Have you ever tried to tell a joke? There is an art to the process, a rhythm, and most times you only know it has worked when you hear the reaction from the recipient. If you get that fall out, spittal dripping response, you nailed it. Other times there is the tepid chuckle. Worst of all is the cough. That person didn’t just come down with instant pneumonia – you bombed.
Make no mistake, the craft of comedy is hard work. But did you ever think about the hurdles comedians go through to stake out a career in comedy. The constant touring, the hecklers, the low pay for years as you get better. And unlike other professions where you get to decide on your own if you suck, an audience tells you night after night if you are bad. You may endure that for years until you you become someone worth paying a fee that equals more than bus fare.
That is the comedy business. Let’s now add the extra layer of race and sexual orientation, and those hurdles may become mountains. Still dedicated artists still try every day to make us laugh, despite their obstacles being no laughing matter.
SOULE.LGBT talked to two Black LGBTQ comedians to find out about their journey, what makes them laugh, angry and why they keep going for the joke. One is a veteran the other a rising star in the business. But both have been all across the country (and the world) in the name of a good joke.
Kia McCall Barnes, also known as Kia Comedy, is an Atlanta based LGBTQ comedian. She tours the U.S. with her signature “Queer Comedy” and “Lez Laugh” Comedy Shows. She has performed with many prominent comedians, including Luenell, Matt Rife, Comedian Shang, and TK Kirkland, and she is also the host of SVTV Network’s “Queer Comedy Jam,” which features some of the country’s best LGBTQ comedians.
Sampson McCormick is constantly on the top of most LGBT Comics lists
including: Huffington Post, Buzz Feed, The Advocate, Bay Area Reporter and “One of the 12 LGBT Comics To Know” by OUT.com. He’s appeared on TV One, MTV and The OWN Network, a highly lauded comedy special “That B*@&! Better Be Funny” and is featured in the new documentary “A Tough Act To Follow”, which takes a look at homophobia and sexism in comedy.
Both are at the top of their game and both agreed to talk about their job.
SOULE: Why did you decide to be a comic?
Sampson McCormick: (Laughs) Sometimes, I still don’t know why. I enjoy it, but this business is challenging. I wanted to be a singer, I wanted to stand on stage all dipped in cocoa butter and gyrate and have drawls thrown at me– and don’t get me wrong, I can still hold a tune, and I’m a hot piece of chocolate ass, slathered in cocoa butter.. but I’ve always been better at telling jokes, and my personality was larger than my singing voice. So, people always wanted to hear me talk and tell stories. I was a class clown. It was my 11th grade English teacher who pulled me out of class one day and said “Listen, I’m not going to continue to compete with you for the attention of my students. Go to a comedy club, or I will fail you.” I was 16, and the lady who worked at the door, Kenyatta, started sneaking me in. The first couple of times I did it, were not good at all, but once I got into my groove, I got the response to what I was saying on stage, that I was looking for when I sang. I’ve been doing it ever since.
Kia Comedy: I always loved making people laugh, but I was first inspired to take the stage by my fellow teachers. The first comedy show I ever participated in was called “Laugh Your Class Off,” and it was love at first laugh! I’ve been driven to chase this dream ever since.
SOULE: Who were your role models growing up?
Sampson: I had quite a few, people who I observed just in day to day life, like junkies on the bus, in conversation with their whisky bottles, the church ladies who would pass out in church every Sunday and then we’d go visit them on Tuesday nights, they’d be sitting on the couch, with their wig off, and no bra, smoking cigarettes and talking shit about people at the church. They were roles models, because I loved seeing them just live and not be afraid to [be free] in their own way. I use to go to school and imitate them too. On television, I loved Joan Rivers, Redd Foxx, Whoopi Goldberg. Although I was very young, I understood them and thought they were funny and loved hearing them talk about adult shit.
Kia: My comedic role model was actually my father, although I was raised on the greats… Richard Pryor, Red Foxx, etc. I grew up in a family of 12, so I’m sure you can imagine that we sometimes had to learn to laugh to keep from crying.
SOULE: In a lot of ways you are still pioneers when it comes to LGBT comics of color, why do you suppose that is?
