Alonzo Bodden has probably entertained you somewhere, somehow, during his 24 years of comedy. He has appeared on network and cable television, acted in major motion pictures, done voiceover work for cartoons and hosted radio shows and podcasts. You may also recognize him from the news, as he was widely heralded for donating a kidney to his older brother. Since winning “Last Comic Standing” in 2004, Bodden has seemingly been everywhere.
Yet the place where you can almost always find him is onstage, where the comedian performs his unique brand of observational comedy nearly 200 times a year. He’ll be at Howie Mandel’s Comedy Club at the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Atlantic City, Nov. 6-7 at 8 p.m.
I sat down with him during one of the rare times he wasn’t performing, and discussed a wide array of topics between laughs, including his late start in the business, his love for stand-up and comedians, and why Ben Carson has him considering a change of occupation.
Q: Okay, let’s start by recognizing that you’ve accomplished a hell of a lot in just under 25 years, but you didn’t start in this game until you were 30 years old. Why the wait?
A: I was actually in the aerospace industry for 10 years. I went to Aviation High School in New York to learn how to be an airplane mechanic, because I was always that kid. I would be the guy who would take something apart and say, “So, how does this work?” only to ask later, “Okay, so how’s it go back together? I … don’t know.”
Q: (laughs) So, is that what brought you out to California?
A: Yeah, I was hired by Lockheed Martin, moved to L.A. and worked in that industry for 10 years. I eventually ended up teaching there, and when I got up in front of the classroom and spoke, it was the most natural thing in the world for me. I used to make the other mechanics laugh a lot.
Q: Do you remember any of your material?
A: I really didn’t have jokes. I would just make them laugh by saying something like, “Everyone wants to be an airline mechanic until it’s 4 a.m. and pouring outside. Then, you want to be a pilot.”
Q: So, you’re standing up in front of a bunch of people, commanding their attention and getting laughs. If this was a movie script, the next scene would be obvious.
A: Yeah, I wanted to try comedy. I took a comedy writing class and wrote and performed my first 5-minute set at a theater in Santa Monica, and I was absolutely hooked. I loved it.
Q: Can you remember one joke from that night?
A: I honestly can’t. The jokes were about my family, I know that. But even though I didn’t use this particular joke on the first night, I wrote it right around that period, and used it 10 years later on “Last Comic Standing.” It was, “Beverly Hills invited me to a neighborhood watch meeting … to show the neighborhood what to watch out for.”
A: When I did that on the show, (veteran comedian and “Last Comic Standing” host) Jay Mohr was just cracking up. There are certain times when you do a joke, that you remember how someone laughed. That was definitely one of them.
Q: What are some others?
A: When I appeared on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.” Tom Arnold was the guest, and he was sitting in the chair next to Jay. Throughout my act, he was just losing it, to the point where I had to acknowledge him. I turned around and said, “Thanks, Tom.”
Q: You also did a spot at The Apollo that went particularly well.
A: Yeah, in ’94. “The Apollo Comedy Hour.” You know what they tell you about the Apollo … if you don’t have them laughing in 30 seconds, you’re dead. So, I go out there and my first joke is, “I grew up in New York and I moved to L.A.. If I was a rapper, I’d have to shoot myself.” The place went nuts.
Q: (laughs) That has to feel incredible. Is it cliché to say that going up there and getting laughs is like a drug?
A: It’s cliché, in a way. I mean, in the beginning, it definitely feels like a drug. After awhile, though — and I don’t mean to overstate it — there is an art to it. After you’re doing it for awhile, the craft becomes the thing. Asking yourself, “What can I do to challenge myself and keep it fresh?”
Q: Like making it a little scary for yourself, instead of doing material you have down cold?
