Comedian Gary Owen On Being "Kind of Like a Teena Marie, Robin Thicke Type of Deal"
Gary Owen has spent his professional career balancing – and bucking against – the racial demarcations of the comedy world. Over the past 15 years, he has earned a solid reputation as one of America’s up-and-coming kings of comedy. Although a White man with a large Black fanbase, Owen’s success is derived from his zany storytelling of intimate, “fish out of water” experiences that prove life – and laughter – are bound universally.
Owen left audiences in stitches in his small role in the Steve Harvey-inspired blockbuster, Think Like A Man this past spring, followed by Gary Owen: True Story – a Showtime comedy special – which aired this past May 10. In support of the DVD release, Gary Owen managed to squeeze some time out of his busy schedule to settle down for an interview with AllHipHop.com – reflecting on the influence of BET’s "Comic View", overcoming naiveté, and his work beyond the comedy club stage:
AllHipHop.com: I was initially introduced to your comedic talents via BET’s late-night "Comic View" broadcast. When you reflect upon that experience, what thoughts immediately come to mind?
Gary Owen: Well, the people at BET were the first to put me on TV. They gave me my break, so to speak. For that reason, I'll always be grateful to the people at "Comic View" and BET. What they allowed me to do that people probably don't know is they put me on TV every night when I hosted "Comic View". That, in turn, made me a headliner on the road. I could get into comedy clubs and I could headline. And money aside, that's what helped me the most as a stand-up: the ability to get an hour of stage time – not like 10 minutes or 15 minutes. That's how BET helped me the most: getting me on the road as a headliner. You've got to be ready when you're a headliner. And honestly, I was ready, but I was just probably okay. If I looked back on it, I probably would cringe. When I first hit the road, I had an hour.
AllHipHop.com: True Story offers an hour of non-stop laughs. Outside of timing, what other factors do you think are equally important to a great comedic routine?
Gary Owen: I always have an hour-and-a-half ready. No matter how much you prepare for the hour, there's going to be something that night that you don't see. When Floyd Mayweather and his entourage walked in late – halfway through my set – I didn't see that coming. I bantered with him for a while – but that didn't throw me at all. I was actually excited. It was almost like being a basketball player on a fast-break dunk. In my mind, I was like, “Oh, my God! This could really turn out good!” It wasn't like, “Oh, man. My whole hour special is screwed because Floyd walked in late.” But as a seasoned comic, the more experienced you are, and the more relaxed you are, nothing is going to throw you if you are prepared.
AllHipHop.com: Throughout your performance, you pour your soul out in front of the audience and share a great deal of real-life experiences. Some of the material revolves around the nuances of social codes, values, and beliefs regarding race. How do you address – and step away from - the elephant in the room so delicately?
Gary Owen: Well, I'm married to a Black lady. We've been together 14 years now. When you have been married as long we have been married, it's no longer a race thing. It's a cultural thing. When I do my act, I'll say, "My wife is Black. My kids are mixed." I'll say it once or twice. And now that I've put a visual in people's heads, I don't have to say it the whole hour... However you want to picture my wife and kids, when people see me, they say, “Okay. White dude, Black girl and mixed kids.” So when I speak about discipline, or how her family treats me, or our wedding, I don't have to talk about “Black” or “White.” The audience already has the visual. I have to paint a picture, so I can just be like, "Yeah, my wife and my kids…" I don't have to beat the whole racial aspect over the head like I used to in the past.
AllHipHop.com: Kathy Griffin infamously sought Katt Williams and Reverend Al Sharpton’s advice – on her Bravo "Life on the D-List" reality series – concerning the delicate ground comedians must walk when speaking to various audiences about the topic of race. Taking your background into consideration, it is easy to understand why this issue seems very easy for you to talk about publicly – regardless of the audience. If you were speaking to another comedian, what kind of precautions would you advise them to take when discussing race within a comedic framework?
Gary Owen: Well, I'm living it. That's why I'm probably so comfortable in front of audiences, because I come home to Black people every day. Honestly, I'm probably closer to my wife's side of the family than I am to my own family. People might say I'm a "fish out of water," but I'm really comfortable in the water, if that makes sense. I might be the only one in that fishbowl, but I'm cool with everybody in the fishbowl with me.
When I was in the military, my stereotype got flipped on its head right off the bat. My first bunk mate when I was in the Navy was a Black dude from South Carolina, and he had pictures mailed from home. He was on a tractor. He was on a farm. He showed me pictures. I asked, "What are you, on vacation?" He said, "That's where I live." I was like, "Baby, that ain't no farm." Because I'm from the Midwest. I live in the city in the Midwest. He said: "What are you talking about?" Then he called all his friends over, and he said, "Tell them what you just told me, Gary." I said, “That ain’t no farm.” Then all the Black guys started laughing, because they were all from the South – Mississippi, Alabama, the Carolinas. I was like, "Are you kidding me?" And they were like laughing, because I was just so naïve. It didn't come across as evil or judgmental. I had just never seen it.
