It’s never too late to get bit by the comedy bug.
Cipha Sounds could have jumped headfirst into stand-up comedy a decade before he did. He told The Comic’s Comic about hanging around with Dave Chappelle one night in 2002.
“We were at some party, an Eminem album release party, and he was like, me and him were just talking at the bar, and he was like, ‘Oh, I got to go do a set at the Cellar. You want to come?’ Well, yeah! I had some girl with me. I said, ‘You want to go see comedy?’ She was like, ‘Yeah.’ So we went to the Cellar. I had no idea what The Comedy Cellar was. And he fucking went onstage and just destroyed it for an hour. I was like, ‘What is this place?! Are you headlining? Is this your show?’ He said, ‘No. We just go on if we want. And then after that, he was, ‘Yo, I’m doing this pilot. We need this DJ for the part where I talk to the studio audience. Would you want to do it?’ I was like, ‘Ehhhh, I guess so. (laughs) Yeah. I guess so.’ And the pilot was in a theater, like maybe it was Pace University or something. They shot the pilot and he said, ‘Yeah, the pilot got picked up. Would you want to be the DJ for the show?’ ‘Yeah, I guess.’ Not excited about it. And then, even his Block Party. He calls me and he goes, ‘Cipha, I’m having this block party on Saturday, could you DJ?’ I’m like, ‘What time?’ He’s like, from this time to this time. ‘Uh, I’m on the radio at that time.’ He’s like, ‘Oh, alright.’ That’s it. That’s all he said. Then all of a sudden later, you hear all this, ‘Aw, shit! The Fugees just played a reunion! Mos Def played! The Roots! Kanye! Kwali! I was like, what is that? ‘Some shit Dave Chappelle’s doing. I was like, what the fuck? I called him, like, ‘Yo! You didn’t tell me it was a movie you were shooting with all these rappers!’ He said, ‘Oh, I thought you knew.’”
Cipha did enjoy his run as the official DJ for Chappelle’s landmark Comedy Central series, Chappelle’s Show.
Even if he didn’t get to appear in Chappelle’s Block Party movie, Cipha did graduate to his own MTV showcase, and eventually several roles with HOT 97 – now he’s on drive-time afternoons during the week, as well as early Saturday evenings and some overnight shifts, too. Before working the ones and twos for Chappelle, Cipha Sounds shared the stage and studios with plenty of big names in the music business, spinning on national tours with Jay-Z, Mos Def and Lil Kim, and working as an A&R executive for multiple record labels.
But he’s also busy several nights a week busting his rump onstage for laughs. You can see him Thursday nights at The Stand with Fat Baby Live, most Friday nights at the UCB East Theatre hosting Take It Personal: The Hip Hop Improv Show, and his Don’t Get Gassed monthly variety show, which celebrated its seventh anniversary in November at Carolines on Broadway during the New York Comedy Festival. Tracy Morgan, Mike Epps and Kevin Hart are just a few of the big-name drop-ins who’ve entertained his Don’t Get Gassed crowds.
“As he does on Hot 97, Cipha has done a really great job of having a broad cultural appeal to his live shows, which is reflected not only in the diversity of the talent he books, but in the audiences, as well,” said Caroline Hirsch, founder/owner of Carolines on Broadway and the New York Comedy Festival. “His ‘Don’t Get Gassed’ shows have been among the most popular of our monthly shows due in large part to Cipha having developed his own skills as a live performer and also in bringing a great mix of different comedians to each show.”
Don’t Get Gassed was Cipha’s first true experience with stand-up when he launched the show back at the now-defunct Comix in 2007.
Back then, he said he was enjoying his DJ slot on-air Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., “and I’d mix from 12 to 1, so I was a jock and a DJ,” he said. “It was Saturday morning, so everybody would hit us up, like, I’m washing my car. They’re doing laundry. And we were entertaining them while they were doing that Saturday-morning stuff. So me and my boy, we would crack jokes, hang up on people. I used to – you remember when the chirp cellphones were out “BEEP BEEP!” I used to just play that noise on the air and people would say, ‘Yo, your phone keeps going off.’ Or they would look at their phone. So just stuff like that, and people would say, ‘You’re funny!’ ‘Funny on Saturday, funny on Saturday.’ So it just hit me, hearing the word funny over and over. Maybe I should try to do something in comedy. I literally just wanted to produce a show. I didn’t want to be really on it. I wanted to just bring up the comedian, the first one or the host, and then call it a night. And then, I got a deal at Comix, which was at 14th and 9th, it was a good spot. And they had the first one was packed, sold out, so they asked me to do it monthly. And it just started from there.”
But you didn’t have any comedy background at the time, correct?
“People had been telling me I’m funny my whole life. Road trip funny, though. With your friends funny. And I was super sarcastic. But I’d never tried stand-up. I was a fan of it! Always a fan. But never even thought it was a possibility or wasn’t even a desire other than producing a show.”
