Master of Ceremonies: Ardie Fuqua’s Rough Road Through Comedy

Ardie Fuqua is worried that he’s been too funny. “I didn’t get too many laughs, did I?” he asks, sliding into a seat next to me in the back row.

He has just finished a 25-minute set at Caroline’s on Broadway, the argyle-patterned comedy club steps from Times Square, where he is opening Tracy Morgan’s lineup of Thanksgiving Weekend shows. The sound of applause is still ringing throughout the 300-seat club, and Ardie is visibly out of breath, his forehead drenched in sweat from the heat of the spotlights.

It’s easy to understand why overshadowing Tracy would not be on Ardie’s to do list. This is one of their first performances together, and as the opening act, it’s an unspoken rule that one does not outshine the headliner. Ardie, the seasoned hype man, is aware of his place in the pecking order. “I’m just here to make the crowd happy,” he says.

Throughout the night, Ardie dutifully plays the role of right-hand-man, chatting animatedly with Tracy, laughing at his jokes and flashing big, sycophantic smiles his way. But when Tracy is out of earshot, Ardie deflates, as if the animating force that propels him so jubilantly across the stage had been snuffed out. I ask if he’s excited about the show, and he shrugs me off, as he often does when questioned: “I don’t care. It doesn’t matter. It’s just a show.” And then, later, as we vacate the green room to make way for Tracy and his entourage: “Not one person is here to see me.”

Watching Ardie perform, one would never think him capable of such melancholy. One of a handful of MC’s at the Comedy Cellar, the 30-year old Greenwich Village standup hotspot that has served as a breeding ground for many of the country’s top comics, it’s his job to keep people happy, even if the headliners should crash and burn. And years of practice have taught the 41-year old comic how to keep an audience happy. Dressed sharply, his slender 6’3” frame impeccably outfitted with blazers and button-ups plucked straight from the pages of GQ, Ardie strides and bounds across the stage, bantering with the crowd and ripping on different audience members — “I loved you on Real Housewives of Atlanta,” he shouts to one tacky, middle-aged blonde — and winning hearts by flashing his trademark, ear-to-ear grin.

In front of the crowd, Ardie is fearless, and it is this seeming invincibility that makes him such a successful opening act. While other comics rely on the MC to warm up the room, Ardie has never been afraid of what the audience thinks. “When I go on stage, I do whatever I want. I’m not afraid of the crowd,” he says. “I don’t care if they booed all the comics and are holding rifles. I don’t care.”

His confidence could be mistaken for cockiness, or perhaps merely the ease that comes with years of practice. And yet it seems that, in the snug brightness of the spotlights, Ardie truly does feel safe. Onstage, he controls the room. Comedy, for all its complexities, has a binary outcome, silence or laughter, and Ardie is a master of the science of humor. He knows what to expect. It’s once he leaves the stage that life, with its cruel twists and turns, can get scary.

* * *

Almost a year ago, on May 12th, 2012, Ardie’s 19-year-old son Jamaal went out to play basketball with friends. Jamaal was an athletic, popular boy with handsome features, the striking genetic mixture of his Black father and Indian mother. During the game, he was fatally injured after taking an elbow to the heart. He was hit, says Ardie, right at the moment his heart skipped a beat, sending him in to shock. He died in the hospital later that day.

Ardie doesn’t like talking about how his son died, perhaps because he’s still trying to make sense of something unfathomable, how such a mundane basketball injury could have such unforeseeable consequences. What was so different about this game from the millions of others played each day? What made this elbow so forceful, this mid-court collision so fatal? Why in this split-second did the heart divert from its usual, ceaseless rhythm? For the rest of his life, Ardie will wonder where God was on that day.

Ardie and Jamaal were extremely close, and his passing turned Ardie’s life upside down. Ardie has a daughter too, from another relationship, but she was raised by her mother. By all accounts, Jamaal was his whole world. Now Ardie is faced with having to pick up the pieces of his life, while still trying to make it in an industry that is hopelessly cruel on its best days. In his view, he doesn’t have a choice.

“I love performing. It’s all I got. I don’t have anything else. I don’t have anything,” says Ardie. “So I’ve got to make this work. And it’s not even that I want to make it work, it’s just going to work cause I say its going to work.”

