Mike Brown is a comedian based in New York. His work shows exceptional polish and his career shows excellent promise. He is performing January 21st at the Purple Onion for the Rooftop Comedy Showcase.
Spinning Platters: Where are you from originally?
Mike Brown: I grew up in Rosedale in Queens. I was there in a time when black folk just started moving into Rosedale. There were a lot of different people like Latinos and I had Jewish neighbors for some time. By the time I was moving out I had gotten fake robbed twice. These dudes came up to me [and said] “Yo, gimme yo money”. They didn’t have a gun or anything… but I [said] “Okay!”. I [didn’t] want to know if they had a gun.
When I [moved] to Harlem it was a shock because you had more people living on top of each other. I used to live in a two-family house, then a one-family house, then I moved to Harlem [and] I was in a building! … People were stacked up on top of each other… Everybody kind of knows each other, everyone has history. The need to be “hardcore”, if you’re going to be one of those kind of “gangster, hardcore, roughneck” dudes is intensified because your machismo is measured by all these other people that you’re living with… People’s “gangster” is relative so the gangster in Rosedale at that time was a “punk”* by Harlem standards.
SP: How does one survive in that situation?
MB: I wasn’t ducking bullets, wearing the right colors. [Laughs] I remember my first day at my new school, Fredrick Douglas Academy in Harlem, I started in 8th grade and everyone started in the 7th grade or went to the Jr. High before that. You had to wear uniforms at this school because they were trying to make it “good” or whatever, even though it was public school; it was weird. My first day I had tight slacks on, tight shirt [because] my mom [said] “Yeah, you’re gonna go to school in Harlem, and they’re really strict over there”. That was not the case: everybody had the baggy blue jeans because they learned from last year that [they] could get away with it.
So instead of people making fun of me, I went to class.. and I sat at the table with the people I thought were the coolest, the people who got the most respect. I sat there like I belonged there and I start cracking jokes. They all were like “Oh this kid is really funny” so at lunch they [said] “Come sit with us.”
I guess they accepted me but didn’t really know who I was. When they got to know who I was [they figured] “This dude is different. He’s not like us… He didn’t have the same kind of upbringing… but he’s a good dude.” So I think that’s what kept me on the good path because these [friends] had brothers that were [gang members]. If I was hanging out with them and I met one of the older brothers or friends they’d [say] “Oh, this is that kid you were talking about, he’s good, we know not to mess with him, even though we would mess with him [because] he’s dressed like a target”.
SP: What was your introduction to the concept of “funny”?
MB: I remember the first time I ever went to Caroline’s, not to watch a performance or perform… Caroline’s used to be bigger in New York. Right now there’s just a downstairs performance space, but before it used to be a downstairs and upstairs. Upstairs was a huge restaurant and you had all these waiters there… [who] I’m guessing were comedians… I was with my mom and we’re eating dinner and she said “Okay Mike, I’ll be right back, I got to go to the bathroom”. And then she asked the waiter “Hey, where’s the bathroom”. He says “It’s right up the way,”… So she gets up, she walks through the entire restaurant, about to go up the stairs, and then he yells at her “Have a great time in the bathroom, I hope everything comes out okay!”
Everyone started laughing. I was laughing but I was [also] feeling bad for my mom and she started laughing because of how awkward it was. I was like “Wow, that was awesome.”
Stand-up wise, I remember Warren Hutcherson (a comic from Maryland who was the co-executive producer on “Men of A Certain Age”).
Years ago I had snuck and watched this clip of Def Comedy Jam… He did this bit about his father being Muslim and his grandmother being Christian and how it was weird for him at Christmas time… it was one of the funniest bits I’ve seen… It blew my mind of how funny it was, and how it was on this line of “blackness” but also it was “worldly”. [That performance] didn’t put the bug in my head, because I always wanted to do [stand-up], but seeing that was like “Yeah, that’s f*cking phenomenal, this is it”
SP: Do you think the so-called “Urban” comedy community is going to become as tech-savvy as their “Alternative” counterparts?
MB: Yeah! You know about “Black Twitter”. [Faux news voice] ‘Will the Negroes ever experience the Internet, stay tuned’.
SP: I mean, will there be an equivalent to “A Special Thing”, podcasts or other platforms of expression lacking within that community.
MB: I hope so. I do think so. [My] generation is tech-savvy and we are the product of parents and other people who’ve dealt with racism. We understand and have the thoughts of the quote-on-quote “urban comic”, people who are from the quote-on-quote “hood”, but we live in the mainstream world. We’re of the hood, we’re not still in the hood.
I think it’s going to happen but I think it’s probably going to take a longer time to happen because for that idea of “Let’s make a platform, so everyone can win” [to succeed] you have to totally shatter the “crabs in a bucket” theory. [Because] someone can say “I don’t wanna build this platform because what if ‘this person’ is just really doing it for themselves, I can’t trust ‘this person’ or can’t trust ‘that person’.” What I think might happen, which would be unfortunate in the sense of ownership and control… you how Essence is run by white people and it’s not [considered] a “black” magazine anymore?
MB: I think something like that might happen where you have “blackcomicsarefunnytoo.com”. Outside it looks urban and there’s all these fresh new faces [but] it’s not run by us. We don’t even have a platform anymore, there’s no Def Jam going on; that used to break a lot of people. There’s no Johnny Carson calling people over to the couch; people aren’t watching TV, they’re watching clips. [Audiences] aren’t coming out to stand-up shows anyway. There are a lot of fights that have to be fought before we can get on to making platforms.
