Making it big

Looking like Aretha Franklin back in her blond days, the comedian peers out at the Dempsey's Place Amateur Night audience and asks all the big girls to show some love. There are a few timid titters, but no one really responds. She steps closer to the crowd.

"Some of ya'll don't know ya'll big. Don't let me do a room search." The crowd laughs and all the big ladies clap loudly.

"That's more like it," she says.

CoCo, who has been called Detroit's first lady of comedy, has been cracking up the city's streets since 1991 with her sharp wit and chilling-on-the-front-porch style of "keeping it real" humor.

When she tells the Amateur Night audience that she's under a lot of pressure, the crowd leans forward to hear what could be pressuring this funny lady.

"I got this tight girdle on," she says. "It feels like somebody got handcuffs around my waist."

That's the kind of joke audiences have come to expect from CoCo, a 6-foot-2, stout, honey-colored comedian who sports a short, blond fade. As she explains, comics usually address certain aspects of their lives when they're on stage. Her jokes, as she puts it, are about "adjusting to life from a full-figured perspective."

A full-figured sistah from the 'hood of Highland Park, that perspective includes a humorous take on real-life experiences such as traveling in tight airline seats and dating men with the right girth.

"I don't date thin guys," she jokes. "Their knees dig into me, their elbows are sharp. I like something to hold onto. With some skinny men it's like hugging a pair of scissors."

She's also become an expert in dressing for success, with her own set of fashion do's and don'ts. She calls them DWI's -- Dressing Without Instruction.

"Big women have to be aware of their bodies," she explains. "Something they think might look good might have to be altered or dressed up or down to get the look they're trying to achieve."

CoCo says she frequently dispenses fashion advice, especially about casual clothing.

"Big girls don't know that they can go to a man's store and get T-shirts, jeans and designer jogging suits that fit nice," she says. Her advice to anyone getting dressed: Before you commit a DWI -- ask someone's opinion.

Laughing large

CoCo, who keeps her real name secret, says she's had a strong sense of humor since junior high school.

"I've always been witty and sometimes sarcastic," says the 35-year-old single parent. Even her daughter, 13-year-old Tyffanie Walton, thinks her mom is funny. She also finds her mother's popularity wonderful and glamorous -- even when they're out having dinner and fans constantly interrupt.

However, comedy wasn't CoCo's first calling.

Pam McCants is director of nursing at Pembrook Nursing Center in Detroit, where CoCo used to work as a nurse -- and was always the life of the party.

"In long-term care, there are challenges," says McCants. "CoCo would always say something to make everybody laugh. She got us through a lot of days."

But when CoCo's sister died, of a stress-related stroke at the age of 38, it was an emotional and spiritual nudge to try new things. CoCo began to consider leaving the bedpans and aspirin behind.

"I had a lot of time to think about how quickly our lives come and go," CoCo explains. "I said to myself, 'Nursing is not enough for me.'"

Comedy seemed to be a natural choice. "I had a lot of energy and needed to direct it somewhere."

That was in 1991, the year a friend invited her to participate in a comedy club's amateur night. She's been on a roll ever since.

At first, she tried to do both nursing and comedy, but in February, 1995, she left the caregiver role entirely to deliver laughter in unmeasured doses.

She misses her patients but says, "God had bigger plans for me."

At the mention of God, CoCo explains that her spirituality is a constant, growing part of her psyche.

"I pray a lot for humility," she says. "In the entertainment business, people become so full of themselves."

It would seem that in order to succeed, an entertainer would have to be egocentric, but not CoCo. Fans describe her as down-to-earth, real, easy to relate to, nice -- and of course, funny.

"People relate to me and are comfortable with me," explains CoCo. "I'm non-threatening."

Female and funny

CoCo's fans, whether they've seen her at a local club or on television on BET or HBO, might have watched her stash a drink -- ice, glass and liquor -- in her blouse, and then proceed to drink it while performing.

"I started off with an ashtray and a pack of cigarettes," she says. After that got the laughs, she decided to try drinks.

"I strategically position the stuff," she explains. The act is so popular, people describe her by it: "That's the lady that does the titty joke," she says.

Being female and funny can be a tough mix. "It's a male-dominated profession," CoCo points out. "You have to be hard-nosed."

CoCo says there is a double standard for women in comedy. For instance, she observes, women are often frowned upon for using sex as a topic, but men are not.

CoCo, for her part, says her material revolves around all aspects of womanhood.

"Women are not all sex," she says. "Talking about sex is just not where I choose to be comedically."

She also avoids making jokes about her daughter and her baby's daddy. "There are just certain areas I don't get into on stage," she explains.

Besides, she doesn't need to. Going to the beauty parlor, meeting people at the neighborhood store, and attending African-American weddings and funerals all provide plenty of comic moments to bring to her act.

"I can't think of any other funnier woman comedian who is risqué with a lot of class. She's always kept it real and that's what made her audience grow," says De'Angelo Alexander, former manager of the now-closed All Jokes Aside comedy club.

While CoCo's stage act is highlighted by physical jokes, her sharp wit comes across loud and clear on the radio, where she's a ready breakfast companion on radio station WJLB-FM 98.

She first started working with the station by hosting the "Ladies Night Out" concerts it sponsored, but two years ago, when women comedians were first appearing as guests on urban radio shows, WJLB offered her a daily spot.

Listeners such as Glynis Thornhill appreciate CoCo's morning dose of laughter. "I think she's hilarious and the morning show is better with CoCo," says the Warren resident.

Especially funny are her barbs about candy-colored 'gators (alligator shoes), her shout outs, and her "ghetto fabulous" definitions.

Here's CoCo's test to determine if you're ghetto fabulous: If you wear $1,000 outfits and cash your check at the liquor store because you have no bank account, you're GF. Or if you drive a $50,000 car and live in your mother's basement, you're GF. If you're still unsure, listen to WJLB and CoCo will be sure to let you know.

Making it big

Although WJLB has afforded CoCo much exposure, she considers it a bridge that's helped take her from one point in her aspiring career to the next.

Since Motown left the city, says CoCo, there are fewer places for comedians to work and perfect their craft. She prefers to perform out of state, where there are more venues for her talents. But as they say, if you can make it in Detroit, you can make it anywhere.

Detroit's hard-to-crack audiences obviously prepared CoCo for all types of on-stage mishaps.

Once, CoCo was performing in Chicago and fell while walking on stage. She had a huge gash on her leg, which was bleeding all over her white outfit. She got back up and performed, but not without addressing the fall as a minor fluke. "I'm a big girl," she said to the audience. "I tend to be a little clumsy."

CoCo might have been clumsy that one night in Chicago, but her jokes haven't fallen off. She continues to make a name for herself on the national tour circuit, and has fans in Chicago, North Carolina, Washington, D.C., and Toledo. She's also been on comedy tours with other well-known comics such as DL Hughley, Samoa and Cedric the Entertainer.

She figures the next step is obvious: Steven Spielberg, Warner Bros. or Spike Lee will call and offer her a million-dollar contract. She laughs at the thought, but she's as serious as a funny person can ever be.

However, no matter where CoCo ends up, she'll always come home.

"If I leave Detroit to work on a major project, I'm coming back," she assures. "I love my people in Detroit. Detroit is one of those cities where everybody is a star."

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