What difference does a year make?
When I met Bodden near Times Square almost a year ago, that gig hadn’t yet materalized. Then, he was readying the release of his latest stand-up comedy CD, “He Had Me At Black,” had filmed a guest-starring appearance in ABC’s The Neighbors (as depicted, above) and was looking forward to another year on the road as a headlining comedian. The former winner of NBC’s Last Comic Standing sat down with me for a freewheeling conversation.
Are you one of those guys who still records your sets on a regular basis, anyhow?
“No. I stopped doing that years ago, because I don’t listen to ‘em. The material evolves as I do it, but I don’t record every set, no. And unfortunately, I lose a lot of stuff because you’ll improv, and you’ll come up with some line and you’ll just say it. And it’s like, ‘Oh, man, what did I say?’ But I’m willing to make that trade-off. Because it keeps it fresher anyway. I don’t want the whole thing to be rehearsed. That’s only when I’m doing a TV spot or I’m specifically recording something like the CD, or my next special, or something.”
Does that make doing interviews on SiriusXM or elsewhere easier, because you know how to work off of a typical morning radio crew?
“Yeah, when I do radio and stuff like that, I never want to do set-ups. It just sounds too rehearsed if you’re listening…it’s like, when we used to do Comics Unleashed with Byron Allen, and you’d have a joke about Macy’s. ‘So Sean, I understand you like going to Macy’s…’ You know. It just. The joke’s funny. But the set-up is just so bad.”
You know Byron is still playing those?
“I know! Byron is a money-making machine. I don’t knock Byron for what he does.”
I don’t either. It’s just amusing to know I’m watching bits from seven years ago.
“But the funny thing is, people still watch it, and then they, I’ll get emails or whatever, ‘I saw you on Comics Unleashed.’ They think it’s still new. That it’s still being produced.”
Watching you do press at SiriusXM didn’t even feel like doing press – the lights were off in the studio, just you and another guy hanging out on microphones…
“That’s the way to do it. It’s a conversation. You’re just hanging out talking about whatever. And that turned out to be really funny, because we were talking about a news story that turned out to be a year old [ed. note irony of this interview being a year old now]. I don’t know if you were there when we talked about it, but the story was from January 2012 and Alan thought it was new, so we’re debating this thing and he looked at the date and said, ‘Wait a minute! This was last year!’ So then we went online and looked to see how it turned out.”
“It’s good. It’s organic. People appreciate that more. They like the act. But when you’re funny in the moment, people like that. They feel like they’re in on something.”
Do you feel that’s part of the reason people respond to podcasts?
“You know, podcasts, it’s very interesting. I do a podcast called ‘Who’s Paying Attention?’ It’s predominately news stories. My take on things in the news. Some will be serious. Some will be political. And then some will be stupid, pop-culture whatever. And I’m surprised how many people listen to it. I appreciate it! Your fans listen and it’s great. But the podcasts of comics interviewing comics – obviously WTF is a big one – and you know, there are other ones that are great. Jay Mohr’s was fun; I’ve done that. But I think it’s a small community that listens to all of them. And a lot of it is comics listening to it. And it just seems to me, it gets self-serving after a while, like, when there’s no editing. Listening to a comic talk to a comic for two hours. Sometimes it’s fun. There will be funny parts of it, insightful parts, but other parts are just going to be boring, self-serving, I don’t know.”
Well, they’re all trying to capture that atmosphere of hanging out at a club after a show. How can we bottle that?
“And that’s an organic thing. Or it’s fun – like, I like doing Adam Carolla’s podcast…”
Your publicist told me that!
“Adam’s very opinionated. And Adam will say things out of the blue. Adam doesn’t do typical interviews. Where are you from? What are you working on? One of the funniest things he ever said, we were doing the podcast, it was one of his live ones at an Improv, and I walk in and he looks at me, and the first thing he says to me is, ‘Shouldn’t you be banging a Kardashian?’ And I just died laughing, you know. And we started talking about that. So that’s fun because we might talk about cars one day, we might talk about a trip somewhere, or he loves the fact that I used to be an airplane mechanic. He asks me questions about that industry. So that’s fun, because you never know where it’s going to go. It’s not set up to specifically publicize one thing.
“And the other thing about podcasts – radio has become so bad, that people record or download podcasts. They listen to them when they’re driving. They listen to them when they’re at the gym, on the treadmill. And it works! Because radio sucks. Radio is five songs played over and over. I mean, how much Rihanna and Justin Bieber do you really need to hear before you’re like, ‘I got it.’”
And if there’s not your iPod or a podcast, there’s an app for that.