* * *

Ardie Fuqua grew up in Jersey City, New Jersey, as part of a large, close-knit family. His father works in property development while his mother and sister own a chain of preschools in Jersey City. “They work really hard. They are very productive, positive people,” explains Ardie, who attributes his work ethic and positive outlook to the example set by his family. “I get that from my parents, that resiliency and resourcefulness. No matter what happens you find a way to make it work.”

But growing up as part of a financially successful family in a poor neighborhood, Ardie had to toughen up quickly. “I was targeted by a lot of bullies. So I became the bully killer, where I began to pick fights with people much bigger than me,” he says. While he rarely picks fights nowadays, he is always on the defensive: “That’s always in my mentality. I never hesitate, it’s just, let’s go right now.”

Even before the death of his son, life was not easy for Ardie. He “grew up hard,” and has faced his share of adversity over the years, from deaths in the family to struggles with alcoholism and drug addiction, although he has been drug free for over five years now and never drinks on the job. As he put it, perhaps hyperbolically, “I didn’t grow up going to the beach and going to parks, I grew up going to jail. Which is probably why I’ve developed such a nice disposition. People who live the hardest are often the nicest.”

Ardie first got his start in comedy while attending Rutgers University, during which time he often went to see shows at the Apollo Theater. It was after seeing a performance by Shawn Wayans, who was about the same age as him at the time, that Ardie realized that he ought to give comedy a shot. While, unlike Mr. Wayans, Ardie didn’t have the benefits of famous family to help him get his foot in the door, what he did have was talent. He started frequenting comedy clubs and before long, he was making a name for himself in the New York standup scene, rotating through the city’s many comic arenas, appearing on shows like HBO’s Def Comedy Jam and Bad Boys of Comedy, and serving as a fixture at the Comedy Cellar since the 90’s.

When I asked Tracy about his chosen opener, Tracy doesn’t mince words in praising Ardie. “He’s great. He’s fuckin’ funny.” Tracy points around at the audience as if to prove his point, who are laughing uproariously as Ardie struts and promenades exaggeratedly cross the stage. “Ardie’s a pro. We’ve been doing this a long time, he’s been doing this as long as I have” continues Tracy.

Yet while Ardie truly loves comedy, he takes a laissez faire attitude to the industry side of things, and doesn’t have a lot of patience for the star machine that surrounds it. “I’m excited about performing. Everything else I don’t think about,” he says. “I never really cared about who was getting what and why was someone else further along. I’ve got bigger problems.”

* * *

Last fall, a couple of days after the shows at Caroline’s, Ardie and I meet in the VIP room of the Fat Black Pussycat, a Greenwich Village watering hole that, along with The Village Underground, The Comedy Cellar and the adjoining Olive Tree Café, is part of owner Noam Dworman’s mini empire at Bleecker and MacDougal.

The multi-room lounge with live karaoke and groups of girls in stilettos is hardly Cheers, but it’s certainly the place where everybody knows Ardie’s name, and the comic can barely make it three feet without being stopped for a hug or kiss on the cheek. He seems to be on a first name basis with every member of the wait-staff – particularly those of the attractive female variety – but his admirers are of every stripe, and black and white, young and old, male and female come up to Ardie over the course of the night to assert themselves as card-carrying members of the Ardie Fuqua fan club.

Genevieve Joy, a peppy blonde comic who is visiting from Los Angeles, sings his praises. “There’s nobody I’ve met who doesn’t love this guy, there’s nobody I know who doesn’t think he’s amazing,” gushes Genevieve, who met Ardie four years ago when she started doing comedy. “Anybody else in the world could never pull off being so positive and wonderful cause you’d think they were a big fat phony, but in his case its one hundred percent real and one hundred percent genuine.”

Ardie certainly has his share of admirers, but that doesn’t mean that he’s afraid to make enemies, and it’s easy to see traces of the little boy from the hood who fought his way through adversity. “I’m nice if I love you. If I don’t love you I better not see you by yourself,” he says, flashing a cheeky grin. Ardie currently works at the Cellar and Standup NY, but he used to work at other clubs until his tendency to speak his mind caused him to run afoul of some of the owners and get banned. “It’s cause I talk too much. I don’t do that sit back and stare in awe shit,” explains Ardie. “Like when you walk in the room I’m gonna make fun of you, I’m gonna start talking shit to you.”

