‘There’s a Purpose Behind the Funny’

A STAND-UP GUY: Michael Jr. says his approach to comedy didn't change after he became a Christian; his faith just gave him more important things to talk about.

Comedian Michael Jr. was a newcomer to New York City in 2001 when veteran comic George Wallace caught his show and gave him his big break. That same night, his manager invited him to church. He’s been mixing funny and faith ever since. News & Religion editor Christine A. Scheller talked to Michael Jr. about his work and that of fellow comedian Reggie Brown. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

URBAN FAITH: We recently interviewed Reggie Brown about his Obama impersonation at the Republican Leadership Conference in New Orleans. Do you have any thoughts on his performance?

MICHAEL JR.: I don’t think enough people knew he was an impressionist. Some people look alike to some people, let me just say that. There was at least a percentage of people in the audience that really thought that was [President Obama]. Then when they hear what he’s saying, nobody wants to look like they’re dumb. I think what he was doing was some funny stuff.

Do you do race jokes in your routines?

Not really. I’m an observationist, so I notice some things that people do like if two white guys are walking down the street right toward one another, they make eye contact. They have a tendency to smile and tilt their heads down towards one another. For black people, we do the opposite. We frown and tilt our heads up. I actually do those motions on stage and it’s like an “ah ha” moment for everyone in the audience, because everyone has seen that before, but very few have really acknowledge it. Comedy’s best friend is tension and there’s a little bit of tension there already, so I look for something that’s a little harder to get at and try to make that funny.

Your BlackBerry video is really funny. It’s not about race, but it’s a smart use of it.

We wanted to make it feel like it was the real deal. If you look, I never laugh in the whole thing. There’s literally nothing funny being said; it’s just visually funny.

At what point did you become a Christian, because one of your routines is about learning how to pray?

I grew up in Michigan, but then I moved to New York. I got a place to live and I started hitting the clubs. I performed at one club, The Comic Strip Live, and George Wallace walks in. He sees my show and he walks up to me afterwards and says, “You’re really funny. Let me ask you a question: Why don’t you curse?” I was like, “I don’t know. What if my grandmother walked in or something?”

He laughed and said, “I’d like you to do a show with me and my best friend.” I go to do the show and I don’t even know who his best friend is. It’s me, him, and Jerry Seinfeld. After the show my manager said, “Michael, you wanna’ go to church with me tomorrow?” “Church? I just got two standing ovations, why do I gotta’ go to church? That don’t make sense.”

I went to this church called the Christian Cultural Center in Brooklyn, New York, and this dude is up on stage talking about Jesus. He ain’t screaming. He ain’t yelling. He ain’t got no perm. He’s just talking about Jesus. He did an altar call and I was like, “Nah, I don’t know what this is about. I gotta’ read the pamphlet first.” So I told myself I’d read the whole Bible before I went up to the altar. I didn’t know the Bible was that big. It took three months. I went up to the altar. Now I understand some stuff. I used to just think I was funny, but now I understand that I’m funny for a reason. There’s a purpose behind this funny. I don’t just happen to be funny.

Did becoming a Christian change how you thought about and performed comedy?

I just got broader. I got more knowledge, more understanding about myself and the value of other people as well. My comedy was pretty much the same. It was always clean, so I just went up on stage and talked about the same things, but from the abundance of the heart the mouth will speak. As I started getting the Word in me and the truth, being in different atmospheres, being in different churches I started to notice different things, so naturally that’s what you’re going to start talking about.

You made a documentary called The Road Less Traveled about doing comedy in jails and shelters. Are you still performing in those places?

We’re in the process of solidifying a non-profit. Initially it was something that I felt in my heart clearly that we should do it. We filmed it, but it was all new then. I just performed at an abused women’s event. We do that type of stuff as much as we can.

What is the key to getting people laughing when their life circumstances are challenging?

The whole reason why I did the film was that I understood that when a comedian gets on stage he wants to get laughs from people. God changed my whole mindset, like Romans 12:2. Instead of going up there to get laughter from people, God said, “Go up there and give them an opportunity to laugh.”

Now when I go to these homeless shelters or wherever I’m going, I’m not trying to get anything from them. I’m just trying to give them an opportunity to laugh. When you’re giving somebody a gift, it’s different, because now they’re like, “Wow, is this for me?” And they’re much more willing to receive it as opposed to me trying to take something from them.

What do you have coming up?

In September I will be filming my first comedy special, and we’ll put it out on DVD. That’s pretty exciting.  I’m writing a comedy film right now, which is exciting. I’ve never written a full length film before. It’s about two little kids from a black family and a white family that live right next door to each other and they end up agreeing to visit each other’s churches. We’ll see what happens as the comedy ensues because of the differences. At the same time, some ministry will go down as well. I don’t know what that is yet. I just do the jokes and then God shows up for the rest.

Playing Obama

ACTING PRESIDENTIAL: Obama impersonator Reggie Brown onstage at the Republican Leadership Conference on June 18, before getting the hook. (Newscom photo/Lee Celano)

The top story in politics from this past weekend was the gathering of GOP candidates at the Republican Leadership Conference in New Orleans. But the main topic of conversation around water coolers on Monday morning wasn’t what the candidates said but what was said about them on Saturday night by an intrepid Barack Obama impersonator. After delivering jokes aimed squarely at President Obama, the Faux-bama suddenly appeared to (forgive us, Mrs. Palin) “go rogue” with sharp zingers aimed at the GOP contenders. It was at this point that the performer’s microphone fell silent, and he was abruptly escorted from the stage.