Anthony Anderson and Royale Watkins would start their own Mixtape Comedy Show a little more than a year later than Don’t Get Gassed.
“I was lucky,” Cipha said. “I hate these terms, but the black circuit or the urban rooms, but my first couple of shows were like that. Very urban. And I didn’t want it to be just this. I like all kinds of comedy. So then my goal became to mix the two different worlds, and then my crowd wasn’t really a comedy-club-going crowd. They were more of a nightclub crowd. So it was almost like my show was a pit stop before they were going to the club.”
Because you were drawing people from the radio.
“It was a perfect area, too, because it was the Meatpacking Distract, and there were a lot of clubs around there. And my show was a little later, at first. So people would come to my comedy show decked out, because they were going out afterward. All of a sudden my show became the place to be, with a lot of beautiful girls. Lot of dudes, dressed up, ready to go to the nightclub.”
When you first did the show at Comix, did you prepare a monologue?
“No. Nothing. That’s the thing. The reason why I think I got good at stand-up a little bit faster than your normal guy who started out, is I already had years of being comfortable onstage. Walking out into a crowded room and talking on the mic didn’t frighten me. And I didn’t know I had to try to be funny. I was already funny. When I DJ, I’d say a lot of funny shit. So I just went out and talked to my crowd like I normally did.”
“I didn’t know I was doing crowd work. I didn’t know there was a name for that. I was just doing what I always did. And then I brought out the host, and I was going to kick back and watch the show. The lady who ran Comix or the booker (Molly Mandel), she was like, ‘Aw, that was really good.’ I felt good that it was successful, like super-packed, and I was super-happy. Then she said, ‘You have to go up and bring up the next act.’ No. I’m not going up again. I started the show, that’s it. She said, ‘No, you have to go up every time.’ What?! No! I don’t want to do that! (laughs)”
Wendy Williams also had a regular show at Comix, and Cipha wanted to make sure his show was different, and showcased comedy he likes.
“I like the driest, nerdiest humor. I could go to the Cellar and watch Dan Naturman and then go to Harlem and see Smokey or Talent or Capone. I really like. I hate that there’s some people who like one and don’t like the other. I know it’s because of race, or your upbringing, but I really like all types of comedy.”
“I always used to watch Seinfeld on The Tonight Show. And when he got his show, that first season, I was on it. My mom was like, ‘What is this crap?’ The first season it looks different from the other seasons, and I loved it. And then Seinfeld blew up and I was mad. Everybody likes it now. But I was on it, early early early.”
So you’ve always enjoyed watching stand-up, though?
“I remember Carolines had a show on A&E. The Improv had a show with the brick wall. I watched Eddie (Murphy), I watched Letterman and Tonight Show for all the comedians. I would watch any HBO special that came out with Bill Maher or who’s the other guy I really liked…And the way I met comedians when I was at Comix. I was on Sirius Satellite Radio also, and they brought Bobby Collins to my radio show. I would let any comedy club bring any comedian they wanted. I just liked comedians. And they brought Bobby, and he had a piece of Comix…and he would do a show once a month, and that’s how I met Molly, and she said ‘You should do a show.’”
It took a while for Cipha to grow into his comedic voice onstage.
“Not right away. I would get a laugh off of crowd work, and then I’d try to say the same joke next month and that’s when I started to get into writing.”
“There was a lot of hate in the beginning. Some of them would hate and not say anything, but I could feel it. And some of them would be like, ‘You know, technically this is your crowd that follows you. They’re giving you a handicap. You’ve got to go out and really go to some places where they don’t know who you are. And I started to go to a lot of smaller comedy clubs and just fucking dive-bombing, bad.”
It’s different starting out in stand-up when you’re an established celebrity or famous.
“When I went to places where they didn’t know me, bombing. Same material. Just hurting bad.”
So what made you decide to take classes at UCB?
“Before that I took the comedy class at Carolines,” he said. “But that was, it was literally teaching you how to take the mic off the stand, how to hold it. I was, I know all this already! I liked it, though, because it forced me to write every week and bring something new in. But it didn’t really help me that much. I could see, though, if you’re starting from scratch, it would help.”
He moved the show to Carolines once Comix closed. Then he started doing mornings on HOT 97 and a boss suggested improv classes “would help you loosen up.” Cipha recalled: “I had no idea what improv was, didn’t care. I was like, alright. I’ll take a look. I went to see a Harold Night at UCB and that was it. I was hooked. Like drugs. In the theater every day.”
What was it that hooked you?
“I didn’t even know what a Harold was. Even though it was called Harold Night, I didn’t know what it meant. But just how they just made everything up on the spot, I was hooked.”