While Ardie may have burned a few bridges in his day, the Comedy Cellar is in many ways home to Ardie, and Noam Dworman, who The New York Times recently labeled as the Michael Corleone of the New York Comedy club scene (not quite right, he claims, but he’ll take it), has nothing but praise for his star MC.

“Ardie is a good MC –he’s a great MC – because he’s genuinely friendly and excited every time he gets out on stage,” says Noam. “He has a kind of boyish enthusiasm which makes the show unique.” And, in Noam’s view, losing his son hasn’t affected his quality as a performer. “At first it was difficult for him and sometimes you could detect that it was difficult, but now I think he’s back to the same as he was” he says.

* * *

However, after spending an evening with Ardie, it is hard to be convinced that Mr. Dworman has it right. Despite his many admirers, his 2,873 Instagram followers and 5,300 Twitter followers, as we sit and talk in the VIP room of the Fat Black Pussycat, away from the crowds, Ardie comes across as a man who is very much alone. He leans back on the pillow-covered benches that line the room, gradually sinking deeper until he’s almost entirely horizontal, his long legs resting up against a pole. He seems exhausted, sagging under the weight of his grief, as if it is all he can do to keep himself upright.  I ask him whether his social network has helped him get through his son’s death.

“People are supportive when they see you,” he says, “but when you’re sitting home alone and that shit hits you, you ain’t got nobody. At the end of the night when you turn that corner, you’re by yourself.”

And then a minute later he’ll leap up, going to check on an order of beers or shout karaoke lyrics down the stairs at an acquaintance crooning on the microphone in the room below. His mood oscillates, manic to depressive, teetering on the brink of normalcy.

Tracking back through Ardie’s presence on social media these past few months paints a vivid portrait of his ups and downs. His posts travel from utter despair: “Some people were put on this Earth purely to suffer. I believe I am 1 of those people. I’m all alone in the Universe. And this is my fate,” to resilience and inspiration: “Theres STRONG. And then theres ARDIE FUQUA” and “Life is beautiful… dont take the gifts you have for granted!”

Documenting his struggle online has been a major part of his recovery process, and it’s clear that Ardie is most comfortable in front of a microphone, whether on stage or via the amplificatory power of a tweet. “I just want ya’ll to know that whether I survive this, end up in an insane asylum, or the morgue, I’m not ashamed of documenting the process” he tweeted on June 4th.

His Facebook posts are met with tens, even hundreds, of likes, outpourings of solidarity from the vast reaches of his social network, and Ardie plans to continue sharing his thoughts for all to see. While he does not know what his career holds, he is determined to make a documentary about his experiences. About what specifically, I ask?

“How I survived,” he says. “If I survive.”

But somehow, one senses that he will survive. Sifting through the motivational quotes he peppers his Facebook and Twitter with, one gets a sense of how badly Ardie feels the need to stay positive, to cling to his maxims, even if he may sometimes doubt his own ability to see them through.

“Some people give up,” he says. “Some people lay down or shut themselves out, and they go poor me, or they think the world owes them something.” He fixes me with his intense gaze. “But the world don’t owe you shit, life don’t owe you shit, so you might as well take every opportunity and expand on it and get to the next level. Don’t waste your time sitting back and wondering why did this happen to me.”

* * *

Comedy is an unpredictable business. Sometimes, opportunities come along when you least expect them. And so it happens that, since we first met at Caroline’s six months ago, Ardie has experienced something of a mid-career renaissance.

Six months ago, with no representation and no major plans for film or television in the works, Ardie seemed like one of those comics who, despite his talent, was destined to fall through the cracks.

Yet as he struggled to rebuild himself in the wake of his son’s death, he found an unexpected friend and mentor in the likes of Tracy Morgan. As the two began touring together more and more in the early New Year and spending long hours on the road, Ardie found Tracy taking an interest in his career. “He was like, you’re really funny, what happened to you? Why aren’t you more successful? He said, I’m going to help you with your business sense,” says Ardie. “He’s been mentoring me, businesswise.”

In March, Ardie accompanied Tracy on a two-week bus tour of the Midwest as part of the “Excuse My French” tour. Cruising through vast expanses of Corn Belt, through Wichita and Des Moines, Rochester and Fargo, the two formed a bond beyond that of mere colleagues. “We bonded like a family,” says Ardie. “We laughed together, we opened up about personal things in our lives.”

