Comedians, like social scientists, are students of human behavior. They observe, gather data, and offer analysis as social commentators. While we work in very different settings, have different standards for excellence, and carry different professional personas, we are both interested in examining identities, communities, interactions, and group dynamics to tell stories about how social environments and cultural dynamics shape how people live. A few years ago, I met Brian Babylon, one of the top comics in Chicago, and quickly appreciated that we are both in the business of interpreting the world around us through our work. Born and raised in Chicago, Babylon calls himself an "aspiring media mogul" who hosts a radio program, produces comedy shows in the city, and is a regular on National Public Radio's popular quiz show, Wait, Wait…Don't Tell Me! The following is an edited transcript of a conversation between us, the comic and the sociologist.
You are one of the most versatile media personalities in Chicago. One day you are moderating a panel at the Chicago Ideas Festival where former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor is appearing. That night, you performed stand-up at a club. And the next morning, you are doing your radio show on Chicago Public Media’s Vocalo. What’s the key to your success?
There are few people who can transcend race and socioeconomic status and find connections like I do with my comedy and my radio show. Part of my goal from the beginning was to have reach across town. So I am not just playing the North Side, not just playing the South Side, but I’m everywhere. It has made me a stronger comic and interviewer with the radio show. My job is to entertain, connect with, and engage you whether you are a rocket scientist or a crack dealer.
And you’ll find rocket scientists and crack dealers on both the North Side and South Side. Tell me about your radio show on Vocalo.
I created my show from scratch four years ago, and now it’s The Morning AMp! with Brian Babylon and Molly Adams. I used to be Director of Media for a company that made industrial videos, distance learning, and corporate communications. I was making great money. I got a call from Chicago Public Media saying they were starting a new online radio station, Vocalo. I had just started doing comedy, maybe eight months before that, and they asked me to come and do Vocalo and take a pay cut because it was brand new. The meticulous media mogul in me said, “If I ever want to do something like this, it should be with public radio because of the brand loyalty.” I never would have quit my job to work at a commercial radio station where the focus is on making money. That’s why they play Lil’ Wayne a million times. I wanted creative freedom. Chicago Public Media said, “You can have this show on Vocalo, and you can do whatever you want.”
They gave about five people shows, and I am the only one still on the air. My mission is very important: to bring nontraditional public radio listeners into the public radio world. I would love for people in my community to hear real conversations about real issues versus what you hear on a lot of other radio stations where they aren’t talking about anything. And on my show, we talk about things in a way that doesn’t make you feel left out because you didn’t go to the University of Chicago or Northwestern or you aren’t the traditional public radio listener. A lot of times, public radio falls into that trap, where people in my community tune out because they don’t think it’s for them. People in my community want to talk about key topics and share ideas. Recently, we talked about how Lowe’s pulled out of the All-American Muslim show on TLC, and you get a lot of different perspectives instead of just “the white liberal perspective” or “the North Side perspective” that you usually hear on NPR—and that’s my main goal. We just got syndicated, so we are on three radio stations in the Chicagoland area.
And you are now a regular cast member on National Public Radio’s Wait, Wait…Don’t Tell Me!
That’s the biggest thing I do right now. Four million people listen to Wait, Wait nationally. It was right place, right time. In January, some panel members got snowed in in New York, and since they produce the show here, they asked me to fill in. And I never looked back. I’ve been on the road with them doing shows. My next show with them is January 14th here in Chicago at the Chase Auditorium.
Tell me what people can expect from one of your comedy shows.
I emcee quarterly shows at Jokes and Notes. Mary Lindsay owns that place, and I owe her my career. There would be no Brian Babylon without Jokes and Notes. I really started getting serious about performing when they built Jokes and Notes across from my house, and I said, “I guess I gotta give this thing a shot now.” I then started producing a comedy show at the Bronzeville Coffee House. The show is going into its fifth year. Time Out Chicago said in 2009 that it was the best place to see comedy in the city because it’s diverse, fun, and free, and you just don’t see stuff like that in the city. It is one of the few places where you see white people, black people, Latino people, old people, young people, rich people, poor people who are all hanging out and enjoying the show.
Did you know from the beginning that you were going for a diverse audience? In some ways, it seems like it requires more work because you’ve got to figure out what makes people laugh across cultures, income levels, and neighborhoods. You can’t just go for the lowest common denominator of what’s funny in a particular group.
I’m very strategic and meticulous about everything that I do. Deon Cole, one of my closest mentors, is a comic from Chicago and one of the writers on the Conan show. He’s the one who really believed in me from the beginning. He told me, “You want to be able to tell your jokes anywhere.” The formula that I like to tell myself is that you have to have what some people assume is “white guy wit” with “black guy swagger,” to put it in simplistic terms. When I talk about “white guy wit,” I mean that you have to enough wordplay to make people laugh. When I talk about swag, it’s not about pants sagging, it’s about having the panache and stage presence to make people want to hear from you, keeping their attention and curiosity.