Early on in my military career, it helped me realize, “God, there's a whole world out there that I know nothing about.” So, I'm not quick to judge people right off the bat – especially on skin color. I think it's crazy when people say that Black audiences are tougher than White audiences. I talk about it with comics all the time. Like, I've opened up [for] New Edition. I was so excited to open up for them, because I knew exactly what kind of audience to expect: adult, R&B fans, over 30 years old. Now, if you were to put me onstage before Lil’ Wayne – or any of these rappers – that’s a completely different audience, and I'm going to look at it a whole different way. It’s not so much a race thing.
AllHipHop.com: Definitely. It's a cultural thing – within and outside racial lines. As you were coming into your own as a comedian, largely within a network of Black comedians as your peers, is there any particular person or event that helped your naïveté diminish?
Gary Owen: No, no. It was all trial by fire. I always knew how far to push the envelope. It's like something inside of me knew, “Don't go there. Just don't go there with that joke.” Even though I might think something's funny, and some of it might be funny in front of my boys. Some issues are like: “No, I'm going to leave that alone.”
AllHipHop.com: Restraint, unfortunately, is not utilized as a common practice. How was this trait instilled in you?
Gary Owen: I don't know. I just know. I'm not stupid. I think common sense goes a long way, too. A lot of comedians say, "I don't give a sh*t. I say what I want to say." I be like, "Sh*t, I do." I would never even approach the subject of Trayvon Martin right now. It's too early, especially from a White dude. It's way too early. I wouldn't even go there. Maybe a Black comic can do that, but I can't.
AllHipHop.com: There is a level of sensitivity that comes with any and every social issue – but that is something that is often forgotten or neglected.
Gary Owen: It's also delivery, too. I talked to Mo'Nique one time about it, and just about comedy in general. We're both under the same assumption. Once you get people to like you, they'll pretty much go anywhere with you; but you have to establish that first. You can't just come out of the box talking about stuff. It's like when I close True Story with the "N-word" joke.
AllHipHop.com: Oh, that was incredibly funny – especially when you pulled Micah “Bam-Bamm” White onstage at the end.
Gary Owen: I thought that was a joke that nobody's seen and nobody's delivered. I was onstage one day, and I got heckled, and I said, “If I was Black, I would call you the N-word right now. I swear to God I would.” And he said: "I'll finish it for you." I said, "Well, come onstage." And we killed them. I remember that.
AllHipHop.com: At one point, early in your career, you won "The Funniest Black Comedian in San Diego" contest. Looking back, how do you feel about being dubbed "the funniest Black comedian in San Diego" once a time ago?
Gary Owen: I don't want to make it bigger than it is. It wasn’t that deep. All it was was a radio contest. I called in. I didn't say I was or I wasn't Black. I just called in. I showed up and I won the contest. Now, there were probably only 15 or 20 guys in the contest. It wasn't like this huge, citywide, four-round week of sh*t. It was like one night. Fifteen or 20 guys went up. I was the funniest and crowned the winner.
AllHipHop.com: To date, you have worked across various mediums and in countless arenas: the comedy club stage, radio [via The Tom Joyner Morning Show], television [via Tyler Perry’s "House of Payne", in the role of “Zach”] and film [via Steve Harvey’s Think Like A Man, in the role of “Bennett”]. Walk me through your professional growth and development as you transitioned between each of those mediums.
Gary Owen: While it's a natural progression, I mean, when you do standup, it should lead to acting gigs and film and TV work. I don't know. I don't ever look at stuff too deep. I'm just happy to work.
AllHipHop.com: In what ways have each of these mediums affected your approach to comedy. What could you do on the stage in a comedy club that you might not be able to do on radio, television, or in film?
Gary Owen: The difference between stand-up and film and TV: with stand-up, you get the immediate reaction, whereas TV and film, you have to wait. Take my one-hour special, True Story. I performed it live for an audience of 2,000-3,000 people, but I won’t get the general public's reaction until it airs on Showtime. So in that respect, when you do an hour special, it's kind of like doing a movie or TV show. You're waiting, and then you've got editors, and then you've got to wait some more.
AllHipHop.com: What do you consider to be your greatest contribution to the comedy profession?
Gary Owen: Well, I think I'm the only White comic out there that has touched the racial issue unlike anybody else. I haven't dumbed it down. I haven't followed or fallen into any stereotypes: "Black people have bad credit. Black people are lazy." I like to think my comedy is smarter than that. I think I've put everybody in a positive light. We just do stuff different. I'm the only White comic that can close an urban show. I can close a White show, too. You can put me on at the county fair. What do you call the “redneck” comedy guys?
AllHipHop.com: Oh, the Blue Collar Comedy Tour?
Gary Owen: Yeah, Blue Collar. I can do that crowd, and I can do the Apollo. I can do the same jokes, and they're still laughing. I think that's what I've done differently. I don't think there's ever been a White comic to do that. It's kind of like a Teena Marie, Robin Thicke type of deal.
For more information on Gary Owen, visit his official website.