A Stand Up Kind of Guy

Stand-Up Comedian Marvin Lee goes for the laugh.

Photos by Liesa Cole

Being raised in the Deep South in a multicultural family, Marvin Lee quickly learned how stupid, narrow-minded, and intolerant people could be. Unfortunately, those people were usually his family members. But a least they were “equal–opportunity–stupid–narrow–minded–intolerant people,” where race wasn’t a factor. It was only in the real world where Lee saw these feelings in others being rooted in skin color. In school, Lee noticed that his white friends would ask him about the things that black kids did, and the black kids would ask him about things the white kids did. Lee found himself becoming the un-official ambassador between the races. A noble calling if Lee’s twisted mind didn’t enjoy making up the craziest answers to their questions.

This wasn’t mean spirited; Lee was just amazed how people living in the same area could be so clueless about each other.

In college Lee started modeling as something interesting to do and to earn some money on the side. One day the modeling agency got him a gig manning a booth at an event called Campus Fest at the University of Alabama. As a bonus the school threw in a free ticket to see Sinbad performing live that day. A long time Sinbad fan and with nothing better to do, Lee went into the school gym — the only place large enough to hold such a large audience — to watch the show. There, his life was changed forever! Seeing so many people from different ages, colors, and backgrounds sitting there laughing and hanging on every word that Sinbad said was almost a religious experience. But beyond the laughter the biggest thing Lee noticed is how everyone came together and just celebrated the human condition. There were no black people, no white people, just… people all sitting there laughing and having a great time. At that very moment Lee knew he wanted to become a stand-up comedian.

Lee graduated from the University of Alabama at Birmingham in Broadcast Communications with a specialty in Marketing and Public Relations and a minor in Graphic Arts. His plan was to get a job at an advertising agency, a field that he felt was the closest thing to a “corporate” job that he could do and on the side and still practice stand-up comedy. Lee got a part- time position at the local comedy club. At least this way, Lee could work on his stand-up comedy skills while he tried to land a position in advertising.

Like a scene right out of an old Hollywood movie, Lee’s “big break” came one evening in 1993 when the opening act couldn’t make the show so the club owner “under considerable pressure from his wife” gave Lee his chance on the big stage. “All you have to do is go up there, say a few light jokes, tell the people about the drink specials, let them know about upcoming events and introduce the acts,” said the club owner. Lee did it and got a lot of laughs… or so he thought. “Looking back on it I probably did okay but I didn’t bring the roof down or anything. Realistically I probably earned about a C+,” said Lee. “Back then I can’t honestly say that I could evaluate how good I was versus how good I thought I was, no comic can that early starting out. One thing that that I did know for sure was that I wasn’t any worse than any of the other opening acts.” After that I kept pushing the club owner to give me more opportunities on the big stage like he was doing with some of the other comics but that was met with a lukewarm response,” said Lee.

For the next few years, Lee traveled all over the country doing comedy gigs wherever he could get them. After seeing how badly some people ran their comedy clubs, Lee decided to open up his own club and on July 2nd called: Lee’s Joke Factory in Anniston, Alabama.  Lee thought that putting a comedy club right between the comedy clubs in Atlanta and the Stardome Comedy Club in Birmingham would prevent any hostility and territorial feuds with any other clubs so he was willing to make the 140-mile round-trip drive from Birmingham to Anniston to carve out his own piece of comedy club territory.  “More than anything I wanted my club to be different than any comedy club,” said Lee. “My club was going to be a comedian-friendly comedy club. A comics, comedy club if you will.” It did not work for very long.

After the Joke Factory closed, Lee went back to being a professional comedian working harder than ever. One day he did a show at a comedy festival in Charleston, SC. The next day he got a write up in the local paper from one of the paper’s critics.

“Marvin Lee reminds me of a younger slightly edgier Sinbad. If Sinbad decided to rage against the machine, you would get Marvin Lee.”

Lee read the article and smiled and said, “I knew I was funny. I knew I was very funny.” That rare combination has led Lee to have an unbelievable work ethic that he applies to his professional and personal life and has allowed Lee to travel all over the world.

One night Lee was performing at a comedy room in Japan that catered to U.S. Soldiers stationed overseas. During his show he noticed that there was an American couple sitting in the middle of the audience who wasn’t laughing. At the end of the show the husband approached Lee and said, “I know you saw us in the audience and thought that we weren’t enjoying your show, and I’m here to tell you that that wasn’t the case at all. You see my wife’s mother just passed after a long bout of cancer and she has been so depressed these last few weeks that I haven’t even been able to get her out of the house. Finally today I convinced her to get out and we happened to pass the sign outside advertising a comedy show. I had hoped that I could just get my wife to take her mind off of her mother for a minute or two, but when you did your show, I noticed that she actually started to laugh a little. Then about the time you were finishing up my wife turned to me and said, ‘I think everything is going to be okay now.’ You have no idea how much you helped my wife tonight, and I wanted to personally walk up to you and say… thank you” The man put out his hand and Lee just stood there slack-jawed, shaking the man’s hand in amazement. “God gave you a gift, and don’t you dare let anyone take that away from you, no matter what!” Then the man’s wife walked up to Lee and hugged him tightly, and quietly said, “Thank you.”

“I realized at that moment that even though I had never met Sinbad before I was sure that I had made him proud,” said Lee.

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