Sampson: I use to try to downplay that, but I realize now, that I am.. It just is what it is. Of course, there have been a few drag entertainers [like Corwin Hawkins-Amazing Grace, best known as Wayman on a Low Down Dirty Shame] who have entered arenas and things like that who during the 80’s and 90’s, but for the men, we lost a little of that during the AIDS crisis. Back in the 60’s and 70’s even, folks don’t know it, but Rudy Ray Moore, use to let black drag queens come in and read the audience and do numbers on his comedy shows. That was a start, but there haven’t really been any dents made in our representation in mainstream media and culture. I realize that particularly as a man who presents as a man, that I have been the first to play a lot of venues and have content on radio, television, etc. and I’m still fighting a lot of battles, that haven’t been fought. I’m honored to be helping to kick in those ceilings and doors.
Kia: For whatever reason, I’ve personally noticed that the African-American community isn’t always welcoming and open to the LGBTQ community. I know queer comics who still lie about who they are just to get on stage… and I’ve sat through so many shows where comics longest jokes poked fun at gays. In my opinion, I think comics of color hide who they are with hopes of being accepted. It’s not that we’re not here. It’s just that so many live in fear.
SOULE: What venues do you typically perform in?
Sampson: I’m everywhere, strip clubs, churches, comedy clubs, black box theaters, a little of everywhere. More recently though, I’ve been performing in larger theaters as a part of festivals, or opening for musicians or at Jazz Festivals and that kind of thing. It varies, but folks like what I do, and I’m getting to larger stages, a couple of arenas even.
Kia: My favorite venue is Atlanta Comedy Theatre, but I’ve enjoyed many awesome shows and audiences throughout the country.
SOULE: What is your experience with black audiences when you talk about LGBT issues?
Sampson: Over the years, it’s progressed. At one time, not good at all, they’d walk out, yell things, be rude, call me names–I’ve never been booed, but I have had to wrestle audiences down and win their respect. It varies, some these days are great, but every now and then, I’ll run across one that I have to take my time with and wrestle them down, and win them over. When I need to, I do it all the time. There’s always one woman who’ll come up after like “Are you gay for real? Or is it a part of your act?” I go right for the hair weave “Girl.. is that real? Or a part of your act?” and we laugh and they call me shady. (laughs). I have my ways of handling it. I have fun doing it.
Kia: I’ve had some audiences that I had to loosen up because they may have initially been uncomfortable with some of my subjects. I’ve even had people speak out during performance, which, in my opinion, is the perfect opportunity to show just how stupid homophobia is.
SOULE: How does your race and sexual orientation inform your comedy? Or does it?
Sampson: It does inform portions of it, like when I talk about how I’m affected by something, or when I am offering an honest point of view about my experiences with politics, religion, etc. I have to be honest. I’m not JUST gay or JUST black, so I don’t stand up on stage for a full 75 minutes talking about that, but if you come in there not knowing, you will when you leave. I create honest comedy, and when you’re doing that, you can’t leave out the small details.
Kia: My comedy is all about my experiences and perspectives, so I speak as a Black Queer Woman in an interracial marriage in the South. Even though many may see me as different, I like to find common grounds to show that, at the end of the day, we’re all just human beings trying to make in this crazy thing called life.
SOULE: Why is comedy important in the black and lgbtq community?
Sampson: It’s important, because we’ve had to laugh to get through life, and it’s been a defensive mechanism, and flotation device in the sometimes deep, testy waters of life, and all parts of the community need to be able to continue doing that. If you aren’t laughing, then what else are you doing?
Kia: I think the LGBTQ community could stand something different. I’ve seen so many dancers and rappers, but where’s the laughter? It’s a comfortable way to talk about anything, and laughter heals hurt. It’s important that we’re able to come together and share moments of happiness… even while talking about some things that may not make us happy.
SOULE: There is so much going on in the world right now. How do you balance being funny with addressing serious issues like police brutality, homophobia?
Sampson: Simple, by dealing with it the way we’ve had to deal with it growing up, or going through what we go through. Talk about it, be real about it and make fun out of it. Growing up, we knew how dangerous it was when the cops pulled you over, or what could happen to you coming home from a gay pride parade if you didn’t change your clothes. Accepting the reality of it helped us be able to laugh….we were able to laugh at our situations, and come back with our own shade. That’s suited me very well as a comic, and getting through tough situations in life–whatever they are.
Kia: Personally, I feel like it’s still my job to make people laugh… even about difficult topics. I like to draw parallels and analogies to get back to serious issues. I can’t have a platform and not talk about what’s going on in society. I just use my voice and gift to break the ice and let people know that it’s okay to talk about things and express feelings in mixed crowds in positive ways.
Both comics are currently touring in a city near you.