A: Sometimes, sure. The nice thing about being new is that you don’t have an act yet. One of the best gigs I had early on was when a DJ in L.A. named Frazer Smith would broadcast a comedy show at the Laugh Factory every Friday night. It was a hot scene where everyone from rock stars to the Lakers would show up. I had been working as a doorman there and doing my 5 minutes whenever they would let me. Fraze liked what I was doing and had me warm up the crowd every Friday. Since it was the same crowd every week, and broadcast on radio, I couldn’t possibly do the same jokes. It forced me to write more often, and be creative. I worked like that for awhile, and eventually had an act.
Q: A lot of comics either don’t want to work as hard as you, or don’t love it as much as you, because we all know of several that perform the same act every night.
A: Some of them will stick to that hour so tightly, that you can walk into a club at the 37-minute mark of their 1-hour set, and they’ll be telling the same joke, the same way they always tell it, at that exact point. I don’t like that. I like the challenge of comedy, and being forced to create.
Q: Someone like Louis C.K. throws everything away once he’s performed it, and writes a new hour every time he goes out. On the flip side of that, you have the type of comic you just described. It seems like you purposefully fall somewhere between the two.
A: Right, that’s the mix. Some people become prisoners of their act, like Andrew Dice Clay, and then there’s someone like Dave Chapelle, who when someone yells out “Rick James!,” says “I ain’t doing that shit!” Dave did the Rick James bit over 10 years ago, and he’s evolved. Paul Reiser described it best. He said, “You do single jokes, then you get married. You do married jokes, and then you have kids. You do kid jokes, and then you get divorced.” As your life changes, your comedy changes.
Q: If we saw video of your very first gig in Sacramento, and maybe your first year in stand-up altogether, would we recognize you in what you’re doing up there?
A: A little bit, with some things. I did more personal stuff back then, but now I do more social observation.
Q: But were you as deliberate? I think that’s one of the main ingredients to your success up there. You’re not in a hurry.
A: Early on, I was actually too relaxed. They had to tell me, “Man, you have to bring some energy to it.”
Q: That’s very unusual. Is that just your personality?
A: Yeah, it’s just who I am. It’s also because I’m big and most big people are not very physical. I used to work with Dane Cook a lot in the early 2000s when he was becoming a superstar. He was very physical, as were a lot of other comics at the time, and I used to tell him, “Man, if I started throwing myself around with all that energy up there, the first row would run out screaming.”
Q: You mention Dane, and I think about some of the heat he took from other comics when he was selling out Madison Square Garden multiple times in a day. There’s a lot of backbiting in comedy in general. Did you ever sense a stigma attached to you from other comics, because your career took off after winning a game show?
A: There were a couple of comics that were bitter about it, but it generally has to do with personality, and people in comedy tend to like me, and respect what I do. They were okay with it. At the end of the day, it’s just a game show. “Last Comic Standing” is not perfect, but it’s the only way to get stand-up comedy on prime time television.
Q: You and Gary Gulman were both finalists in Season 2, before you came back and won in Season 3. Patton Oswalt recently praised Gary on Twitter for his subtlety and patience while doing a bit about the people charged with abbreviating the states. I saw Chris Rock give similar praise to Woody Allen recently, for, and I’m paraphrasing, being brave enough to drop jokes on the ground and hope the audience picks them up. I see a lot of that in you.
A: Thank you, that’s a really good compliment. It’s not a conscious thing, it’s generally just what I do. When I get a comment that I’m a smart comic, I appreciate it, and I’ve learned that once you’ve made people laugh and you know you can make them laugh, then you don’t worry about that part of it anymore. You could focus on pushing it, and doing other things. You mentioned Woody Allen being subtle, and Steven Wright is another. A lot of Steven’s peers have told me that he could only do 20 minutes because the audiences’ heads would hurt. His act was so smart. I never thought of it as leaving jokes on the floor, as Chris described it, but that’s interesting. And true.
Q: Before this interview began, you and I had an interesting discussion about race, and politics in general. Those topics show up in your act in varying degrees, depending on where you’re playing and who you’re playing to. Have you ever had a backlash?