Pandora, Spotify or whatever the next app is.
“Satellite radio is good because you can find a station for whatever you like. But regular radio is just dead.”
So you said your podcast is about what’s in the news. How do you stay connected to what’s going on these days?
“I use, there’s an app for that. The main one, I have this app called Flipboard. You just choose different news feeds that you like, and it’s literally a page by page flip through them. So that’s what I do, I read various news feeds – Time magazine, USA Today, The Daily Beast, Huffington Post, just L.A. Times, stuff like that – and then I talk about the stories. Big ones, obviously. Things just that strike me as funny or weird, that’s what I talk about.”
What about being connected to fans? Do you engage via social media?
“Yeah. I respond when they hit me up through Facebook or Twitter. I wish I could say I had so many of them there’s no way to respond to them all, but I respond.”
Some comedians really pour themselves into Twitter and Facebook, and some are anti-…
“I’m not anti-. I’ll Tweet a couple of times a day or when I think of something. But I don’t sit down and think, ‘oh, I’ve got to Tweet something funny five times a day.’ That I don’t do. And then I do it, not so much as a comic but as a regular person, like during a basketball game. I’ll Tweet during the game. Stuff like that. And then other times, it’s just fun. Like during the election, it was just fun. Especially Election Day. Election night and during the debates, because people were chiming in point by point, and making fun of somebody said this, somebody said that – that kind of stuff is fun.”
Do you like to keep those personas separate, your onstage versus online personas?
“No, you can’t. I can’t. It’s all part of you. Because I don’t create a character. I know people who, they have a persona they’ve created, and when you do that, it’s a lot of work. Because then you have to maintain that all the time. So, you know, I think the stage – and I read this somewhere and I don’t know where – it’s generally an expansion of some portion of your personality. But it is who you are. So to have one personality in real life, one personality onstage and another personality online – I’m tired. I can’t work that hard.”
It’s a lot to keep track of.
“It is. It’s like those reality TV people. Like the Kardashians, or Jersey Shore people or whatever. You have no idea who they really are. Because they’ve created this persona and that’s who they’re going to be. I’ve been around people and watched them switch – be ordinary, and then turn on that, and it’s like, that’s a lot of work.”
Would you consider yourself a reality TV veteran?
“Yeah, obviously. Last Comic Standing.”
That’s a different kind of reality.
“The big difference with Last Comic is, we all had a talent to market. So as Kathleen Madigan used to say brilliantly, this show isn’t Fight, Fuck or Walk. Which is, that’s what the other shows are. We used to get into fights with the producers. They considered us boring, because we got along. We wouldn’t fight each other. We wanted to get onstage. We wanted to do what we do. So, I’m sorry. Me and Gary Gulman aren’t going to get into a jealous fight over Tammy Pescatelli. And that was the kind of stuff they wanted, and it just wasn’t going to happen. Except for certain people. Ant was good at it. He loved it.”
And Todd Glass – Todd is that way whether the cameras were on him or not.
“Todd is, he’s so funny in the living room. Whenever Todd would say, ‘Hey, could you imagine if…?’ That let you know something funny was about to happen. It wouldn’t necessarily translate onstage. It’d sometimes be funnier just amongst us. But I got along with everybody. It was a great run. But yeah, so, am I a reality TV veteran? No. And also, I say we’re better than American Idol, The Voice. Whatever. Because that’s all karaoke. They’re singing somebody else’s songs. So it’s like, could I do a great rendition of ‘Raw’ by Eddie Murphy? Or ‘Himself’ by Bill Cosby? Probably. We don’t get to do that. We had to write it.”
It feels like we’re in such a different space with comedy now in 2013 than it was even 10 years ago when you were on Last Comic, in terms of the opportunities for comedians to get exposure.
Last Comic, those first few seasons, there weren’t any other alternatives, outside of the traditional late-night TV credits.
“A lot of people knocked Last Comic. And they knock competition in comedy. But the thing about the show was, it was the only thing that put comics in prime-time. That’s why everyone wanted to do it. And that’s why it was great. My career, I timed it perfectly in that I started late enough to miss the boom of the ‘80s and I was too old for the boom of YouTube. So I pretty much aimed for mediocrity right in the middle. And I’m fulfilling that perfectly.”
When I saw you perform up in Montreal hosting New Faces (in 2012) and joking about being an old face, what added perspective did you have in watching these younger, newer comedians go through the gauntlet of trying to attract industry?
