American stand-up comedian Reginald D. Hunter is currently touring the UK, arriving to do a show in Nottingham later this month. Platform’s Josh Giltrap caught up with him to discuss all things comedy.
Did you find you took to stand-up immediately, or did you bomb that first show? A lot of comics somehow keep coming back after they mess up that first time.
Oh it hurts. Bombing hurts; it doesn’t matter if it’s your first day or you do it five times a show when you bomb that hurts. That’ll stick with you all night.
Would you say you bombed that first night?
No, I didn’t actually bomb that first night. I probably had the best time on stage out of all the other comedians. First of all I only did ten minutes, where everyone else was doing 20. I’m sure the audience knew from the introduction that it was my first time so it was kind of like they were routing for me already. I was the only not-white guy on the bill, and sometimes white audiences, they can be like (shouts) “yeah f*** this w****r errrgh” and then I come on and everyone’s like (quieter) “…what the f*** is this?” And so it was… when the audience is looking at their own, they know specifically what kind of electricity they can have if they want to so they can decide if they don’t like you, or what part of the country you from, or the way he dresses, but being there black and American it’s like “what are you doing here?” and so, that worked out pretty well for me. I think, I guess in about 4500 gigs I’ve probably bombed ten times, but my bombings were epic.
Do you have any of those you’d be willing to share?
Ummm… Military escort after a military gig. I said some stuff that like… I have this philosophy that if the audience have decided that they don’t like you, and it’s been like that from the start, and there’s no way of pulling it back, then you might as well go into them other third jokes. If you’re gonna dislike me, why don’t I make you hate me? It’s that James T Kirk rule. Sometimes, in order to like, ensure the greater good, you have to show that you are perfectly willing to blow up the Enterprise.
Out of interest, do you remember what joke it was that turned the audience against you?
Yes, I do. I don’t want it reprinted though (laughs). Let’s just say that after it happened, I called home, and I told my sister what I’d said and (laughs), she was like “you shouldn’t have said that.” Some of them were offended. What I said, I said to one person, because I was mad at one person in the audience, but I managed to have a lot of collateral damage. I was like “You mad too?”
Have you since found better ways to deal with hecklers and keep the audience on your side?
Dealing with a heckler, there’s many different ways that that can go. One of the things you have to determine is if they’re right. Sometimes you can mess up real bad, because as soon as they hear someone talking, they think heckling. But he may not be a heckler; he might just be a joiner. He might just be agreeing with you. Sometimes if you turn too quickly on somebody for heckling but they’re just talking, that can turn the audience against you because the audience is like “well that could have been me.” And the other kind… what I do, since I’ve been doing comedy over the years and sometimes I get heckled, I haven’t got all of accents down, so I couldn’t understand what a person was saying sometimes. But, I could make out their tone, and so it’s like, when people are being shitty, there’s a tone that comes with it. Whereas when people… sometimes there might just be some innocent young girl in the audience just correcting your language like ‘oh you meant to say’ and you just hear (singsong) “da da da”, and you think ‘well I can’t hear the words, but the tone doesn’t seem shitty. And then the other times when a heckler, if you leave him enough room he will annoy the audience, and the work is done for you and all you have to do is let somebody just go over there and put their finger on the shoulder and be like “doink.”
How long was it until you returned to America to perform stand-up?
It would have been 2009 when I went back for the first time. I went to New York. Nope that’s not true. It would have been about maybe 2005 I went home to Atlanta, and while I was in Atlanta I got offered some gigs, and I did three nights at a comedy club in Atlanta. But I guess since my family was there each night, doing it in your own town or your own state, for me has like a different tension to or added tension. I guess I don’t really count going back to work in America until 2009.
How does racial comedy differ in America?
In America, if I talk about race. I mean, our history is steeped in race, so there’s a lot of things I don’t have to say. Whereas over here racism, American racism in particular, is such a peculiarity. Regular people over here, they try to understand it like you’re watching a documentary like ’they really do that?’ Even British racists over here look at American racism and they go ‘wow, they really do that?’ It’s a peculiar thing, so it’s like, I feel like sometimes when I’m doing a joke about American racism over here, I have to give them more understanding for context than I would, say, an American audience. In America I can say “so the other day this big white cop pulls me over” and an American audience would just go “ohhh shit” (laughs) But over here in Britain everyone will just go “Oh, a cop, well you should be OK” (laughs) “That should work out perfectly fine.”
How does performing in America differ from in the UK – it seems to be a lot more joke/punchline instead of a long setup with American comedy.
