Two years ago, Donald Glover was a writer for Emmy-winning best sitcom 30 Rock, which is quite an achievement for anyone straight out of college. A year ago, Glover had left that show to pursue a career in front of the screen, booked what he thought was a small role in another NBC pilot, Community, and starred in an independent film (Mystery Team, out on DVD next week) he and his partners in Derrick Comedy mostly self-financed and debuted in Sundance. And in the past year, Glover has seen his early efforts in stand-up comedy result in two different Comedy Central specials, recording and filming both a Live at Gotham spot and a half-hour Comedy Central Presents.
Oh, and he's also a rapper, aka Childish Gambino.
The 26-year-old Glover talked to me about all of this earlier this week in advance of tonight's first-season finale of Community and his headlining weekend Friday and Saturday at Comix comedy club in New York City.
As I recall, you only thought your Community character, Troy, would be on for a few episodes? "I didn't think I'd be a heavy character. I didn't think I'd be in all of the episodes. Things have worked out." He laughs.
One of the break-out moments of the show was your final-minute segments with "Abed" (Danny Pudi). How'd that come about? "I think they wanted tags. NBC wanted tags. And me and Abed, Danny Pudi, were rapping at this thing once. And Dan Harmon liked it. And people liked it. I wish it was a better story. Oh, we did something and it worked." Sounds like that's a recurring theme for your young career. "That's a lot of what I do now. I wish i had a better story of what I did. Tina Fey heard of me, and interviewed me, and that's what I do…Usually I don't have to make up stuff. And I go, oh that is sort of weird, becuase I will talk of things and not think of them as weird. Most of the time, I just take things as they come, and go, that's not weird."
Did growing up with foster kids make you think that way? "I think you grow up with this, oh, you come home and there's a new kid. That's not weird. In other homes it'd be, where'd this extra kid come from??? The household was a strange household, and my parents were funny and weird people."
Here's a clip from his half-hour Comedy Central Presents in which he talks about that:
You acknowledged in that Comedy Central special that you're still quite new to stand-up. What was it like coming to the game of stand-up after you'd already established yourself in improv, sketch and TV? "Stand-up just kind of happened like two years ago now. It was something that I tried because we were, literally what it was, we had extra time to do stuff, and people at The Creek (in Long Island City) were like, Rebecca was like, we have this space, and we couldn't do improv, because we had the show at the UCB, and we didn't do sketch because we hadn't done it in a while, and I just fell in love with stand-up. I can talk about whatever I want. I can say things I never said in public before. I just feel it made me mad that I had never done it before."
Of course, he's still only just 26. So how do you feel about already having accomplished this much? "It's a thing where, you take it how it is. People ask, were you ready? I don't know if I was ready for 30 Rock, but you better be fucking ready. You just better be ready and be as funny as I can. Opportunities aren't going to come when you're ready. You just have to take them as they come."
Heck, Eddie Murphy wasn't even 20 when he was on SNL. There's parts of Glover — at least from a charisma and stage persona perspective — that reminded me of that. Watch Glover talk about and impersonate Tracy Morgan and Chris Rock (as Murphy had mimicked his influences before him):
Where do you see stand-up, then, fitting among all of the other priorities in your career, from TV to Derrick Comedy to making animated videos or rapping as Childish Gambino? "I don't see them as priorities, I see them all as one thing. I see them as another form of expressing yourself. I think i'ts important to express yourself and show people who you are. It is one of those things were I feel like…I never look at it as a priority. Sometimes I have to. But in general, I don't see them as separate things. I see them all as the same thing. I know who Tina Fey is through her work…I see her as an actor and a writer."
How do you feel about the process of making, promoting and distributing the Derrick comedy movie, Mystery Team, where your comrades traveled city to city, spreading the word one city, one week at a time? "It felt like at the end of the day, that's how we always were. We brought it to people who loved what we do. It wasn't the typical route. Nothing we ever did was, so I don't now why we didn't think this would be different. It's important to always do things that aren't typical." Do you have high hopes for the DVD becoming a cult success? "It'd be great if it was, but I'm not really lookig for it. I'm very happy with how it's been received. People love Mystery Team, and that's cool. People say maybe it'll blow up. I'm not looking for that. I'm proud that it was cool and that it exists, but I'm not looking for it to have a second life on DVD. If it blew up, I wouldn't be oh, that's awful. Wet Hot American Summer — everybody my age knows what that is."
I've heard older comedians recently talk about how stand-up is not a young man's game, except most stand-ups start out as young man. How do you feel about that? "Comedy, and a lot like music, is being on the pulse. It's kind of like knowing where your edge is and how to push buttons a certain way because you know how certain things work. It is a young man's game in some respects, but you see, Bill Cosby wasn't 20 when he did Himself. He was an older man. I don't think it's a young man's game, it's a hard work game. I'm trying a lot of stuff out and I find a lot of things that are brilliant for me, and I'm sure Chris Rock or Louis CK found that sfuff out 10 years ago. I think I'm a better comedian now than I was a year ago, because I keep pushing myself and learning more about myself. It's about learning, oh, this can only come from you."
Being on the pulse, how much do you feel like comedians need to use technology such as Twitter or Facebook or whatever the next thing is to keep and build a fan base? "It's not super important. it can help you. People are looking for the new stuff. They're always lookfing for the new stuff. It's not going to matter if you're on Twitter or not. People aren't going to go, oh this guy is really good, but he's not on MySpace."
The Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre was an early home for you and Derrick Comedy. How important was the UCB for you as a young comedian? "Monumental. I wouldn't be where I am without the UCB. They're huge. They're a big part of who I am as a comedian." What if you didn't have the UCB? What would your flash-sideways world be like? "That's even scary for me to imagine. I'd like to think I'd still be good and hanging out with the right people. But I'd probably be in some shitty place. The only black guy in this shitty theater company, doing this shitty set. Only it's more New Yorky. I'd probably be doing that. So thank god for UCB for showing me the light."