“It wasn’t as good for them as when I did New Faces. I did New Faces in 1997. It was a bigger deal. We did two shows, everybody in the industry came to see the shows, and they were looking for talent. I thought it was really unfair (in 2012) the way it was run, like their second show was a midnight show in a bar. Industry people aren’t coming to that. They’d come to the main show that they did in the main theater, but that was unfair because a lot of industry might have come to the first show but didn’t see the second. In that respect, it’s changed. And the agents and managers are much more involved. To the point where everyone in New Faces has representation. So when I did it, I was in a hip-pocket deal with APA when I did New Faces. There were some people who were unsigned. You weren’t necessarily new to comedy. But it was your first big exposure. Now, some of them may come up there, they may have 20-30,000 Twitter followers. They might be New Faces, but they’ve already got a fan base. And the networks and the studios aren’t making deals like they used to. Now the deals go to writers.”
In the late 1990s, they were giving them away. Like the “Chicken” deal.
“Yeah, and even that. I didn’t know him. But when I did it in ’97, I was one of the guys. I got a deal up there. And I had no idea what I was doing. I had been doing comedy four years, probably. The thing about Chicken was, people knocked him as if he did something wrong. If Warner Bros. offered you half a million dollars… ‘No, I’m not really ready.’ It was so ridiculous, the abuse that guy took. Was he ready to star and carry a sketch TV show? No. But you know something? Nobody was. That’s when Whose Line Was It Anyway? was a hit. People don’t realize how long and how good those guys were. You know what I mean? It’s like a really good high-school player, and now you’re going to throw him in the starting lineup of an NBA team and expect him to carry it to a championship. Ain’t gonna happen! And that’s really what that was. Again, I didn’t know Chicken personally. But all of the people talked shit. And nobody’s going to turn down a half-million dollars, when it’s offered. You’re not. You’re going to take it. I’m sure he took his best shot, and the show flopped, and that was, the weight of the industry was hung on his one deal. What are you going to do? When I got my deal, Chris Titus – who’s one of the greatest guys – I didn’t know Titus, but Titus came up to me and said, ‘Look, I was in this position last year. ‘This is what’s going to happen. This is who you’re going to talk to.’ He said, ‘You’re probably not going to get a show, but you’re going to learn how to’ – he basically ran down what was going to happen, and it was great of him to do that, because he was right. I learned a lot from it. He went on to get a show his second time around. I didn’t. But it was a great experience. The money’s nice! The money allowed me to quit the day job and become a full-time comic. I’ve been a comic full-time ever since. So it’s a great opportunity. But times change. You know, when Seinfeld went off the air they gave every one of those writers a million-dollar deal. Has any of them developed anything? Not to my knowledge. Larry David, but he was the brilliance behind the whole thing. You know what I mean? I’m sure there were two or three writers on Seinfeld who were like, wow, it’s a million dollars! I’m retiring! You know? It’s always a gamble, right? When we were doing Last Comic Standing, they made a deal with Matt LeBlanc to do Joey – it was a spinoff of Friends. We all knew that show was going to be crap. They gave him a half-million dollars a week. We said, there’s 10 of us here. If you gave each one of us $50,000 a week, one of us would get you a hit. You know? That to me, that would have been a better investment. Invest in 10 comics rather than one actor.”
And then you have 10 shows that have a shot.
“Right. But networks do what they do.”
As we enter another pilot season.
“Is there a pilot season anymore? I don’t think so. The networks that are doing hit shows – FX is doing great stuff. HBO has always been creative. They don’t operate on the new shows in September and then new shows in January, pilot season in February – they do shows when they do them, know what I mean? So I’ve never bought into the pilot season thing. OK, stop my career in February and March and then I’m going to get auditions for network shows. It just doesn’t happen that way that much anymore. It’s a different time. So it is pilot season, but to me that’s not a big deal.”
You’re not telling your agent to get you as many auditions as possible?
“I’ve never been a sitcom guy. Sitcom acting is big, it’s over-the-top. I’m more subtle. I’ve learned over the years…it’s just not what I do. Of course, if the opportunity came up, I’d do it. And I go on auditions. What happens now is, because I’ve developed some notoriety as a comic, I get called in on auditions, and there are real actors in there. I go, what the hell am I doing here, you know, I know this guy – I remember going up for one, there was a guy there who had been the sergeant on NYPD Blue, the original series, when the black guy was the sergeant. Meshach Taylor, I think his name is.”
From Designing Women?
“Yeah. He was in there. Now what the hell am I doing here? This is what these guys do. You have to respect the fact that when you work as an actor, you’re a better actor than a comic. I know what’s funny. But it’s a different talent. I’m not saying I’m a terrible actor. I wish I knew how bad actors got work. That’d be my dream. I’d love to be that guy who you look at the screen, ‘How’d that guy get that?’ Look at that. I want to be that guy. Everytime I see Tyrese in a Transformers movie, I’m like, how? They tell me, work on the abs. I think that ship has sailed.”