A: There’s always going to be a few. Look, you were at my show the other night and I’m sure you saw that a few people walked out, but I can’t worry about that. I read somewhere that if you’re not pissing off 20 percent of the audience, you’re not trying. I wouldn’t say it should be that high, but I definitely have a 5 percent anger rate that I’m really proud of. (both laugh)
Q: I have a story that speaks to that a little bit. Two close friends of mine who are working comics met George Carlin in New York sometime in the ’90s, and they asked him for advice. He said, “If you have material that you’ve worked on and crafted and it has made people laugh before, and you’re in front of an audience who isn’t laughing at that same shit? Who cares. It’s the audience’s fault, because you know your shit is good.” (both laugh) Even though you’re established and have enjoyed great success, do you still just flat out bomb from time to time?
A: Yes, but now the entire act doesn’t bomb, certain jokes will.
Q: Does that make you question yourself?
A: Not myself as a comic, but I question why the point isn’t getting across, or whether I am wording it wrong. Stuff like that. Every now and then, it just truly ain’t funny. Usually, it’s just a matter of figuring out how the idea works. It’s funny that you mentioned Carlin, though, because Carlin gave me a piece of advice as well, that he gave to many. He said, “Take them across the line, make ’em glad they came.”
Q: That’s a great quote. Also, easier said than done for most.
A: It is a great line, and he would do it repeatedly. If I can do that … if I can make my audience laugh at something that is politically incorrect, and usually makes them uncomfortable, that’s a good thing.
Q: Who makes you laugh?
A: You obviously know comics so I’m sure you’ve heard the joke, “How do comics laugh … they sit back and calmly say, ‘That’s funny.’ ” When I watch Dave Chappelle, Chris Rock or Lewis Black, I may not laugh out loud, but I’m enjoying it completely. I also like comics that are different. Jeremy Hotz and Dom Irrera make me laugh out loud, because they are completely different than me. Jerrod Carmichael is my favorite of the young comics. I’m fascinated by how his mind works.
Q: Anyone from the Old School?
A: For me, Carlin is the great one. Certainly for topical humor. Playboy cited me as one of the “Five Spawn of Carlin” in an interview they did with him while I was on “Last Comic Standing.” It might be the highest compliment ever paid to me. Sometimes I wonder if I’ve lived up to that, because I know I didn’t push as hard as I could have at times, in terms of my career.
Q: You being compared to Carlin has me wondering if situations still exist within the black community where some African-Americans may not support you enthusiastically because you’re playing to a lot of white audiences, and modeling yourself on some white comics? Does that culture still exist today, or is that an ignorant question?
A: No, it’s a very good question. You’re scared to word it more directly, like, “Do black people accept you as black enough?” but it’s a good question. I grew up a middle class guy in Jamaica, Queens, but it was during the Def Jam era, where you had to come hard from the hood. In my own neighborhood I got booed off stage, and they didn’t stop there. They booed me out of the building. Fast forward to when I won “Last Comic Standing,” and a lot of black people who didn’t think I was hard enough for them were proud of me because I went to the other side and won.
Q: Without trying to be something you’re not.
A: Right. Cedric the Entertainer told me at a show a long while ago, “Don’t listen to (some black comedians). I like what you’re doing. A lot of these guys wish they could do what you’re doing” in regard to working in Hollywood and all of that. And I’ve always admired black comics who can have that type of career.
Q: How did you know things had changed in regard to how the black community felt about you?
A: There were a few signs, but I’ll tell you when I really knew. I was hanging outside of the Laugh Factory one night, and a brother walked by totally thugged out, with his pants five sizes too big and his hoodie on and everything else. He was the kind of guy our … attorney general would want stopped, frisked and arrested for simply existing. He just looked at me and said, “Old man, that shit you said about dem white girls on TV was fucking great.” I said to myself, “If you made him laugh, then you’re good.”