Although people make assumptions, white comedians don’t exclusively own dry wit, and black comedians don’t own swagger. You’re an example of how you can do both. You talk about race in your act, but you do it in unconventional ways. I remember a bit you had about how holding a Starbucks Coffee Cup and listening to Seal suddenly makes you less physically threatening to whites as a black man. It was a smart way to talk about the juxtaposition of race and class and how visual cues are used to categorize people.
For me, you can’t just do racial comparison jokes, “White people do this and black people do that…” In a time of increased integration and more media exposure of different groups, cultures and races know what each other are doing. White people know about black culture more than ever now. When Richard Pryor was around, comics were the gatekeepers of black culture. They would play a white audience and talk about black culture, and the audience had no idea. They were fascinated. But now, anybody can go on the Internet and see all types of images of blackness and black culture.
So as you navigate the complexities of race and class, do you feel any responsibility to portray blackness in a certain way?
Well, I never want to be cliché or hack. I want to be so original and so fresh. I think you can push the boundaries on racial jokes if you do it cleverly. I don’t use the n-word a lot. I do say it once, but I get away with it because I think it’s smart. I have a bit about typing the n-word into my iPhone, but the phone auto-changes it to “niggardly.” And then for my whole set, I might use the word niggardly.
What about gender and sexuality? Are there things that you won’t put in your act because you feel like it feeds into stereotypes?
One thing that I don’t do is gay-bashing jokes because, first of all, you aren’t going to go far in this game with that. And I’ve seen it where people do a set on the north side of gay jokes, and you hear crickets. I also stay away from misogynistic jokes. I don’t do rape jokes. I don’t have time for that.
Tell me about your process. I am always struck by how quick you have to be to be a comic, to hear something and have an automatic reaction that is not only funny to you but will be funny to a whole group of people. As a sociologist, we do a similar thing with scholarly analysis. We take in data, we juxtapose that against existing theories and literature, and we offer an analysis. It becomes second nature after years of study and work.
Some people are born with it, and some people have to study it. For me, writing jokes and material is a process. Some jokes take years to really cultivate. You’re always adding things to it, taking things away, moving things around.
As a scholar, honing an hour-long act sounds like writing a new article or lecture. What happens when your work is rejected?
Comedy, if you aren’t doing well, you know immediately. So it’s instant gratification or letdown. You know by the body language, the boos, the silence of the crowd. And if you don’t get what you want from the audience as a comic, you feel it and you feel horrible. When you bomb, do not keep going. If you feel yourself bombing, the next time you get a bit of chuckle, say goodnight and walk off. You’ve already bombed. There is nothing you can do to turn it around. Go back to the lab and figure out what’s not working.
And it must have been tough to do that at first. Did you ever think, “The chances of me hitting it big are so slim?” Or did you always believe you would make it?
I never thought of it that way. I never put demands on it. I never said, “I need to be a millionaire by X time or I need to be on Def Comedy Jam by X time.” I didn’t think about it that way. I didn’t put restrictions on myself. I kept it really basic. My goal when I performed in New York was, “I want to go and perform at every comedy club at least once.” And I did it. I keep my goals small, thinking that within those small steps, someone will look at me. It’s all about right place, right time, and being ready. You can’t force this. All you can do is kill it on stage, each time.
I went to LA a month ago and saw Eddie Murphy when he taped a segment for The Tonight Show. It was my little comedy mecca experience. He was asked if he would do stand-up again, and he said, “I haven’t done stand-up in 20 or 25 years. I would have to start from scratch going to open mikes.” It’s a muscle memory thing.
I therefore take comedy very seriously and very humbly. Early on, I would go to an open mike, get bumped, try again, fail. All those things make it tough. Drive to the North Side where you are 39th on the list for the night to get three minutes on stage. Then drive to the South Side and play at Jokes and Notes. I go to New York three or four times a year, Los Angeles four or five times a year to network and keep my face out there. It’s like a sales job. You’ve got to build relationships with other comics and owners. Don’t burn bridges.
What issues are you most passionate about? What messages, if any, are you trying to convey through your work? What are you trying to say to the world?
I am really trying to push entertainment, commerce, and business south of Roosevelt, because that’s part of Chicago, too. South of 18th Street, really, because the South Loop is not really the South Side. Jokes and Notes [at 46th Street and Martin Luther King Drive] is a top-notch comedy club, but I hear more about comedy shows in the back of a pancake house just because it’s on the North Side. You need to go further south and further west.
When I run the comedy night at Jokes and Notes or at the Bronzeville Coffee House, I make sure that that lineup is always diverse. And people like it. I’ll hear, “I like that white guy, he was funny.” And the white comics are surprised, “Wow, I did really well here.” I say, I knew you would do well here, just do your thing. Black people aren’t dumb. They can get your New Yorker references. Just be funny and have confidence.
GO: Brian Babylon Birthday Comedy Show at Jokes and Notes on December 29, starting at 8 p.m. $10 admission for two
LISTEN: The Morning AMp! on Vocalo.org, 88.7 FM, or 89.5 FM., 8-10 a.m. Monday thru Friday; Wait, Wait…Don't Tell Me! on January 14 WBEZ 91.5
Photograph: Courtesy of Brian Babylon