Can a white Tyler Perry make it in show business without the wigs, makeup or disguise?
That’s not a rhetorical question in comedy, circa 2018.
Three years ago, Darren Knight was broke in the sticks of Munford, Ala., not far from Talladega Speedway but far far away from show business. Then he started posting videos to his Facebook page as “Southern Momma.”
Knight got representation only three months after his first open mic in 2016. Why? Because his Facebook following exploded. In just a couple of years, he has accumulated almost 2.5 million Facebook fans. He went from practically homeless to owning a Alabama plantation. His tours are among the hottest-selling tickets in the South right now, outpacing better-known, more-established TV stars and stand-up comedians.
It’s the American success story, right? Variety thought so, naming him one of its annual 10 Comics To Watch for 2018.
Yes, Knight already has a documentary about his rags-to-riches story, as it’s still happening, and you can buy it on Amazon or iTunes. (Most of the Amazon reviews focus on a technical glitch in that doc’s sound quality, so I hope they go back and fix that in post since they forgot to fix it in post).
Two larger caveats.
One: Darren Knight, aka Southern Momma, is not a YouTube comedian. Though his videos eventually find their way there, he found his sudden success via Facebook likes and shares.
Two: Knight’s introduction to Canada and the comedy industry did not go quite as planned. Unless he planned on getting booed while onstage, and yelled at by other comedians offstage.
I met him briefly Thursday at the Variety reception honoring its Comics to Watch at the Just For Laughs festival in Montreal. Knight seemed friendly enough. Unassuming. I went to Knight’s Facebook page and watched a video that already has 16 million views. I got it. Although it’s a difficult act to pull off in front of a live audience without the edits.
And almost all of the other videos didn’t have a wig or makeup. It was just Knight voicing things Southern Momma might say in different scenarios.
How would that translate to a live audience? Pas bien.
Apparently, the trouble started Friday afternoon during the Comics to Watch panel, when Knight talked about how comedy isn’t supposed to use racism or sexism.
Dulcé Sloan, a correspondent on The Daily Show wth Trevor Noah, said Knight “Called me Precious when he got offstage. He had been verbally attacking me all day. Amanda Seales and the other comics defended me before the panel.”
Called me Precious when he got offstage. He fat shamed me cuz he bombed. He had been verbally attacking me all day. @amandaseales and the other comics defended me before the panel.
— Dulcé Sloan (@dulcesloan) July 28, 2018
Seales said: “This clown ass hack Darren Knight embarrassed himself royally by being made to close out the Variety Comics to Watch showcase at Just for Laughs Montréal after speaking the same sentiment during an earlier panel.”
Alex Edelman, winner of the Edinburgh Fringe’s Best Newcomer in 2014, said: “Darren Knight. You fucked up at JFL tonight big time. Big time. You suck. If you’re going to go up and bomb don’t slam the other comics for how they kill. Or be racist.”
Darren Knight. You fucked up at #JFL tonight big time. Big time. You suck.
— Alex Edelman (@AlexEdelman) July 28, 2018
ComedyHype rounded up the Instagram Stories from Amanda Seales to file this report.
There will be other gigs for Knight. In fact, his tour continues to sell well back in the States. And audiences don’t hold comedic performers to the same standards that comedians do. That’s for certain. We can sit here and list off a ton of comedians making six- or seven-figure incomes who don’t have the best reputations or respect from their peers. Sounds like Knight’s first impression may have placed him in that latter camp, no matter how many tickets he sells or Facebook fans he has. At least for now.