Q: Where was your career at when you first stepped onstage for “Last Comic Standing”?
A: I was a salaried headliner. That means I would go into a local Chuckle Hut somewhere … say, Des Moines … and no one would know who I was, but I’d show up and do 45 minutes, make everyone laugh, and get paid whatever the club paid for that spot. I didn’t have a price yet, and I didn’t have a (fan following).
Q: You did this all across the country?
A: I went to all 50 states, the prairies of Canada, and a long list of places where nobody should go. It’s all part of working your way up.
Q: Do you have any stories about corporate gigs? I know some of them can be pretty eclectic.
A: I did one in Huntsville, Ala., in front of a bunch of rocket scientists. Literally, rocket scientists. In Alabama. I also did a gig at a place that manufactured body parts. But the one I love is a Christmas party I did for General Dynamics. Whenever I do a corporate show, I like to get an idea of what the employees do, so that I can cater the show to them. The problem was, no one could tell me what they did, because their jobs were all top secret.
Q: (laughs) What was your worst gig ever, to this point?
A: Oh, there have been a lot of “worst” gigs, but the one that immediately pops into my head, was on a bus.
Q: You performed on a bus?
A: Someone rented tour buses to take people from Disneyland to Hollywood. So they hired a few comics to stand at the front of the bus and tell jokes on the bus P.A. system, for the full hour and a half it takes to get there.
Q: (laughs) A gig where the most challenging part of doing stand-up was standing up. What would have happened if you were stuck in traffic for hours?
A: Well, we certainly would have had a captive audience.
Q: I often tell people how much fun I’ve had at your shows, and they check your stuff out on YouTube. In my mind however, “your stuff” isn’t what separates you from most comedians. It’s your crowd work. I saw you abandon your act 10 minutes into an hour-long performance and interact with people, unscripted, for the rest of the hour, getting tons of laughs. I left there feeling like I saw something real.
A: Thank you. For me, that’s the best part, because it’s the creative part. I never know what someone is going to say, and that makes it challenging.
Q: You’re not afraid that they’re going to say something that will trip you up, or wreck the show in some way?
A: Oh, it has happened. Just a few weeks ago, I was doing a show on a cruise, and a woman near the front was wearing a coat. I started in on her about wearing a coat on a Caribbean cruise, and it turns out — the husband had to tell me — that the coat was a hormonal treatment for menopause. The husband was trying to tell me more about it, but I figured I should just move on.
Q: (laughs) Has anyone tried to challenge you after the show for something you said to them onstage?
A: Not really, because I don’t make things personal.
Q: Well that, and maybe because you’re a 6’4″, built, African-American male?
A: Actually … I once had a midget get mad at a midget joke. That was funny to me, because I can handle an angry midget.
Q: (laughs) How much of your comfort with crowd work stems from you being a ballbuster growing up, and how much is craft?
A: Hmm. I’d say 75 percent craft, and 25 percent upbringing. When I talk to young comics, I urge them to read, because it helps to know just enough about a lot, so that you’re able to bullshit about it onstage. Also, the more you work, the more you hear and see. There is a great comedian named Bob Zany who has been doing this for probably 40 years, and there’s no job he hasn’t heard. He once asked a man in the audience what he did for a living, and the guy said he was an undercover cop. Bob said, “Obviously not a very good one.” (both laugh)
Q: I saw Cheap Trick in concert last night and they were great. That said, I knew you and I were doing this today, and I couldn’t help but to think, as I was listening to one old hit after another, how much easier it is to sustain a career in the music business, as opposed to comedy. Not easy, but easier. Once you record a hit song, the public is more than happy to hear it every day, forever.
A: I recently saw Alex Hahn, a brilliant young saxophone player, play “Body and Soul.” I told him, “That song was written 50 years before you were born, yet the audience thinks you’re great.” Meanwhile, at no point can I go up there and say, “Here’s a little vintage Eddie Murphy, from ‘Delirious.’ ”
Q: (laughs) Exactly.
