Year of the Hyena

Prison can change a guy. He can become a hardened criminal, an upstanding citizen, or…a comedian. That's what happened to Ali, owner of Houston's newest urban comedy club, Hyenas. While serving a six-year sentence for drug charges, Ali practiced cheering up fellow inmates with his fledgling material.

"To me, therapy is comedy, comedy is laughter, and laughter is happiness," explains Ali, who goes by that name only. Since his sentence ended, Ali's "therapy" has landed him road gigs, cruise gigs, an appearance on Black Entertainment Television's ComicView, roles in independent films, a regular spot on 97.9 The Box and now, his latest venture, Hyenas.

Though a fraction of the size of Houston's recently closed urban comedy spot, Jus' Jokin', Hyenas may be even more steeped in black culture than its predecessor. The club sits in a strip mall lined with Afrocentric boutiques: a natural hair care salon, a black arts gallery and a Jamaican restaurant. Portraits of Ali's favorite comedians, painted by graf artist Kid Styles, cover the outside of the 100 percent black-owned venue.

Hyenas will offer other forms of entertainment as well, including live jazz and blues nights, a Monday-night book club and a poetry open mike. Here and there, a table sports a chess set. And patrons can order food from the neighboring Reggae Hut.

Ali's favorite aspect of the location is its size. "When you're doing comedy, you want a small, intimate setting," he says.

The club serves up local comedy, with the occasional headliner, on Friday and Saturday nights. With Ali as host, novices are granted five minutes each to woo the audience, while professionals keep the momentum going and DJs GT and Hi-C build the energy between acts.

Will this be the next spot to blow up? Keeping a club alive is like serving a prison sentence. You've gotta do your time and see what happens.

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Eric A.T. Dieckman