“In the world of standup comedy the half hour special creates opportunities that a comic has long dreamed about. It’s the gateway to the next level.” That’s how Kevin Hart introduces his new seven-episode Comedy Central series The Next Level, which features seven up-and-coming comedians who have all earned the Kevin Hart seal of approval. Comedian Spank Horton does his thing in the series premiere this Sunday at 11:00pm. Horton is a long-time friend and colleague of Hart’s. Their beginnings in comedy go back nearly two decades to Philadelphia where they both got their start. Horton has been grinding it out since the early 2000s and is best known as a regular opener for Hart and as a member of the Plastic Cup Boyz. I talked to Spank about what this half hour special means to him, how he used to be a bad audience member, and the constant motivational push he gets from Kevin Hart.
Are you excited for Sunday’s premiere?
Of course, of course. Why wouldn’t I be? I’m doing jumping jacks right now. When you’re doing standup comedy you want to get that half hour special on Comedy Central.
At the beginning of the show Kevin explains what it means to a comic to get their first half hour. Is this one of the biggest things that has happened to you in your career so far?
By far, yes. Definitely one of the biggest things. I’ve been calling Comedy Central everyday for the last 15 years.
How did you feel when you got the news?
It was dope, man. I was in Hawaii performing. One of Kev’s people called me and said, “Hey, you’ve been selected as one of the people that’s going to represent for The Next Level. I said, “Oh, that’s dope. That’s what’s up.” At first I was wondering why Kev didn’t call me and tell me, but I’d rather do it the same way as everyone else who got the call. I guess if I had got it from Kev I would have been like, “Oh, Kev’s just doing me a favor.” I guess it was better that it was done professionally. I was hype though.
You and Kevin go way back. You started out in Philly with him in the early 2000s right?
I started right after him. I started in 2001. He started in ‘98-’99, I think.
Take me back to the Philly comedy scene then. What was it like starting out?
Starting out I thought it was going to be tough for me to even get into the whole realm of standup comedy. We had so many dope comedians in the area. When you watch comedy all you see is the comedians on TV, but when you go down to the local comedy club you see the vets from that city that’s been doing it just as long as the people on TV and they are hilarious. I was like, “I don’t see how I can do this.” Me coming from a sport – I used to play basketball all the time – I love competition. I took it all as competition like, “Well, I’ve really got to get into it.”
You mentioned that before you started doing comedy you were the guy who would go to the club and do the Apollo thing. If somebody wasn’t doing well you would stand up in your seat and boo, so much so that people started to know you for it. They would look at you like, “Are you going to do something about this?
Right. It got bad. But I never did it in a comedy club. I did it in college. I went to Lincoln University, HBCU, and we would always have a Comedy Jam once a month. I was always known to be the class clown. I was the funny guy on campus. If people thought I was as funny as them, but they’re not making them laugh, it’s like, “We’ve got to get somebody to boo these guys,” because some of it was bad. Sometimes it came to that point where the comedian wasn’t funny and I would stand up, front and center, look them in the eye, and just boo them. Once I started everybody else would start booing too.
After you started comedy did you feel bad about it?
When I started doing comedy that’s when I started seeing the respect of the craft like, “Wow, I was dead wrong in what I was doing.” I was wrong for doing that to these people who took their time to come up with different types of material to entertain us and I’m standing there booing them. I ran into a couple of the comedians after that. One of them I told. The others I didn’t say nothing because the first guy I told it to was like, “That was you?” He remembered. I was booing in ‘98-’99 and then I started doing comedy in ‘01 so I would run into them. They were like, “Oh, you were always the ‘comedian’ who wanted to be a comedian and would boo the other comedians.” Now that I know I respect the craft. I don’t want no trouble.
When did you decide that you needed to get onstage and try it?
There were two or three things that happened. I was right there when Kev said, “Yo, I’m about to start doing comedy.” Me and him were friends before comedy. I was like, “Alright, alright. Nobody’s doing comedy. Whatever.” But that’s how I became a fan. I used to go support him. But it didn’t give me the bug to do it. I was like, “I’m not doing comedy. I’m going to college. I’m playing basketball.” That was my dream. But the first thing was when The Kings of Comedy came out. I went to the movies to watch that and on the exit I ran into a couple of friends. They were like, “Yo, when are you going to get onstage and do that?” That was one light bulb. Then in school I was a theater major. My acting coach said, “You have a natural knack for comedy. You need to do standup.” Another light bulb. Then that summer when I came home a friend of mine dared me to get onstage. That was the third bulb and the first time I got onstage.
What was your day job? What did you do before you went full-time as a comic?
Before I did standup comedy I was just in college. I didn’t really have a job. I got a job because I started doing comedy. That’s the weird thing. A comedian told me, “Hey, what would help your standup career out would be working for the airlines. When you work for the airlines you fly for free. You can fly to other cities and do shows.” I was like, “I get paid and I fly for free? That’s perfect.” I signed up to work for US Airways part-time as a baggage handler. You had to fly standby. The best time to fly was in the middle of the week and early in the morning. I would go to the gate and look at the flights to see which ones were full or not full. If I had a show in Miami that night I would be at work just looking at the flights all day. You weren’t supposed to fly on days that you had to work, but I got away with all that stuff. I started getting booked a lot. Promoters found out I could fly for free. “You can get to Miami and I don’t have to pay for your flight? Aw yeah.” When I quit my job I had to figure out how to pay for my flights.
It’s cool how Kevin has been so supportive. I can tell when he talks about you that he’s not just doing you a favor. He respects you as a comic.
I started working with Kevin in comedy clubs. He kept getting bigger and I was rolling with him. I’ve been rolling with him since day one. But I’ll be honest with you, Kevin is probably one of my worst critics. He hates the fact that I’m not bigger than what I am. He’s always calling, “Yo, what you doing today? You need to be doing this. You need to be doing that.” The way he’s motivating on social media, he does that to me at least once a week. “What have you done this week? Where you at with this?” That’s one of the reasons I moved to LA from Philadelphia. Philadelphia’s not a big town for comedy. I would do my shows here and there and jump on the road with Kev and I was good. But he said, “No, when you’re off stage you’re still supposed to be working.” I’ve only been in LA eight or nine months, but I have noticed just from auditioning, going to host this, going to host that, doing a spot here, that I’m working almost every day now. Now things are starting to come to me. I was like, “Wow, I should have moved here 10 years ago.”
I noticed you were repping the red cup during your special as a nod to the Plastic Cup Boyz.
I’ve always got to show love to my boys.
I read an interview you did in 2015 where you said that you’ve been selling out clubs, but your next goal was to sell out a theater. The theater in your special had a packed house. Are you going to count this one?
No, I don’t count that because Kevin Hart’s name was all over it. A lot of those people just came on the strength of Kevin Hart. I mean, I’m sure people came because they knew I was filming. I have a nice fan base here in LA. I’m sure I had a few fans at my show, but selling out, no. I’m still working on selling out a theater.