In April, Ardie performed with Tracy and a lineup of other black comics at Madison Square Garden. Here, the jokes that he had spent years perfecting in the Comedy Cellar’s 150-seater basement met the scrutiny of a 20,000-seater arena. He killed.

In May, Ardie accompanied Tracy and his family on a two-week standup tour of Australia. “[Tracy] said I don’t take friends to Australia, I take family to Australia. And you’re my family,” says Ardie.

Down under, Ardie was surprised to receive the dividends earned from years of charming the crowds at Standup NY and the Comedy Cellar. Across the country, people who had seen him perform in New York over the years came out of the woodwork, wining and dining him at fine restaurants and touring him around their cities. “The people were so nice. They showed me a lot of love, off stage and on stage,” says Ardie of his time in Australia. “I had a ball.”

Long gone are the days when Ardie was worried about getting too many laughs or about stealing Tracy’s thunder. Now, the hierarchy between opener and headliner has evened out in to a partnership. “[Tracy] wants me to go out and hit them really hard, because he says it says it inspires him to give a really good show,” says Ardie. “He says watching me gets him in the mood for comedy. Which is a huge compliment.”

Now, back in Manhattan, career opportunities that for so long seemed unattainable have begun to avail themselves. In addition to his usual hosting jobs at the Cellar and Standup NY, he works as the studio warm-up comic for MTV’s Nikki & Sara Live, a gig he will be continuing when the show gets renewed next season. This summer, he will be accompanying Tracy on a 30-city Live Nation sponsored tour of the States. In the fall, he will be traveling with Tracy to London and Dubai. He is even in talks to produce his own half hour Comedy Central special.

“There are a lot of people behind me right now,” says Ardie. “I feel very optimistic about the future, from a career standpoint.”

He still thinks about his son every day. Even on tour, about to take the stage in some casino in Sydney and Melbourne, Ardie would find himself standing backstage in a corner, crying and thinking about his son.

“I still have to go into a corner and cry a lot,” says Ardie. “Sometimes I would just be in the audience watching Tracy and I would think of my son and how much he would love to be a part of this. Sometimes I feel like I’m just watching things through his eyes.”

And yet, unlike six months ago, he is able to get out of bed in the morning. He cleans his apartment. He socializes. He copes. Between his gigs with Tracy, his warm-up gig at MTV and his regular bookings at the Cellar and Standup NY, he doesn’t have so much time to sit around and feel sorry for himself.

“I’m lonely all the time. My son was really all I had. But life goes on and there’s nothing I can do about it. The universe is indifferent, you just have to keep pushing, you have to keep working,” says Ardie. “It’s imperative that I keep pushing forward.”

* * *

One weekend, I stop by the Comedy Cellar to watch Ardie perform his set. On stage, he is as energetic as always, calling out various audience members with his familiar roster of insults. “I love you on Real Housewives of Philadelphia!” he hollers at some scantily clad Stepford Wife, and is met with big laughs. The crowd eats up his shtick, and Ardie’s energy propels the show successfully forward, even when the other comics in the lineup falter.

Hanging around after the show, as I watch him pal around with members of the audience, joking and taking photos with them, his big grin lighting up my Instagram feed, I can’t help but be impressed at his resilience. It must take a lot to continue to keep making people smile in the face of so much pain. But Ardie has never had it easy, even before the loss of his son. So, I think, perhaps the old comedic clichés have it right. Perhaps it’s because of the pain that he continues to opt for laughter, even after having stared face first in to the darkness. Maybe, as he says, that’s why people like him so much.

“I think I come from a place of not being better than you,” says Ardie. “I know what its like to not have anything. I know what its like to experience loss. So when you understand that then you just really want to entertain people. Maybe you just try a little harder.”

Or maybe he’s just grabbing at straws, trying his best to make meaning out of meaningless tragedy, when really, it isn’t that complicated.

Maybe, in the words of Tracy Morgan, he’s just fuckin’ funny.

Photo by Corey Melton.

Anna Silman is a freelance journalist and Graduate Journalism Student at NYU.

Master of Ceremonies: Ardie Fuqua’s Rough Road Through […]