- Baldly going into taboo territory -- stand-up guy Mike Baker.
It's a disconcerting look: part giant baby, part cat burglar. But being over-the-top isn't a stretch for a white guy who enjoys riffing on race before an all-black audience.
"Tell me if I'm wrong, but I understand that among black people, there's a hierarchy of chicken," he cracks, looking out into the abyss of tables at the Robin's Nest nightclub on St. Clair Avenue. A few dozen faces stare back at him, a little bewildered. "Popeye's is the lowest. Church's is the next. And the top of the line is KFC."
A former punk rocker, performance artist, and executive chef at the Chesterland Tavern, Baker treads a fine line between making people laugh and getting the crap beat out of him. In that small way, he's selfless. He calls his racially charged set "questions in the spirit of progress and learning," addressing, among other things, usage of the word "coochie" and The Stare, which, he explains, is used by pissed-off African Americans to fend off problem whites. But it's ultimately up to the audience to decide whether they're in on the joke or just being subjected to a modern-day minstrel show.
This particular crowd reacts first with stunned silence, followed by nervous titters and a smattering of honest-to-God belly laughs. Baker disses KFC for a while, wondering why blacks would patronize a place whose mascot is a blustery overseer dressed in tip-to-tail white.
"He's the plantation owner!" he blurts, his Brillo voice scratching the ceiling. "That's Master Sanders!" He suggests that if blacks boycott KFC for just one day, it would hurt the company enough to get its attention.
"Make them stop this shit," he urges. "It's wrong. You can do it. You buy most of the chicken. If you want to get Whitey's attention, mess with his money."
Boundaries are pretty fluid at this eponymous jazz/comedy/soul food joint owned by social worker Robin Shavers -- even where the menu is concerned. The special of the day, every day, is chicken and waffles doused with a potent mixture of maple syrup and hot sauce. That dish might sound tempting, except that the cook -- a big, baritone-voiced man named Chuck -- describes its effect on the unsuspecting customer as "just like watching your wife have a baby. Once you experience it, it's the most wonderful thing in the world."
While Chuck's busy in the kitchen, Shavers keeps an ear out for two bad words she expressly forbids at her club: bitch and motherfucker. She's had to cut the mic on Baker a couple of times for such violations when he performed at the Nest's Tuesday open-mic comedy nights. She even extended the list to "cock" and "pussy" especially for him, since he'd tossed those words like chump change during a set about porn, beer, and his overpowering fascination with the female anatomy.
When she first heard the fried chicken set, she bristled a bit. But in the end, she gave it a thumbs-up. "No one was offended by it," she says. "He gives off a certain aura that he's not here to insult anybody. That it's all about having fun."
Not that her patrons were exactly prostrate with laughter. "There were a couple of places I probably shouldn't have gone," admits Baker, who also hosts the Beachland's "Lambs to the Slaughter" open mic. "But one of the guys did come up to me [afterward]. He didn't say it was funny. He said it was brave."
He admits that a crowd has to be pretty savvy to understand that he's trying to knock down racial barriers with his provocative talk, not set up new ones. "Race has been a central theme in a lot of things I've done," he says. "I think that the way we think about it is extremely complex," yet discussions about it tend to get bogged down by strict parameters of political correctness.
If the uncomprehending start throwing beer bottles, he falls back on "dick jokes," trusting that generic blue humor is truly the great unifier.
Growing up in the southern Ohio KKK hotbed of Hamilton, Baker learned pain management at an early age. The local high school, one of the few integrated spots in town, was known not for its football team, but for its race riots.
"I wasn't on any side," he recalls, noting that he was usually just trying to muscle his way out of the building without broken bones. He had black friends, but only if that's what you call kids you get stoned with behind the school. Otherwise, the implicit racial tension hung in the air between them like so much green smoke. His inability to go any deeper with those relationships fueled his adult interest in the nuances of racial tension.
A card-carrying liberal since preschool, he really got in touch with his renegade side after he saw older friends returning from Vietnam only to "down bottles of bad whiskey and cry for no apparent reason." He started a punk band called Hucklebuck, penning its big left-of-the-dial hit "Wanda," which tells the story of a homicidal maniac who dismembers his wife. Though not the most hummable party tune, it afforded Baker the chance to be tagged a "juvenile thug" in a Plain Dealer review.
But going onstage before a black crowd in the persona of a clueless white Everyman -- something he wouldn't try in front of a primarily white crowd -- has been his biggest challenge yet. To succeed, "you have to be able to get across your compassion, and you have to present [yourself] in a humanizing way. That's difficult."
On top of that, you have to be funny. Right now, Baker's fine-tuning a set about a twangy white soldier of fortune hooking up with the Nation of Islam. "If I don't do that real good, it's really gonna bomb." He might want to wear a helmet, in case the crowd isn't so forgiving.