As the sun set behind trees in the distance, performers went over the material they’d prepared. The lights, microphones and loudspeakers were set up. Two hundred people sat in folding chairs, the smell of barbecue in the air, as they talked and laughed at the Malcolm X Memorial Foundation Sunday evening.
It was exactly what Carlos Tibbs would have wanted. The Omaha standup comic died Aug. 19 from COVID-19. He was 34. His mother, 50, died two days earlier. The event, called “Laughter Over Sorrow” featuring music and comedy, was an ode to their lives.
“We owe this to Carlos,” said local comic Joshua Littrell, who performs under the stage name Joshua El’Stupo.
Throughout the evening, a lineup of seven comedians took turns performing. Many in the crowd stood and danced to local gospel and R&B bands during intermissions between comics. Littrell, who organized, produced and emceed for the event, believes that this is how Tibbs would want to be remembered, with a joyous celebration of life.
Tibbs was a rising star in comedy when he passed. Just last year in February, he won the Omaha Entertainment and Arts Award for Outstanding Comedian. The Omaha native made a name for himself not only locally, but also through national tours and opening for national comics who stopped in Omaha. But his best asset might have been in promoting others, Littrell said.
“[Carlos] was a walking brand,” Litrell said. “He wasn’t trying to convince somebody to come to the show. When you met Carlos, you knew that you wanted to come to the show.”
Littrell chose the name of the event, “Laughter Over Sorrow,” to remind everyone how Tibbs could bring laughter into the world, even during the most difficult times. Even before Tibbs death, the pandemic struck many in Omaha’s comedy scene and the community beyond. Unemployment, cancelled shows, sickness and death have been pervasive. But in the bad times, Tibbs always found a reason to laugh. Littrell felt this benefit show could do the same thing.
“Lots of people are gonna laugh tonight that have already cried,” Littrell said. “The crying part is not for tonight. We don’t want how he passed to overshadow how he lived.”
The lineup consisted of Tibbs’ close friends from the comedy community, including Jay Roach, Beezy Panero, Kil Theodrick, George “Zilla” Brookins, Jason Regan and headliner MC Lotto from Houston, Texas. Many of the performers began their set with a moment of silence to honor Tibbs.
The comics did not take the opportunity to perform for granted. The spread of COVID-19 has made it difficult to hold standup shows, with many venues closing their doors.
The shows that have found a way to take place look a lot different than they used to, and Sunday’s performance was no exception. The crowd sat in lawn chairs brought from home, spaced out across the open field to follow social distancing protocols, and many of those in attendance wore face masks.
During his set, Kil Theodrick, joked about how strange it feels performing at outdoor venues.
“I’m glad they found a way for us to do comedy again. They’ve got us doing comedy out here in the wilderness,” Theodrick said. “When I’m quiet you can hear bugs in the background. If I bomb, there’s really gonna be crickets!”
Littrell said Tibbs’ passing is a reminder to local comics that they should not take doing what they love for granted.
“Always perform like it’s your last time,” he said.
Between ticket sales, concessions and donations from the community, Littrell announced at the end of the night that the event raised about $1,500 for the Tibbs family. Tibbs’ father, Maurice Cullum, said he plans to donate the money to his son’s favorite charities, although he didn’t mention any specifically.
Littrell hoped that when the crowd departed at the end of the night they would carry the night’s message with them in their life.
“It’s a choice, laughter over sorrow. We’ve got a lot of things going on right now that make you feel down,” Littrell said. “You’ve got to turn your pain into power.”