Fools Circle all started in a basement. Host Jonathan Teklai’s basement in Brooklyn, to be exact. It was the Bay Area native’s 30th birthday, and what better way to celebrate than to host “a roast of my life”? That first stand-up comedy show/house party mash-up happened in December 2018, and the “pop-up comedy party” has been, well, popping up ever since at venues all over the country.
You already know what’s coming: Any place you’d describe as a “venue” wasn’t exactly up for hosting a pop-up anytime spring 2020, and anything resembling a house party was canceled indefinitely. So Teklai took the show to Prospect Park — and then did it again, 14 more times within the last year.
“At first, I wasn’t sure if I should do a show because it was around June 18, which was a few weeks after George Floyd’s death, and I didn’t want to be one of those people being irresponsible by doing an event,” says Teklai. “And then everyone thought our comedy show was a Black Lives Matter protest.” One comedian even called it “the official BLM afterparty,” he adds with a laugh. “As soon as the first comedian went on, I knew it was great. The response was like ‘Oh my God, thank you so much. I haven’t seen my friends in so long. I can’t remember the last time I laughed like this. I can’t remember the last time I was so present.’”
That’s the thing about Fools Circle — it isn’t just about stand-up or the music coming from the DJ set up under the tent. It’s about transforming the park into a place for friends and strangers, mostly Black people and POC, to meet up in an intimate, safe, open-air space to just be, together. While the shows are free, if you are listening closely, you’ll hear Teklai making jokes on the mic about how the audience can donate through Venmo and Cash App between sets. “I like to throw out how to support in-person because when people are laughing, they feel more generous,” Teklai says.
For its summer 2021 tour, titled “N[- - - - -] in Nature,” Fools Circle expanded the comedy, music, and vibes beyond the green spaces of Brooklyn, taking its unconventional stage to cities like Oakland, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia. “I call it a ‘comedy show for n[- - - - -]’ sometimes when I’m on the stage, but I like to mix it up. It’s not for all Black people,” Teklai explains. “Very intentionally not. I try to have three women, three men, and usually I’ll have one non-Black slot. I open it up to people who I’m friends with who I think have jokes that the crowd would like.” There’s a sharpness to the humor that Teklai is most drawn to, he says. “It’s right in the middle of Def Comedy Jam and Key & Peele.”
I first heard about Fools Circle last summer, when two friends left our beach day early to attend a “comedy show party” in the park that brought together comedians like Courtney Bee, Clark Jones, and Jocelyn Chia and DJs like KittySayWord and Stonie Blue. Eventually, I tagged along. (By the way, while Teklai’s Brooklyn summer finale show happened on September 26, he already has plans for upcoming shows in L.A. on October 10 and Washington, D.C., on October 17.) What stayed with me wasn’t the jokes — it was the refreshing, fortifying feeling that hit me, as a Black woman, looking around at this green, picnic-blanket-covered outdoor space, surrounded by well over 100 Black bodies, the beauty of their smiling faces, and the sounds of their belly laughs. Think of it as group therapy, but funnier.