After satirizing Black History Month, Obama and Herman Cain, all in the parodic guise of a less cunning comic, Jeffrey Joseph spends his applause break with eyes fixated on the floor, reaching for his drink, then putting it down as he’s already changed character, telling the crowd as a gallant Englishman, ”I want to thank you all very much for letting me work out my Letterman set. I mean, in the office, it’s not who I am, but it’s um…it’s what a black comedian has to do to make it. You’ve got to do the stereotype. I mean, it’s sad, and it’s across the board. I mean, Tracy Morgan isn’t really retarded. He’s actually a brain surgeon. But a brother cannot blow up by talking about cerebellums and frontal lobes. It’s just impossible in this economic environment. It’s a shame, isn’t it? It’s a terrible, terrible shame.”
Having garnered considerable acclaim in the ’90s before taking a 12-year hiatus from standup, Comedy as a Second Language at Kabin is one of many rooms Joseph has frequented since his return two and a half years ago. When asked about his decision to leave comedy, he responds, “I was just not really enjoying it anymore. I remember feeling disconnected from it. There was a certain point I remember when people would laugh at jokes — I didn’t really feel like it was laughter, like people enjoying themselves. I saw it as a sound, like they were making a sound, and then my point was to get them to make a bigger sound… I was kind of seeing it really as a job and I lost the joy of it… Now when I do it, I really enjoy it. When people laugh, it makes me laugh. It’s fun.”
Joseph’s act plays on preconceptions of race, culture and sexuality, adroitly disarming the crowd with a calculated progression of characters. His jokes run the topical gamut: gay marriage, education, the job market, prison system, presidential race, gentrification and Oprah. “Oprah’s such a diva. ’Cause you notice no matter what problems Oprah’s guests have, Oprah always manages to have a bigger problem. ‘Oprah, Oprah, I was raped.’ ‘Raped?! Girl…I was murdered.’”
Regarding his first time onstage after returning to standup, he explains, “The first time back was sheer terror. In fact, I remember it being scarier than the first time that I ever really did it, like when I first started. Now it wasn’t just the terror of feeling unprepared, and not knowing completely what to expect; it was also the terror of having to face my own worst criticisms of myself because I was automatically comparing myself to what I used to be. It was like a bodybuilder who had a really great body and now he’s let himself get all fat, and he goes and looks in the mirror that first time and he’s like, Jesus, I’m a fucking wreck.”
A formidable actor in his own right, Joseph has made appearances on The Sopranos, Law & Order and NYPD Blue, in addition to stand-up sets on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and Comedy Central. The years he spent studying theater have certainly informed his comedy, in that the personas he embodies live and breathe with vivid immediacy. His indulgence in these identities is keenly tempered with out-of-character moments, where he chronicles teaching playwriting to incarcerated youth, or how his parents’ sending him to boarding school in England “completely fucked up my ghetto.” While character-driven humor runs the risk of alienating the audience by delving too deeply into the fictional, Joseph artfully balances the latter with tangible recounting of his experience.
Hannibal Buress says, “Jeffrey Joseph is a super funny dude. He hung around a few Knitting Factory shows and I just thought he was friends with some comedians. I didn’t know he had been in the game that long. I put him on the show knowing that he would have the chops to have a good set, but it wasn’t just good — it was amazing.”
Ian Gibbs is a writer and editor living in Brooklyn. He edits fiction and nonfiction books and is a freelance contributor at Time Out New York.