SP: You’re a native of New York. How many natives stay in the city and do comedy?
MB: New York is a weird place and I understand when people say “if you can make it here, you can make anywhere”. I think New York is the “battlegrounds”… If comedy was like a [role-playing game], New York is like that dungeon with infinite levels, and you come here to just level up. You’re probably not going to do a “boss fight” here but you’ll level up.
The beautiful thing about New York is that the “alternative” comic scene is really big here. They have a community that supports itself in the sense of fans coming out to continually see shows and pack out these little shows every week with [about] 50 people, which is awesome. If that can continue to happen all around then I think New York comics will stay in New York, but I don’t think anybody wants to stay here. I mean we do but we don’t… no matter where you’re from, you want to do comedy outside your state, and want to kill it everywhere and you want to come home and be loved. Depends on the [comedian’s] career.
SP: Last year you preformed at the Purple Onion for Jabari Davis and Associates. How did you get involved with Jabari?
MB: I got hooked up with Jabari through Priya [Prasad, Bay Area comedian]. I [met] Priya through a mutual friend that lives in the Bay… Jabari is a great dude. He’s one of the few people I can call and crack up laughing because he’s crazy, in a good way.
SP: Have you performed in the major markets of Portland, Seattle, Minneapolis, Austin, Los Angeles or Chicago?
MB: No, those are places I want to go. Last year, all I wanted to go was San Francisco and New York. I wanted to do San Francisco because Dave Chappelle taped [For What It’s Worth] out there and I really like the Zach Galifianakis special that he did out there. San Francisco is a place that has a lot of history and a lot of activism. I like that. People are aware… and more vocal about [social] wrongs.
SP: How long have you performed stand-up.
MB: I’ve only seriously done stand-up for a year… I was doing sketch writing before that. I went to college and did creative writing/fiction with a focus on narrative. I always wrote stories that were really funny. [Humor writing] felt good but I felt I was lying to myself.
SP: What was the day that you crossed the threshold into stand-up?
MB: What made me say “f*ck it, I need to start doing [stand-up]” was that I had two friends that were killed. It was a crazy tragedy. My friend Mike and his fiance Nia… had an engagement party, they had been together for five years. He was my boy from college, probably one of the funniest dudes I knew… They were coming from their engagement party, got to their house and when they parked the car they got car-jacked and killed at gunpoint.
I wasn’t able to go to the engagement party… but I had spoke to [Mike] the day before everything happened. We were talking about comedy because I was doing sketch already. [I said] “I’m doing sketch and I like it but I don’t want to write these sketches and have to work with all these other people.” [He said] “Man, go do stand-up comedy… I always thought you should do it and you should do it. If that’s what you want you want to do, do it. I’ll be there to support you. I’ll laugh at your jokes if nobody else is laughing.”
[Afterwards] you really appreciate life and the time that you have because you never know… That [event] is what pushed me the most, that was like my wake up.
SP: What was the process of getting into Sketchfest?
MB: That was a fun process… Luckily some of the [production] people even heard about me before I had submitted for it. Then they contacted me and [said] “Hey, we like you, if you want to come out, come do it.”… I’m very appreciative and humbled that they recognized the REAL! You feel me?! A brother out here grinding! No, I’m really appreciative.
SP: Race has be defined and discussed ad nauseam and your material at times focuses on race. What is the next great racial/social situation to be crystallized by comedy?
MB: Maybe Occupy Wall Street, maybe that movement in the sense of how everyone is like “Hey, the top 1% have all the money, we need to get together and mobilize” and these were all the same things black folks were saying for years. No one gave a sh*t about [these things] and now they’re downtown banging on drums like it’s cool, like it’s so revolutionary. It’s like “We’ve been trying to do the same [thing] and you called us extremist”.
[Personally], it’s a scary place now that everything is politically correct… That scares me the most. Any time they try to make a comedian apologize that just scares me. Because then you’re gonna start having “Facebook Comedy” where everything is positive all the time, and everything is sunshine, flowers and rainbows. That’s not [comedy] to me.
SP: What are you looking forward to as you come back to San Francisco? What aspects have you experienced that you wouldn’t mind revisiting.
MB: I love going to parties and people being cool… everybody [is] real chill. I want to go and connect with more people… because there are so many awesome people out there in the sense of hospitality
I just don’t like that you guys close so early, at like 2 o’clock. People don’t even go to the party until 12… You only have an hour [and] thirty minutes of partying. And there is really no after hours spot; the only after spots are “super hood”… I remember asking girls “Where’s the after party?” and they’re like “I’m going to sleep.”
SP: Where do you hope to be by Sketchfest 2013?
MB: I would love to be invited back to [SF Sketchfest]. This year I’m working on putting my own show together… I want to be more of a force in the industry. I want to go back to San Francisco and be a “boss”… But naw, [I want to] work hard. I know a lot of comics want to get “on”, [saying] “Yo, I wanna get “on”, I wanna be be in front of all these people” … of course I want that too, but I just want to get better… That’s what’s important to me: working on my craft and putting back into the culture so maybe one day somebody can quote one of my jokes randomly.
* punk: A overzealous heathen who is more bark than bite.