What do they say about New York City: There are eight million stories, and sometimes it seems as though eight million of the people telling them think they're comedians? No, that's not it. It is a fact, though, that America's biggest city is also its biggest comedy mecca. Hollywood may be Hollywood, but New York City is where comedians are born funny, become funny or arrive to thrust their funny upon us. I think we should meet some of these people. This is a new recurring feature, a mini-profile of newcomers, up-and-comers and overcomers of New York's vibrant comedy scene. It's called Meet Me In New York.
Victor Varnado (photographed by Rafael Fuchs) is many things. Yes, he is a black albino and he'll be the first to joke about that. Varnado also is a talented comedian, actor and filmmaker. You may have seen him on Conan, or perhaps Julien Donkey-Boy, End of Days, The Adventures of Pluto Nash, or My Name is Earl. And he is the brains behind the camera and sometimes in front of it, helming the stand-up documentary film, The Awkward Comedy Show, which debuts on TV April 9 on Comedy Central, and comes out later this year on DVD. (See my early review, when it was called the Awkward Kings of Comedy) But before all of that. He was just another comedian moving to New York City to make it. In 2007 he was profiled on the cover of the Village Voice. Let's learn more!
Name: Victor Varnado
Arrival date: August 27, 1998
Arrived from: Minneapolis, MN
When and where did you start performing comedy? I didn’t really do a lot of standup until I reached New York. Before that I was working mostly in the exciting field of comedy improvisation. I started with ComedySportz in Minneapolis. Lots of lights and games and generally a good time.
What was your best credit before moving here? Before coming to NYC my biggest part in a movie was starring in an exercise video that was a full-length movie (yeah, I know) and it was based on the wizard of Oz. The woman who played Dorothy was a body builder. (Yeah… I KNOW) I played the tin man.
Why did you pick NYC over LA or anywhere else? It was pretty simple, I had more friends in NYC than I did in LA. I was determined to go out and see if I could “make it” and my buddy Colton was willing to move to NYC with me. We moved into a tiny apartment in the Lower East Side that had a mouse. If only he was a sassy-talking mouse, it wouldn’t have been so gross.
It's fairly well accepted that to be a great comedian, you need to get onstage as much as possible. Perform every night, multiple times if you can, to as many kinds of audiences. Learn what works, what's funny, how to adapt to situations. I bring all of this up today because last night's edition of Nightline on ABC opened with a feature on talented people and why they're talented. They talk about singers, musicians and athletes. It's something worth watching for comedians and bloggers alike. Which reminds me. Time to get us all back in the loop with the latest headlines and subplots in the comedy world:
Some stand-up comedy specials try to overwhelm you with flashing spotlights, raucous applause and laughter in cutaway crowd shots, and rapid-fire editing. OR, you could go ahead and showcase some unique comedians and let the material and stage presence speak for itself. In The Awkward Kings of Comedy, director/executive producer Victor Varnado puts the camera directly on his performers -- Baron Vaughn, Eric Andre, Hannibal Buress, host Marina Franklin, and himself -- and gives them the 15-minute showcase sets they deserve to share with the world. Certainly, there are hip-hop beats (provided by King Supernuts the Second), animated sequences for each performer, as well as an opening animation with voiceover narration that suggests two warring African tribes stumbled upon the first "Yo Momma" jokes.
This film isn't about the leaders of the pack, as this intro itself reveals, but rather, about the awkward kid in the glasses standing near the leader, who someday would become "funny...and a little bit weird."
The title also, of course, references back to Spike Lee's 2000 stand-up concert documentary, The Original Kings of Comedy. Varnado's film is an "alternative" nerd response to this, demonstrating that black comedians do not have to do stereotypical black comedy. Whatever that means. During one conversational interlude in the documentary, the comedians discuss the differences between a "predominantly black" crowd and a "predominantly urban" one, and you'll see by watching these performances that they would kill just fine in the former room, but they'd have to work hard for their laughs in the latter. Franklin even acknowledges the difficulties once trying to win over the audience at Showtime's At the Apollo.
Here, though, over the course of two shows taped at 45 Bleecker, the comedians can be themselves and allow an audience to see a "super articulate" man who likes to sing (Vaughn), a multicultural tornado of a comedian (Andre), a laidback guy with punchlines that will floor you (Buress), a black albino with the superpower to make you laugh (Varnado) and a woman who was both the blackest girl in a white neighborhood and the whitest girl in a black neighborhood (Franklin). It's all quite enjoyable, and the kind of special that Comedy Central, HBO and anyone else looking to showcase stand-up comedy should be broadcasting and producing more often.
The Awkward Kings of Comedy has its world premiere screening May 30 at the 92Y Tribeca in NYC, with a post-screening Q&A with Varnado.
You can now enjoy watching the trailer for the documentary film, The Awkward Kings of Comedy, featuring Victor Varnado, Eric Andre, Baron Vaughn, Hannibal Buress and Marina Franklin. "Comedy plus blackness, to the nerd power." You're welcome.
UPDATED: Now with the actual trailer embedded after the jump.
The Original Kings of Comedy tour and Spike Lee documentary film helped spur a new wave of business for stand-up comedy and comedy films, including "Blue Collar," Latin and female versions, as well as the Comedians of Comedy. But what about the black nerd alternative comics? Yeah. What about...wait. What? That's the basis for the upcoming Awkward Kings of Comedy special, conceived by comedian/actor/don't-forget-black-albino Victor Varnado, and including Baron Vaughn, Eric Andre and Hannibal Buress.
As the film's site says: "These are nerds who don't need any revenge, just a mic and an audience who cares about smart comedy from a personal perspective. All together, the Awkward Kings will show the world doofy jokesters are to be laughed at on their own terms." In addition to live performance footage -- to be shot Sept. 23 at the Bleecker Street Theater (45 Bleecker St., New York, NY) -- there will be offstage profiles and interviews with each of the comics, conducted by stand-up Marina Franklin. Tickets to the Sept. 23 show are free, but you have to make a reservation in advance by calling 800-521-4205 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org, and letting them know how many tickets (limit: 4) and for which show (6 p.m. or 8:30 p.m.) along with a number and email where you can be reached.
The Black Comedy Experiment worked (!). Who knew? Crowds packed The Tank for the final night of shows on Saturday. If there's any one show that defines the "experiment," it'd have to be Shades of Black, because that stand-up showcase exists to prove that there's no singular definition for a black comedian. Michelle Buteau hosted and had the crowd rolling with her issues -- "Who said it? Yeah, I said it!" -- while Baron Vaughn killed with bits about his girlfriend's voice mails and the silliness of the KKK Website. Donald Glover deftly told the crowd to lower its expectations before telling funny stories and delivering impersonations of Barack Obama, Tracy Morgan on a PTA visit (whom he writes for on 30 Rock) and Chris Rock in a reinterpreted bit called "Black People vs. Vampires." BCE creator/producer Elon James White followed and challenged the audience by saying he was afraid of "retard babies" and didn't think his girlfriend was hot like a Pussycat Doll (White told me later that he'd killed with 15-20 minutes earlier that night at Laughing Liberally, so he wanted to switch things up). Victor Varnado closed the show with solid energy, and noted his albino status right up front, asking Shades of Black: "How far are they going to take it?" Varnado has a great new(?) bit about playing a practical joke on his white girlfriend.
Earlier: My interview with Elon James White.