There’s a difference between a comic and a comedian. A comic is someone who tells jokes. He tells them in a rhythm too, you know, and it’s premise-setup-punchline, premise-setup-punchline. You can almost set your watch by it, and television is easier for a comic than for a comedian. You can tell a comic “I want you to do exactly ten mintues” and a comic will come in at nine minutes and 55 seconds. But a comedian, he might come in at 15, he might come in at five minutes. It’s just a comic has funny jokes, but a comedian, you know, he has some stories, he has some jokes, but overall he’s just interested in being funny. One’s not better than the other, they’re just slightly different. Some people are great at being an MC, but they struggle doing a set. I’m the reverse. I love doing sets, but I’ve only compered five or six times – because I’m awful at it. Now you would think that I would be just as good doing that as doing stand-up, but sometimes it’s a little different what people are comfortable with in what they like.
So you would consider yourself more of a comedian than a comic?
Oh definitely, I would consider myself a comedian, but it’s good to have as many skills as you can. Coming to America in 2009, I went to New York and I did 17 gigs in ten days. Being in New York, New Yorkers they’re just faster. They get rude faster, talk to strangers faster, and they talk about fashion, you do your time. Don’t fuck around doing more than the ten minutes you’ve been booked to do. Do your time. I wanted to develop my comic skills, I wanted to get them back because the less I’ve done comedy clubs, and the more I’ve done theatres and such, I lost my comic. I want that gear. Somebody may come to me one day and say “I want you to do ten minutes on TV for a million dollars.” And if they do I can’t just sit there and go “well I’m a comedian, urrr I dunno if I can do that length of time or not. I don’t wanna do that. I can’t do that.” I admire comics, I mean like, I envy them in a lot of ways, that rhythm that boom-boom-boom-boom. Comics are more repeatable, it’s like “Let me tell you this joke this comic did.” And usually it’s like if they need somebody to come in and fix up a comedy script, they usually hire a comic. I mean, you know, being a comic is probably more lucrative.
What kind of process goes into writing your sets?
Well, I take an idea, which becomes a joke, and then you get many jokes, and then you have a set. You have to start from the rudiments of that. I started from the perspective of ‘what would I enjoy telling?’ If you enjoy telling something, then you make it better than what it is, since you’re telling it. So I look at stuff that I think I would enjoy.
Would you mind saying a bit more about that 2005 gig in Atlanta?
I would say I had mixed success. Every time there was family in the audience. It was in this upmarket redneck part of town. So like, you’ve heard of like ‘ghetto rich’ – well this is redneck rich. Each night half the audience were these redneck rich people, and the other half were these black folks wearing their Sunday best. So it was weird. They came divided, but I possibly divided them more. But with rich rednecks, and black folks in their Sunday suits, how could I be held responsible?
In your Songs of the South series, you showed how the music in the area was able to challenge and transcend the racial boundaries of the time. Would you say that comedy has a similar power?
I think it’s just entertainment. I think whatever problem white supremacists have had with black people in America historically; they’ve never had a problem with us entertaining them. Whether it’s music, comedy, and especially food. So those things help you find some form of equilibrium. They can help you stay alive, but you just have to look at the current situation in America. People ask is it better in America now for black people? We have the highest incarceration rate – like, 15% of the population, and 85% of the prison population. You’ve seen how law enforcement has been treating young black males in particular, and this ain’t nothing new. It seems new because of video and camera phones and such so, you know, you tell me. Excuse me though, we have a black president, so I guess things are much better.
Where did you get the title of your current tour The Man Who Attempted To Do As Much As Such?
It was kind of an ode slash p***-take of Dr Suess. But at the same time it was also about how I was attempting to talk about everything I’ve attempted to do in the recent four-year period.
So is this a departure from material you’ve done previously?
I don’t know, probably. I don’t really watch my stand up, and I know that I’m evolving, and I’m very different than I was say a year ago. So if the man is different, how can the thing he do be the same?
What kind of things have you been going into on the tour so far?
Well let’s see [chuckling], examining hatred, public apologies, sexual debt, sexual austerity…
Lastly, what advice would you give to aspiring comedians?
You can talk all the theory you want, you can watch all the DVD’s you like, take all of the classes you want. But there is no substitute for actual stage-time. The more stage time you got, the more you’re relaxed, and can figure out how to be yourself onstage.
Reginald’s stand-up tour, ‘The Man Who Attempted To Do As Much As Such’ comes to Nottingham’s Royal Concert Hall on Friday 19th June. For tickets and information, please click here.