We lived in Chicago, in an apartment on 69th and Morgan. One time when I was about 5 years old, I was sitting on my mom's lap watching Ed Sullivan with her, and she was crying. I was on her lap, crying, too, and wiping her face with my little 5-year-old hand. I kept asking, "Why you cryin'?" And she said nothing. What I didn't know was that she had breast cancer. She would lose both breasts and wear a prosthetic bra. She took care of all of us kids and her mother, and so many others, though she was sick herself. And she never told a soul.
So we're watching Ed Sullivan, and he calls out Bill Cosby, who starts doing this routine about Noah's ark. And my mom started laughing and crying at the same time. When I saw this, I started laughing. And when Cosby was finished, I looked at my mom and said, "Mom, that's what I'm gonna do. I'm gonna be a comedian, so you never cry again."
I became the storyteller of South Side Chicago. I used an old Kiwi liquid shoe polish as a microphone. I'd go around the house interviewing everybody, telling stupid jokes, doing voices. I mimicked Sidney Poitier, Sammy Davis Jr., people on Laugh-In, Flip Wilson. I'd make up stories at the drop of a hat, then sometimes get a whipping because they'd say I was lying, but I just loved entertaining people. I was good at keeping my mother from crying. And I stopped crying, too, even when she died, because I was 15 and that's how I thought it was done.
When I hit my 20s, I struggled to make it. I got married at 19, and my daughter, Je'Niece, was born a year later. I worked blue collar jobs during the day and comedy clubs at night, and I was earning about $25 a year doing stand-up.
One day, when I was selling beer at Soldier Field, I fell down a flight of stairs. The way I fell, I should've been dead, so I went home, even though I really needed the $150-a-week paycheck. I sat in the apartment worrying about the light bill and the rent and wondering why I was wasting my time and energy in those clubs. And then I started thinking about my mom and what she taught me. I heard her words: Always give your best. And I wept. It was the first tear I'd cried over my mother's death, and I couldn't stop. I cried until my head hurt.
After that, whether I was playing to one or 1,000 or 10,000 people, I gave them everything. I got roughed up. I was the butt of a lot of jokes. But I kept on, because I knew what I was doing it for. My mother had it right. I wanted to be the best that I could be, first for myself, then for an audience. I love to see a smile on somebody's face, like I saw on my mother's that night. If I can tell someone a story that makes them bend over and laugh, that's bigger than anything else.
As told to Scott Frampton.