Well, you’re going to be on an episode of The Neighbors.
“I signed with a new agency (in 2012). A company called Innovative. So they want to send me out, they send me on these auditions. I tell them, ‘Look, I play a bouncer.’ I’m bouncer. I’m security guy #2. I’m henchman. Essentially, I’m in a uniform. I’ve played a cop, I’ve been a death-row prison guard, blah blah blah, Air Force. I know that’s what I get. I have this authoritative personality. I’m cool with that. Look, just get me in for those, so I can get health insurance. So sometimes, really? You think I’m going to go out for this, the straw that broke the camel’s back, it was the manager of a taco stand from a Nickelodeon show. Look, when Nickelodeon calls, Rondell Sheridan answers. Rondell nails those parts. He does! He plays a dad on all of those shows and he does a great job. So this part for Neighbors comes up, and it’s a bouncer. And I go in, and I get it. I said, ‘See.’ He said, ‘You’re right. First bouncer you get and you nailed it.’ I said, I know what I do. Back off. Send me out for bouncer. So I’ll be bouncer on an episode of Neighbors. And I’m cool with that. It was fun. And the people were great to work with, and that’s it. I like acting. I used to take acting classes. And my acting teacher, who was great, she said, ‘Look. You’re so into stand-up. That’s the muscle you’re working now. You’re not focused on this.’ And I’d be out on the road a lot, so I couldn’t rehearse with other people. And then I would do monologues. Well, I do monologues every night. That’s my job. So why am I paying money to take a class to do something that I do? I don’t know what the deal is with acting? But it’s a great job. I’ve seen people like Craig Robinson, Ken Jeong – Dr. Ken – these guys are legitimate movie stars now, worth millions of dollars. I’m so happy for them. I used to do stand-up with them but it was different paths. They stayed in L.A. and they worked on that, while I was out on the road, working on comedy, and it paid off. I don’t know which is right or wrong. Which is better or worse. It just is what it is.”
So for the year ahead in 2013, what is your gameplan?
“I’m going to be taping another TV special for EPIX for summer. So the main focus is get that ready. There’s a couple of things in development – one of them is a pretty good shot, I say that only because the showrunner has a proven track record, obviously I can’t talk about what it is, but I feel good about that one. And other than that, who knows? I work in the jazz world now, and I love it. I host these jazz festivals. I do jazz cruises. I’m about to do one in two weeks.”
So is this how you become the next Bill Cosby, is through jazz?
“You know something? We did. There was a cruise one time, it was the Playboy Jazz Cruise. The Playboy Jazz Festival in L.A., Cosby hosted it for 30-some odd years. He just retired. And the woman who ran it, I did a show and she loved it. I made fun of Herbie Hancock, and she couldn’t believe it – ‘like, nobody does that, I loved it’ and she said, ‘when Cosby retires…’ I said, ‘Look. Don’t even joke about that, because it would be the dream job for me. I’d love it.’ So I didn’t get the call. I think it’s going to be Sinbad. I’m not sure who’s going to get it. Somebody. I have a feeling he gets that gig. But it’s a world that I like. I’ve always liked the music. I’m the demographic of the audience, so that would be really cool. And jazz clubs, if you’ve ever been to one, they have a great vibe. It’s very, it feels creative. That’s my favorite thing. I love the new joke. I love the creative process. I’m lucky in that I make a good living. I’m not rich, but I’m certainly not poor. I can do what I want to do. But ultimately, when you strip away everything, I, Dom Irrera and I were just talking about this – I can have more fun working for free in the back of a bar because it’s purely creative, what are you thinking, all new, versus a five-figure corporate gig where I’m getting paid a lot of money for 30 minutes, but I have to stay within these parameters. So the creativity is what I love. Which is why I love doing topical stuff, because you never know what’s going to happen. Like, right now, we’re kind of in a holding pattern in my world. We had the fiscal cliff. I knew that was going to be bullshit. Now we have this new Congress, which is probably going to be worse than the previous one.”
Your optimism is stunning.
“I’ve been around a while. The election was fun. Because we had some great characters. But I don’t know what’s going to be the next funny thing in comedy. Barack Obama is not funny. He’s too cool. Too cool.”
Joe Biden is funny.