A: And the real tragedy of comedy is that when a comic dies, his act dies with him. So, you have someone like Patrice O’Neal, who was beyond brilliant, but 98 percent of the world has never heard his material … and they never will.
Q: All of this talk about coming up with new material illustrates why winning “Last Comic Standing” is more difficult than winning “American Idol.” Paul McCartney and Steven Tyler didn’t write your jokes for you.
A: That’s true. I understand it’s just the nature of things, but a lot of “American Idol” contestants lived or died based on what great song they chose. It was a lot different for us.
Q: Sometimes when you write material, you need to have what I would call societal instinct. Ben Carson has become even more familiar to the American public now, thanks to some of the interesting answers he gave while being confirmed as the head of Housing and Urban Development. That said, you were on the Ben Carson thing early.
A: I wasn’t doing a load of Trump jokes back then, because who knew? From the early going, I thought Ben Carson was the funniest. For years, I’d tell people not to look to me for answers, because I wasn’t a brain surgeon. Or I’d say not to ask so and so, because he was no brain surgeon. But after 6 months of listening to Ben Carson speak, I thought to myself, “You know, maybe I can do brain surgery.” He set brain surgeons back a long way.
Q: (laughs) Even though conservatives at an Alonzo Bodden show might hear you take a few shots at people they support, you’re not a mean-spirited comic. Especially in regard to the audience.
A: I don’t make fun of the person, I make fun of what they say. If you make fun of a person’s physical situation … short, fat, bald … you’re just being mean. If they say something stupid, or they have a funny occupation, or they’re sitting three seats away from their husband, then I’m gonna have some fun with them.
Q: I think the same thing goes for joking about race. It’s not funny to simply laugh at someone’s race, but you can laugh at behavior associated with that race.
A: Well, just look at Michael Richards. When he was up there shouting the N word, that was not a joke, and anyone could tell. Audiences know when you mean it, and when you’re just having fun. That came from somewhere deep inside him. Bill Burr, on the other hand, makes fun of black people and black culture all the time, and he’s the best at it. You can just tell that there’s no hate behind it.
Q: Michael Richards obviously makes me think of “Seinfeld,” which in turn makes me think of comedians on television. There are a dozen well known success stories, but for comedians, TV is a tough racket.
A: It is. I’m the king of the one season show. I hosted “101 Cars You Must Drive” for one season, “America’s Worst Driver” for one season, “Mind of a Man” on the Game Show Network for one season, and I did a syndicated talk show with Cris Collinsworth for one season that was so bad, I can’t even remember the name of it (“Inside the Vault”). So I’ve had some shots. I particularly liked “Mind of a Man.” I really thought it was gonna stick.
Q: Whenever viewers are being counted, quality doesn’t always win out.
A: I call it the lottery business. You either lose, or you win the lottery. A recent example is Billy Gardell. Billy was a road comic out of Pittsburgh who did some guest spots on a few shows. Billy was about to leave L.A. and go back to Pittsburgh and do morning radio, and then boom — he lands “Mike & Molly.” It’s going into syndication now, which means Billy will not have any worries for the rest of time (laughs). Billy is a great guy, but that’s just the nature of the business. Dr. Ken Jeong is another example. I knew him when he was doing stand-up at night, and was a real doctor during the day. Then he got a spot in the movie “Knocked Up,” where he played a doctor, and he’s never looked back.
Q: In other words, he’s jumping out of a trunk of a car, naked, in a lowbrow movie … and he’s not setting doctors back anywhere near as far as Ben Carson is setting back brain surgeons?
A: (laughs) Not even close.
Robert Ferraro is a former producer of radio talk shows and Major League Baseball broadcasts, who interviews pop culture figures.
This article first appeared on Ferraro’s web site, ofpersonalinterest.com.