Keith Robinson had a stroke last year – one of those strokes that leaves an entire side of your body paralyzed and your speech slurred. The type that makes simple acts – like stepping onto the 2-foot-high stage of The Comedy Cellar – arduous feats. But Keith Robinson still does it, undeterred. And fortunately for Keith Robinson, despite his stroke, and partially because of it, he’s still fucking hilarious.
Robinson, 53, is a Comedy Cellar mainstay. He’ll miss a few nights when touring with Kevin Hart or Wanda Sykes – two comedians he’s deeply influenced since the 1980s – but the little club on MacDougal Street is his true home. It’s there, at the upstairs cafe, where Robinson holds court with regulars like Colin Quinn, Jim Norton, Marina Franklin, and drop-ins like Tracy Morgan, Chris Rock, and Amy Schumer. Even amidst the greatest comedic minds in America, Robinson emerges as the brilliantly funny critic who calls bullshit on anything and everyone who crosses his path. “He’s definitely a corrective force for some comedians,” Colin Quinn recently explained, as we discussed his relationship with Robinson. “It doesn’t matter who you are, or how big you are. He’ll usually start with something like, ‘Stop it. We all see what you’re doing.’ And then follow with a pretty good analysis of someone’s behavior.”
It’s that no-bullshit, fuck you attitude that first brought Keith Robinson out of the projects of Philadelphia, where his father was stabbed to death and his mother fled to Virginia after shooting a guy at a card game. It was that fuck you attitude that Wanda Sykes remembers, when she asked why he cursed off one of the biggest club bookers on the East Coast. “He said, ‘You got to learn, Wanda. I don’t give a shit and I never will. I’m not going to let people treat me any way they want. That’s it.’” And that’s the same attitude Keith has when he recalls the rehab nurse’s reaction to his plan to return to comedy three months after having a stroke. “I told her I would go back in May, and she says, ‘Well that’s ambitious.’ I looked at her when she said that, and…” he pauses to catch himself. “I went back to standup on March 18th.” That’s Keith’s attitude. It’s a Cellar attitude, a club that embodies everything standup is: a fuck you, no-bullshit profession.
The Cellar doesn’t have the polish of Caroline’s on Broadway, and it’s not on the Comic Strip’s stroller-laden streets of the Upper East Side. It opened its doors in ‘81, the rebellious younger brother to predecessors like Catch a Rising Star and The Improv. It is, quite literally, a basement in the West Village, where people descend into a dark room for raw, unfiltered hilarity. And at any given moment, it might be Colin Quinn’s basement, or Lisa Lampanelli’s, or Louis C.K.’s. But fifteen years ago, when I first stepped down those stairs as a 16-year-old from North Jersey, it was Keith Robinson’s basement.
Keith was the MC that night in 2002, storming the stage like a bat out of hell: big, loud, smart, black, funny. He was my introduction to live comedy. He opened by asking if there were any black people in the audience, and then ripped into the predominantly white crowd for looking around like a bunch of rabid Klansmen. He had this deep, baritone laugh between jokes, and an overpowering grin that straddled the line between warmth and ruthlessness. He was a comic I would see periodically over the next decade and a half, always with a loud, commanding presence of the stage. Pure energy. Or as Wanda Sykes puts it, “A Baptist preacher on Easter Sunday. Just killing it.”
Last year, after falling on the sidewalk outside The Comedy Cellar, Keith went to the hospital. His blood pressure was 110 over 245. Keith remembers, with humorous remorse, his reaction to the hospital’s insistence that he stay overnight. In short, “No thank you, I’ve got a show in Vegas.” After a few weeks he decided to stop taking his blood pressure medication, and that’s when Keith Robinson had his stroke. As Keith recounts its onset – instinctively calling his son’s mother to give her the bank account numbers, and then foolishly trying to drive to the E.R. – he finds humor in each misstep. However, despite the premise of what would later become great material, the reality was more serious. “I was at the hospital the next morning, and you could just see in his face that he was scared,” says Sykes. “Just the physicality of it, of ‘Damn, something just came and knocked me out.’” That physical toll is still apparent with almost every move Keith makes. Though he’s made considerable progress in the last year, his right arm is partially immobile, he walks with a limp, and his speech comes out in a long drawl rather than a series of quick punches.
To get back on stage and attempt an act that’s been honed for over three decades, with a body that’s just taken a merciless beating, would be unimaginable. Standup isn’t merely the oration of jokes or pithy observations about the airlines and masturbation – it’s a choreographed dance that’s equal parts physical and verbal. But Keith Robinson decided to dance, less than three months after his stroke. “I was nervous for him,” remembers Colin Quinn. “I thought, ‘Oh no. Everybody’s going to feel bad. Even if he brings it up, it’s going to be strange.’ But not at all. He was just killing.” And part of what allows Keith to kill it is his outlook on what the craft is meant to be. “I’ll limp on, stutter a little…whatever. I’ll work it out. Comedy isn’t supposed to be perfect.”
Six months from Keith’s initial return to the stage, I once again descended the Cellar stairs. About midway through the show, sandwiched between Jim Norton and Marina Franklin, the MC began to introduce Robinson. A comic’s entrance always follows the same formula: comic lingers by the back door, waits for the cue, and charges at the stage. Robinson’s approach was different that night, as it has been since his stroke. He lingered immediately stage-left during the MC’s intro, eliminating the long limp through the Cellar’s crowd, and took a slow, careful step onto the stage. It is a stark contrast to the Keith Robinson from a year and a half ago, or the Keith Robinson who introduced me to live comedy in 2002. But then Keith Robinson speaks – at a more measured pace, with a more subdued energy – and weaves some of the old material into reflections on his stroke. He takes the audience through his rehab and introduces us to his speech therapist, with her condescending pronunciation of “four fluffy puppies.” This is where the comedic brilliance of Keith Robinson emerges. It’s that “fuck you, a stroke can’t hold me back” attitude and the ability to find the funny in real, personal pain. “The material that he’s doing is hilarious, and it’s coming out of a real place,” says Sykes. “This stroke really sparked new life into [Keith]. I guess you could say it’s the best thing that’s ever happened to him.” It was a joke, with irony that Colin Quinn also picked up on, as he opined on the possibility that this stroke will bring Keith more recognition. “Maybe the only good thing that’ll come out of it is that people will go, ‘Oh, this guy.’ It’s like, suddenly we’re going to listen because now we’re hearing this beautiful mind in a different voice, literally.”
Above the Comedy Cellar one night, I told Keith about an article I’d read toward the end of Derek Jeter’s career, when the aging shortstop was batting .400. The article went on to describe the phenomenon of older batters reinventing their swings – being forced to find creative ways to get on base – oftentimes leading to the best hitting of their careers. Keith was nodding. “You have restrictions. But sometimes those restrictions bring more out,” he said. “I can’t go up there like a barbarian anymore. Now I got to play more chess.” He plays that chess match each night at the Cellar, and soon, in a new hour special he’s preparing to shoot. It’s an unbelievable match to watch. And despite life taking a few pieces off the board this last year and a half, Keith still finds a way to checkmate, night after night. And it’s fucking hilarious.
Photos by Dante Meick.
Jeremy Elias is a freelance writer living in New York City. His work has been published in Esquire, The Atlantic, Playboy, Vice and more.