“Biden’s funny, but he’s not allowed to talk that much…Biden’s a second-term vice president. He has nothing to worry about. He doesn’t have to do anything. He just has to sit back…He doesn’t have to run for president. He’s going to kick back and write books, make appearances and ride the train. It’s a nice position to be in.”
“This gun thing is a pretty hot topic, and the NRA has proven to be such assholes. They’re an easy target.”
New York City has two road clubs in the middle of Manhattan. Does it feel like you’re on the road when you’re here?
“No, no. New York is different. New York is a great comedy city, and I wish, I should come here more and hang out at the Cellar, do that, but the great thing about New York audiences is you can go anywhere. You can say anything. You can’t shock New Yorkers. As long as it’s funny, they’ll go along with it. I love it. No, I don’t feel like it’s the road. It’s the weekend, it’s a road club in the sense that you’re doing a weekend here, but other than that, it’s definitely different. This isn’t like doing the Des Moines Funny Bone, or the Little Rock Chuckle Hut. Nah. You’re definitely in New York.”
Do you treat the offstage life differently, then, too, while you’re here?
“I do some shopping. I grew up here, so I can see some family, old friends, stuff like that, yeah. You’re in New York. You walk out of your hotel, and you’re in the heart of the city. You can do whatever. So, yeah, it’s better in that respect. It’s better than Richmond, where you’re going to go to the mall and watch a movie.”
You can go to the R.J. Reynolds tobacco factory tour there, though, right?
“No. I do stuff like that sometimes on the road. But New York is New York. It’s more fun.”
When you’re on the road, do you ever go out to look at sights just to try to form a more local connection with audiences onstage? Oh, this place is worth at least two minutes up top.
“You’ll see places like that. Nationwide, though, America has become so homogenized and boring. It’s the same malls in every city. And the mall is the new town square. Every town. It’s all the same stores. Foot Locker and Victoria’s Secret. Forever 21. Like, we were joking about Jos. A. Bank. How does that store stay in business? Buy one suit, get eight suits free. Today, everything is 90 percent off. But it’s everywhere. Jared. He went to Jared’s. I joke about stuff like that. But it doesn’t change. The personality of a place now, is, you might have a sports team, an athlete or something like that that makes it funny. Sometimes something happens that might be unique to that place. The South is always going to be funny because the South insists on remaining 50 years behind society. They defend, they’re so proud of their ignorance, it’s just frightening. And not everybody but, it’s the predominant culture. Miami is the sexiest city in America, it’s taken over from L.A. Florida is insane. The whole state has lost its mind. Arizona, crazy, Sheriff Joe, nuts. So it’s like that, where you have some character somewhere. California was one, when Schwarzenegger was our governor, like, OK, we’ve given up. So. Those are the regional things. But as far as going out, I’ll read the local newspaper but you can’t find that anymore because America has become so homogenized. The first thing to do it was cable TV. Cable TV was when we started seeing everybody dressing the same, everybody listening to the same music, blah blah blah, MTV, the MTV generation – for lack of a better term – and it’s boring now. America is really boring. It’s safe, and it’s the same shit everywhere.”
That’s why America needs you, Alonzo.
“Lewis Black, who I think is at the top of my genre, which would be political – he’s the guy. He said, it’s unfortunate we have to do this because there’s no media anymore. If there’s anything, when I say ‘Who’s Paying Attention,’ it’s there’s no media anymore. So comics are the only ones left to tell the truth. We don’t want that job. But you look at the news, it’s not news. Why do I know that Kim Kardashian is pregnant? I hate that. And I don’t just know it. It’s a lead story. They lead the news that Kim Kardashian is breeding with Kanye West, as if that’s somehow going to make the world a better place.”
“When Sarah Palin – and the fact that Sarah Palin is still talked to is ridiculous – but she made a statement. She said that Barack Obama is the most divisive president in history. He wants to take the nation back to a time before the Civil War. And no one raised their hand and said, ‘A black man wants to go before the Civil War?’ It was such a great question…you don’t understand what the world was like before the Civil War? Well, it was before Django came out, so perhaps she doesn’t know. But there’s a thousand of those things. We don’t have a Walter Cronkite anymore. There are some reporters who are decent. But there’s nobody…Anderson Cooper? No.”
As nice as he is to Kathy Griffin…
I wish I knew what to tell you, Alonzo. I had a career as a newspaper reporter. I was a newspaper reporter when I first met you, and now I hang out and write about comedians. I feel like what keeps me sane is talking to other comedians.
“I’m sure there are real journalists and other good ones who are somewhat handcuffed by the system. But there’s too many models and actors reading teleprompters.”
Buy Alonzo Bodden’s “He Had Me At Black,” here: