Comedy Wings Contestants on How Joking While Black Helps Them Hone Their Craft
By Bradford William Davis
The five contestants in ABFF 2018’s comedy competition examine how their identity can be advantageous in their work.
Stand-up comedy is a grind. For most, the pay is meager, travel is heavy, and the gigs you do book are juggled in between fulltime work. So, why dedicate your life to such an intense commitment?
For Ron Dailey, aka “Blaq Ron,” he knew what he wanted out of comedy: “I was in it for the pretty girls' phone numbers.”
Dailey was only joking, of course. (If you're just catching up — he's a comedian.) But during a roundtable discussion with four other contestants competing in this year’s American Black Film Festival’s Comedy Wings competition — hosted by Insecure’s Yvonne Orji — it was clear he and the others had wrestled with this question before. Not only is money hard to come by, so are the connections that can grant exposure to bigger audiences, stages, and paychecks. (The $5000 grand prize and a meeting with HBO makes winning Comedy Wings especially enticing for a comic on the rise.)
Dailey, who hails from Dallas, answered the question again in earnest, explaining he was personally grateful for the opportunity to explore social issues that were important to him while helping his crowd process their own pain. “We comics are group therapists,” said Dailey. “We're conducting an hour-long session when we go on stage.”
Still, as morally rewarding as comedy can be, the comics agreed that it’s a tough business — even more so when you’re black. LeighAnn Lord, a comic from Queens, New York, noted that stereotypes about the black experience are often used against her, while the same behavior might not raise an eyebrow from a white comic. “You can have a white comic be filthy and scatological,” said Lord. “Then we use one little word and people are like ‘You're a little too dirty!’”
“But then,” Lord continued, “if we're clean, people are like ‘Oh, can you be a little more black?' Really?”
Mississippi comic Rita Brent further elaborated on how discrimination in comedy affects black women. “Classically, women — black women, especially — have to deal with the assumption that we're dirty comics,” explained Brent. “People think we only make d**k and p***y jokes.”
Yet Brent believes these unfair situations have only enriched her humor.
“I’ve learned to just be me,” said Brent. “I won’t let people pull me in every direction. That helps me create unique humor that’s exclusive to my experience.”
Chicago-based T. Murph believes that these challenges have improved his versatility. He also praised each contestant’s ability to transcend audiences. Murph argues: “We perform in front of so many other audiences than the average comedian, it makes us better at what we do.”
“Some comics only have one specific audience,” Murph said, gesturing to the other contestants, “but we can perform in any room. We can hit an alternative room with a white, super progressive college crowd that only wants to hear Hillary/Trump jokes, and we can hit the black bar and grill, hole-in-the-wall and kill it there!”
Houston-based Kris Atkins appreciates that ABFF frees them to be themselves instead of having to constantly juggle the various challenges they experience as black entertainers. “This opportunity gives me a chance to be seen for my art,” said Atkins “I don't have a résumé like some of the others, but I submitted a tape and got in because my jokes are good.”
Dailey echoed the sentiment, expressing gratitude that his humor could be fairly judged on its merits. “Far too often, we hear that making it isn’t about the funny,” he said. “It’s about marketing and such. But, really, if it ain’t about the funny, well what the f**k is about?”
That night, Dailey transformed into Blaq Ron and was decidedly about the funny. He went first and had the crowd and judges, including Insecure’s Jay Ellis and Ballers’ London Brown, bursting into laughs from beginning to end. Dailey eked out a win over Brent, who finished as the runner-up.