“I’ve been pretty established in the music industry for a while, where I’d never wait on line for anything. Any club, any concert. But I’d be on that UCB line every day. Just by myself. A couple of people would go with me at first, but then once you see a bad improv show, that’s it. You’re unhooked. But me, I’d go. I had the same seat. I would stand on line super early.”
What’s your favorite seat there?
“It’s not there anymore (since they renovated the Chelsea theater). You walk in, the middle section, the risers, and then if you’re looking at it, top left there were two wooden chairs there. Not theater chairs. Let’s put two chairs here. I would sit right there every single time. Now I sit right in the front.”
Within two months, he was enrolled in his first UCB improv class.
“It was horrible. My 101 was horrible. No one talked to me. I was a loner. I didn’t relate to anybody. Didn’t fit in. I was the hip-hop radio guy. Nobody looked like me. They were all college white kids. They all spoke to me in a scene, but other than that, never spoke to me until the seventh week. And it was an eight-week course. Finally then they got cool.”
Were they intimidated by you?
“I don’t know. Still, to this day. But I guess. And in UCB, they send around an email sign-up sheet so everyone can stay in contact, and they didn’t pass it to me. And I was fucking furious. So the next one, 201, I came in with the sign-up sheet and just said, hey guys, let’s sign up and my name was already on it.”
Cipha took his first class with John Frusciante, and later UCB improv classes with Brandon Gardner, Gavin Speiller, Neil Casey, Anthony Atamanuik. Abra Tabak, Kevin Hines and Will Hines.
How did your own UCB show come about? Did you approach them or did they approach you?
“So (Chris) Gethard was the first guy to embrace me. And he heard that I was taking classes there and he Tweeted me,” Cipha said. “And then when I came out of class he was in the lobby.”
Did you know who he was? “No. No idea. When he Tweeted me, I looked him up and saw the Diddy thing. So I was like, ‘Who’s this?’ I saw the YouTube of it and thought, ‘What is this?!’ He knew who I was because he grew up in Jersey and heard me on the radio, so he embraced me and said, ‘Any trouble, hit me up.’ This is what you should do. This is how you get better at it.” So he performed on Gethard’s show, and soon enough, Will Hines was inviting Cipha to meet with UCB’s artistic leaders for brainstorming on ways to “diversify” the UCB system.
“Oh! You want more black and Spanish kids! ‘Oh, well, we don’t say it like that,’ he remembers them reacting. So I’ll tell you the first thing I know: We hate the term diversify. So, stop saying that.”
They asked him how to get more students, because that eventually would produce more performers who weren’t white. “They need to see more shows. That’s how you get hooked. I can’t just invite people to a school where they have no idea what the school teaches.”
The UCB gave Cipha comp tickets to invite friends and would-be performers.
“I also would do monologues for ASSSSCAT. And I thought, you know what’d be cool: If a rapper told a story. So I tried to get a couple of rappers, but they always flaked, because it was a Sunday. I was pissed. So then I was like, maybe they wouldn’t flake if it was my show. So how can I say ASSSCAT is mine. That’s impossible. What if I tried a show? A one-off? They were like, ‘Oh, yeah, let’s do it.’”
Cipha thought RZA would be the perfect get for his new show.
“The only thing better than the RZA would be Donald Glover. And I didn’t know Donald Glover at the time.”
Glover’s a UCB product, though!
“That’s why he’d be perfect. Because he knows improv and he’s a rapper. So I invited RZA and two days before the show he cancelled so I got someone else. But the show was packed.”
Recent guests for Take It Personal have included 2 Chainz, Victor Cruz, Swizz Beatz, Schoolboy Q, and Zoe Kravitz. During this summer’s Del Close Marathon, Cipha hosted a special edition of his hip-hop improv show featuring unheard stories from the cast of HBO’s The Wire.
Take It Personal has been a great success for Cipha and for the UCB. Over the past few years, Cipha’s prowess as both an improvisor and as a stand-up have grown.
“It took a couple of years of bombing, but now…I have a lot of great jokes. Now I’m trying to incorporate my personal life, which is a hurdle. I’m having trouble with it. But I’ll go to any comedy room. For the past year, before a year ago I was nervous to get up at alt rooms or bar shows. But now I do it. I figured out the trick. I used to try to change my jokes, because I wasn’t comfortable with them. Now I do the same jokes, but I change the delivery. So if it’s an urban hood room, they already know what I’m saying so I say it more aggressively.”
I was going to guess louder.
“I wasn’t going to say louder, but yes, louder and more curses. And if I do an alt room, I kind of like almost have to…when I’m doing my regular rooms, I might say, ‘I’m from the Bronx and my cousin did this,’ and if I do another room, “Well, I’m from the Bronx, and in the Bronx we have this, this and this. So my cousin does this.’ It’s a little more explaining, but it works great.”
