By Gab Bonesso
Pittsburgh Current Columnist
Meeting up with comedian Jaye Cooper felt like the old Abbott & Costello routine, “Who’s on First?”
We agreed to meet up at one of my favorite Squirrel Hill restaurants, Rose Tea Cafe. I was running late because that’s how I roll. So, I texted Cooper that I would be there as soon as I could.
I finally arrived to an empty restaurant, confused as to where Cooper might be. I figured he was probably in the bathroom, but texted just to make sure. He told me he was out front. I walked back out front to find him and no Cooper. OK, now I’m thinking I read the text wrong.
“Are you in the restaurant?” I texted back; he replied that he was. I walked back into the restaurant and still no one was there. At this point I assumed it was my mental state and I was hallucinating an empty restaurant.
I texted back, “Do you see me?”
At this point we realized that he was at the Oakland location and I was at the Squirrel Hill spot and “What” was on second.
Thank goodness Jaye Cooper is one of the kindest comedians in the city. He showed up at the my location 45 minutes later with a big smile and not a sense of annoyance on his face.
I figured we should order our food and then start the interview. Since he had never been to Rose Tea Cafe, I encouraged him to try one of their famous Bubble Tea drinks with Tapioca. I always get the black tea/coffee with milk, but Cooper tried the same concoction with almond milk. I warned him that the tapioca balls can seem off-putting to some people, so don’t feel bad if you hate it. He didn’t: “It was weird at first, but I like it.”
I ordered my go-to item at Rose Tea Cafe which is their Vegetarian Pan-Fried Noodles. Cooper wasn’t sure what he wanted, so the server basically designed an original dish for him. It was rice noodles, with hot beef, vegetables and extra chili sauce. Or as it will forever be known to me, The Coop Troop Original.
The Coop Troop is the name that Cooper uses for his comedy fans. I only met Cooper about two years ago and we worked together for the first time last month. I had no idea how long he’s been doing this or anything about his comedy journey.
Cooper started doing comedy almost 10 years ago after dropping out of the Pittsburgh Art Institute where he studied video production and digital media. Cooper said that the art part of school was not his problem.
“At that time, I wanted to be the next Spike Lee. I wanted to be the next John Singleton,” he says.” But, the core classes, like math, that got in his way. “Math is my kryptonite. I hate math. I can get as far as geometry. The study of shapes and that stuff. Algebra? You’re throwing letters in there, you’re throwing parentheses and crap. People are telling me that’s a variable and I’m like no that’s a letter!”
Cooper read about an open mic at the Smiling Moose and decided to go check out the show. Quickly after watching the amateurs struggle to make the audience laugh, Cooper felt that he might as well try. He quickly wrote some jokes on a napkin and asked the host if he could do a set. In that moment, he got the comedy bug.
At this point in our conversation the food arrives and it’s piping hot. His looks like a reasonable portion for an adult. Mine looks like a family style portion. In my defense I am eating for myself and the voices in my head, so we’re basically a family.
Cooper is a determined man. Every year, the Pittsburgh Improv holds a comedy contest where the winner receives paid work from the club. It’s a contest that every comic looking to work at the club enters. Cooper has entered the past five years, and has made it to the finals each time, although he’s yet to win. He says making it to the finals every year is a really good way to get on management’s radar, regardless of the outcome.
Cooper admits that the Improv tends to rely on the same group of veteran comedians to handle the open/feature slots, but he really just would love an opportunity to be in the rotation. He greatly admires the work of local comics like Terry Jones, Ed Bailey and T. Robe.
Cooper credits a lot of his success in comedy to his mentor/friend Howie Mac. Cooper got his start on Mac’s PCTV show, “Off the Grill,” with fellow comedian Samantha Bentley who played Crazy Cakes. “I love Samantha. I think she is one of the funniest people ever, and I’m happy to see that she’s finally getting the opportunities she deserves.”
We’re about 20 minutes into our meal at this point and our server asks if she can wrap up my food. I tell her that I’m still working on it. Five minutes later, she asks the same question and receives the same answer. This seems like the right time to mention that this was the last time we saw our server.
Cooper says Howie Mac really pushes him, and Cooper acknowledges that the only thing holding him back in comedy is himself.
“I’m anti-social. If it weren’t for Howie I wouldn’t even be doing it,” Cooper says. “Howie is very good at getting people involved. He is my best friend and my road dog. He definitely pushes me and tells me things like, ‘I have to make it for all of us.’ He’s my man.”
I tell Cooper that I think I have enough for the story, so I’m going to turn off my microphone so that we can just enjoy our food. We naturally spill (bubble) tea about joke thieves and bullies in the comedy community, but that conversation is off the record.
We finished our meals and both realize that the time is up on our parking meters. He parked on the street so he was safe since it was now after 6 p.m., but I was in a private lot. I added money via an app while getting up to go search for our server.
I returned to the table, unable to find one employee. Finally, a male server was in the dining room and I asked him to get my check. He responded with a look like I had just asked him to do a trapeze routine.
He returned to the dining room multiple times without my check. Once again, I get up to search for someone, and, once again, I find no one.
I go back to Cooper and say, “I need to go. I can’t keep paying for this meter.”
He jokingly asks, “Are you thinking of dining and dashing?”
“No, but yes,” I say. “I don’t know what is happening. Why won’t they take my money?”
I start to realistically contemplate the dine-and-dash, but how would that work? My editor will want a copy of the receipt and how will I explain that I robbed the Rose Tea Cafe during an interview for his paper?
Rational Gab stepped in and gained composure. I walked back to the front counter and faked a coughing attack. It worked and I was able to pay the bill so that we could go on our separate ways.
Cooper was heading to a comedy show where he was opening for Jimmy Kren, I had a Criminal Minds marathon to watch on the Sundance Channel and WHAT was still on second.