I Love Comedy but I Hate Comedy Clubs

When I was in high school, as you can imagine, being a black kid born with albinism brought me a lot of negative attention. In fact, sometimes people would just yell things as they walked by me in the halls to join in with the cool kids. But, as it happens in many stories of burgeoning comedians, it made me funnier.

The verbal (and physical) abuse that I suffered in high school not only made me fast thinking enough to take a half-baked insult and turn it around on my aggressor in front of all their onlooking friends, who would then happily “switch sides” and laugh at the failing bully, it also made me popular. As my popularity grew the teasing wained. It wasn;t as cool to lash out at someone that most people liked.

Finally, my wit leads me to the New York comedy scene. At one of the first open stages I went to at New York Comedy Club, I performed my requisite 5 minutes of comedy and got some laughs. I didn’t get a TON of laughs; apparently, the New York Comedy audiences are far savvier than Minnesota high schoolers.

Immediately after I finished, the host laid into me from the stage with a statement like, “What the fuck was that guy?”

I get where he was coming from, though.  Not many black albino comedians show up to perform comedy.  When something surprises or confuses you, the safest bet is to distance yourself from it. You might also get lucky, and it could be the very last time “that guy” appeared in the New York Comedy world. “That guy” might be one of those weird stories you’d tell about “The most bizarre comedian you’ve ever seen…”.

The same feeling that I got from having to rise to the occasion and fight my way to popularity in the halls of my high school emerged in the day to day battle for stage time and respect amongst my fellow comics in the clubs.

This fight is actually ideal for many comedians.  This struggle to rise notch by notch in the pecking order of a club’s roster is where many great comics shine. Guys like Patrice O’Neil and Bill Burr probably would not be the same type of comedian if they had not gone through that gauntlet. But it wasn’t for me.

I decided to step aside and try something else.

When I began in comedy, I gave myself a couple of rules to help achieve my goals.

1. Perform wherever you can. – I did a ton of alternative shows, appeared in laundromats, anywhere I could get on stage.

2. Perform in clubs when invited. – Performing in clubs only intermittently helped me cut down on the sometimes aggressive interaction that goes hand in hand with that scene. The club comics themselves are mostly good people, but there is something about those miserable nights in front of a drunk, angry audience that occurs every once in a while that turns almost everyone involved into a dickhole.

3. Don’t engage with assholes. – What’s the point?

4. No swearing on stage until you get a TV credit. – This was a self-imposed limit I set to make sure that I was legitimately funny. Of course, there are comics who swore from the start and nailed it completely, but for me, I wanted to get on television and prove to myself that I didn’t need the crutch.

5. Speaking of crutches, only 20% of my jokes could be about my albinism. – I wanted people to know that I was a good comedian and more than a novelty.  This is a rule to which I still adhere.

I’m bringing all this up not because I think that anyone should follow suit, but because I talk to a lot of comics starting out and many believe there is only one path to being a “real” comedian. There are an infinite number of roads one could travel. Do the clubs. Do alt rooms. Hammer away at Twitter. Make a YouTube show. Try some storytelling. Put on a one-woman show, even if you’re a man. Just don’t feel trapped on one trajectory.

Has my personal system worked for me? Not completely yet but better than you might expect. I’ve been on Conan, Jimmy Kimmel, Last Comic Standing, Comedy Central, acted in several films, directed a few more and produced for television shows.

I’m of course still working at it. This is the first year I will be releasing a solo album.  Something I should have gotten to long ago. I’ll keep plugging away, and I’ll tell you how it turns out.

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