Moving from morning radio to an afternoon shift also means Cipha can afford to perform comedy every night if he wants to. His Friday-night standing gig at UCBeast prevents him from working full weekends in a comedy club on the road, but he has traveled for the occasional road gig, opening for Tracy Morgan, Jo Koy and Lisa Lampanelli. “Tracy used to come to my comedy show all the time, just to work out. And then I just asked him, ‘Can I come out on the road? I’ll cover my own costs.’ And they’re like, yeah, sure.” There’s a Jo Koy business card on his table as Cipha talks to me, in fact. “I’m copying his ID.”
How does Cipha like being the opening act?
“It’s great. I love it. Tracy was easy. Because his crowd is my crowd. Jo Koy was a little harder. He would hate that I did crowd work. ‘Stop doing that shit! That’s my thing. I talk to the crowd. You just tell your jokes.’ My style seems like crowd work but it’s not. I have two answers. If they say yes, I have a joke. If they say no, I have a joke. But it seems like it’s crowd work, so he’d be, ‘Stop doing that! Stop fucking pandering to the audience!’ But he’d still let me go with him, so I guess he didn’t hate me. And then Lisa Lampanelli’s crowd was the fucking funniest, because they’d be a lot of gay dudes, but they love it, they were eating it up.”
Did you change up your act for Lisa’s crowds? “I just made fun of being Puerto Rican. Because she does a lot of race shit, so I’d say, ‘I know Lisa is going to come out here and say a lot of Puerto Rican this, but really, I’m this.’”
Andrew Schulz and Colin Kane also gave Cipha some sound advice for stand-up, including not caring what the audience thinks. “Take the abuse,” Cipha said Kane advised. “Take it and get better. He’s the one who gave me a lot of good advice.” When Talent worked across the radio hall, he’d often ask Cipha each morning where he’d gone up to tell jokes the previous night.
The UCB theaters also host freestyle rap battles, which are a form of improv; other theaters boast their own hip-hip improv groups, too, such as The PIT’s North Coast, which recently played one of Cipha’s shows. And just ask Cipha to tell you how similar Kool Herc is to Del Close.
“The problem is, I have this theory: There are people who like Seinfeld. And there’s people who like Martin. And there’s not a big middle, not a big overlap. So people who are in the real battle world, would think UCB was the corniest shit ever. Right? And UCB people would look at real battle rappers and think, this is way too aggressive for me. A lot of gun talk, murder talk. It wouldn’t. So you have to find the middle…”
I think the middle ground between Seinfeld and Martin is Flip Wilson.
“That’s so old, though…I’m just trying to find a way to bridge the gap. We’ll see. We’ll see.”
He bemoans improvisors who get on Saturday Night Live or in the movies and barely mention their improv roots. He just wants to get improv out from the basement and into the mainstream. He’s working on shopping a TV pitch that’s improv-based with Alicia Keys. “My goal is just to get on Conan and say improv is the key! Is the way to do it! Jon Stewart: Stand-up. Stephen Colbert: Improv. Look at the difference. Both of them funny, I love them both, but you can see how much more animated Colbert is…that’s the dream, baby! That’s the dream!”
Cipha’s dream certainly has plenty of support these days.
Christina Gausas, a leading improvisor with UCB and the Magnet Theater whose TV credits include 30 Rock and The Colbert Report, has asked Cipha to join her all-star improv jams under the umbrella team name Maravilla (their next show is Saturday).
“To me, Cipha is perfect. He’s the perfect improvisor,” Gausas told The Comic’s Comic. “He gets to the core of a character so quickly and effortlessly, and he navigates these fully formed people onstage. He’s smart and emotionally intelligent, he understands and has empathy for people and he brings that kindness to the stage and uses it when he creates his characters and gives it to his scene partners.”
“He’s just so fucking fun.”
And that fun, that love for improv, “moves mountains,” she said.
“We had a Maravilla show over the summer and Cipha came into the green room, right from the airport. Natasha (Rothwell) leaned over to me and said, ‘you know Cipha changed his flight to be here.’ I didn’t know – he was with Jay-Z and Beyonce (playing stadiums) for the On the Run tour, and came back for Maravilla. I went in the bathroom and cried for a minute because that kind of commitment makes you see everything differently.”
Patrick Milligan, owner of The Stand comedy club, where Cipha can be spotted multiple nights each week, said: “As far as his impact: It is great to see someone who is such a force in the hip hop community use his status to help stand-up comedy crossover into the music world and vice versa.”
He can be improvising a Harold one night, then onstage DJing for Jay-Z or Dave Chappelle the next. As was the case this summer. On The Run with Jay. Radio City with Chappelle.
Even if he doesn’t get to shout his love for improv on national TV, Chappelle’s Show is still a pretty good credit.
“All day. Anytime someone asks, ‘What should I say?’ when they’re going to introduce me, HOT 97, Chappelle’s Show.”
“I used to say UCB, but Chappelle got bigger laughs.”