic's Star Bar debut is a very nerve-racking time for sure, even more so for those daring enough to make the show their stand-up debut. 43-year-old Shalewa Sharpe started her comedy career at Atlanta's longest-running comedy show in 2009. Show after the show, she evolved from open-mic'er into one of the scene's most respected pillars. After moving to New York in 2013 to further a budding career, Sharpe returned to her old stomping grounds last spring to record a debut album.

For more than a decade, grizzled ex-punk rocker Rodney "Rotknee" Leete has been hosting arguably the best recurring comedy show in Atlanta. Starting out as a hybrid karaoke-open-mic night, Rotknee Presents Monday Night Comedy is now a full-fledged comedy showcase. After well-established comedians like Joe DeRosa and Andy Sandford began using the venue to record their own albums, Leete deemed it time to start a record label with a focus on local artists. Leete aims to bring his favorite homegrown stand-ups into the mainstream spotlight.

"We want to showcase Atlanta comics," Leete says. "Atlanta is next. California, New York, and Boston have all had their time. Chicago has had their time. Atlanta is next and I want to be the person that helped all Atlanta comedy." Rotknee Presents Records is the newest addition to a long line of Atlanta-based independent record labels.

"Atlanta has a really rich tradition of people going, 'We're great, let's put out our own records.'" RPR label manager John-Michael Bond says. "We thought that if they could do it in hip-hop and punk rock, we can do it with comedy, too." After more than a year of work and multiple recordings, the label is ready to make its debut with one of its all time favorites: Sharpe's Stay Eating Cookies.

On any given Monday, Star Bar is somewhere between decently full to jam-packed. On the night of recording Sharpe's album, it's definitely the latter. Muscling my way to the bar, I secured one of the few seats where I watched a troupe of comedians take the stage to a very receptive and energetic crowd. After the kind of warmhearted intro only a longtime friend could make, Leete cleared the stage for Sharpe. While she might not be a household name (just yet), what unfolded was an all-pro performance.

Kicking off the label strong, Sharpe's recording calmly and casually weaves through a wide range of topics. She opens with a mix of relatable jokes on '90s slang ("I'm still off the chain. I'm gonna stay off, I like it out here."), zealously high-tech vibrators, and brunching with couples. However, her comedic prowess really shines brightest when she brilliantly discusses being black in America. Her bits ruminating on black and white feminism and Macy's "special," aka black, Santa are incredibly refreshing and eye-opening. While discussing growing up in a very "pro-black" neighborhood of Brooklyn, Sharpe says her father attempted to attend Malcolm X's last address. "My father was supposed to be at that speech," she says. "My father was not at that speech because he was running late. That is the blackest thing I've ever heard."

Sharpe gives a voice — an intelligent and mature one at that — to those whose experiences often go unheard. The Stay Eating Cookies titular bit is a doozy as she analyzes a recent study on African-American vernacular English. This particular experiment asked both white and black children to describe the actions of Cookie Monster and Elmo in a series of illustrations. The results of which are deeply funny while shedding new light on ebonics (can't give the entire joke away here, of course).

This album is a roller coaster of emotions hitting multiple peaks. Instead of a steady gradual incline, Sharpe's set is peppered with dynamic jokes that could easily be the album's closer. The comic takes an honest and tactful approach with each line. At many times throughout her set, she detours into dark subjects; stories about her late-mother's stroke and her own experience recovering from an abortion start off solemn, then take a delightfully inappropriate turn. Churning out a laugh from something inherently unfunny takes incredible skill and precision — Sharpe has both in spades.

Stay Eating Cookies is a must-hear, particularly for women. The album is not just fun but emotionally satisfying. Sharpe unabashedly opens up to the listener in ways you usually don't hear, but need to. That feeling of realizing you're are not alone in an experience, no matter how small, transforms a joke from simple entertainment into a way for humans to connect. That Monday night, Sharpe reminded us of the rewards of being vulnerable in public. The dimly lit dive bar roared with laughter on par, if not more so, with recent drop-ins from celebrities like T.J. Miller, Rory Scovel, and Eddie Pepitone. While Sharpe may not be headlining many venues just yet, Stay Eating Cookies is proof she can hang with the big dogs.

At the end of the album, Sharpe ponders what kind of legacy she might leave behind. Apart from changing the snack food industry as we know it (thank you, Shalewa), Sharpe cements a permanent place for herself in the comedy world with Stay Eating Cookies. It is all that and a bag of chips, or rather, a bag of cookies.


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