An equal opportunity comedian, Reggie Brown is undaunted by the criticism from multiple quarters regarding his performance, and particularly the race jokes he shared during his act. UrbanFaith news and religion editor Christine Scheller spoke to Brown by phone Tuesday afternoon. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

URBAN FAITH: Have you ever had this kind of response before to one of your performances?

REGGIE BROWN: No, this the beginning. This has been amazing.

What’s your reaction?

I love it. It was an opportunity to get in front of a huge audience. When I first got the invitation, I was extremely excited to come down and speak at the leadership conference. … I’ve been building a reputation in the corporate world, with speakers bureaus and other private events, but for the most part, a lot of America didn’t really know who I was yet, and this gave me the opportunity to get out there. I did my job, did my material. From what I’ve heard, everyone thought I did it very, very well, including pretty much everyone at the conference who came up [to me afterwards]. I’ve been getting thousands of fan mails and new subscribers. Even the organizers thanked me and told me I did a great job.

In an interview with the Chicago Tribune, it sounded like the Republican Leadership Conference president sold you out. He said he would have pulled you sooner and had no tolerance for racially insensitive jokes. What did you think about that?

I don’t even want to touch that. People are intelligent enough to know when I delivered the jokes and when I was pulled. That was in the beginning of my material and it wasn’t until later when I brought up the candidates that I was pulled off the stage. From what they told me, I was over my time.

Do you get more gigs with Republican organizations than with Democratic ones?

So far, yeah. I think I have worked more for Republican parties than Democrat, but I work with Tim Waters, who was the number one Clinton impersonator and he said during [Clinton’s] reign, he found that to be true also. He said, “You’ll always find the opposing party hires you more.”

There was some debate about your race jokes in African American media outlets. What do you think about that?

My mother’s white and my father’s black, so I would have that in common with the president and I wouldn’t do anything towards any race to set them back … For my jokes to be called racist initially by a lot of reviews that came out, it’s absolutely ridiculous.

I thought they were done in a tasteful manner. It’s nothing I would have felt ashamed with if I was in that audience and someone said it. I don’t think the president took offense to it. He actually cracked jokes at the Correspondent’s Dinner referring to his background. When he opens a door on a topic, that opens it for me as well.

I don’t ever want to offend anyone in my material. Basically what I do is bring humor to situations. That’s comedy. I think it was one individual who made that statement. The media took it and started running with it. I urge people to watch the full appearance. I felt that I did well and everyone else pretty much has too.


Do you feel like you can’t win doing race jokes as a biracial person or can you address the topic from both angles?

I can address things from both sides, especially nowadays,  it’s more common for people to be biracial and mixed. … I know it was tough for my mom to raise me in the neighborhood we grew up in, especially taking us to certain pools and doing things like that. Now it’s just becoming more widely accepted and that’s a beautiful thing.

Do you have any tips for a comedian trying to work a tough room?

You just need to know your audience. I performed at a comedy club in Times Square really late one night, doing my political jokes and a lot of the material that normally kills fell flat, but it was because at 1:00 in the morning at a comedy club, most of them wanted to hear the F-bombs being dropped and I came with really witty political humor. I didn’t do too well. I got off stage and saw the next couple comedians, and immediately they’re like eff this, eff that, and everyone was rolling on the floor. So, you just have to know your audience and anticipate what they want.

YES, HE CAN: Reggie Brown says Obama's own jokes about his background open the door for him to be more daring about race.

Did the Republican Leadership Conference audience laugh less at the Republican jokes than at the race jokes as reported?

That audience was awesome. They were amazing. That’s why the performance was so good. As a performer, for the most part, doing what I do, you gain off the energy.  After I got pulled, they were coming up to me, [saying], “Why’d they pull you off the stage? You were the best part of the conference for me.” … They were great. Even when I was getting the oohs and ahhs, I was still getting a strong reaction.”

On your website, it says you offer clean comedy for corporate events. Is that qualifier based on anything in particular?

Basically, it’s the character protection. There are other guys out there trying to do the Obama character and they’re doing it in ways that I feel are disrespectful, not only to the president, but to  … I’m not even going to go there, but I just don’t agree with what they’re doing. There’s a YouTube video of this guy drinking 40s and smoking joints as the president. That’s ridiculous. That does nothing for the progression of comedy in my mind. For comedy to be funny, it’s gotta’ be witty, intelligent, and have something behind it. That’s what we do.

Are you primarily a clean comedian even when you’re not doing the Obama character?

Yeah, for the most part. I’m an actor first and foremost, so I would accept roles that aren’t necessarily clean. Sometimes in my material as myself, I tend to keep it PG-13, but I’m not one of those guys that goes out there and just swears, swears, swears. It’s gotta have some intelligence behind it and some motivation behind it.

What are you up to next?

A surprise appearance at a major sporting event on Thursday, but we have tons of bookings coming in. … Most of the time, I’m a surprise guest so I can’t really reveal where I’ll be, but you’ll be seeing a lot more of me very soon.

You can find out more about Brown at his website, and follow him on Twitter at @ReggieBrownski.