Season 1 of Kevin Hart Presents: The Next Level closes out this Sunday with comedian Ray Grady. Grady, a Chicago native and former telephone/cable contractor, has been in the game for 15 years thanks to a push from a former boss and some tough love from his barber. Since then he’s toured the country doing standup, earned multiple TV appearances, starred in the film Then There Was Joe, and started Fear of a Black Podcast with his co-host Brian Hooks. I talked to Grady about his come up in Chicago, his first interaction with Kevin Hart, and why he feels traditional masculinity is an important topic.
You started out in your hometown of Chicago where you were born and raised. How old were you when you started standup?
I was in my 20s. That’s when I started getting busy.
I read that your boss encouraged you to start doing standup.
Byron Davidson, yeah. I thought I was going to get fired because he called me to the office. I was like, “Oh my goodness,” because contractors never want to be called into the supe’s office. That’s pink slip time. He told me to close the door and sit down. He had a poker face. He said, “Man, you’re messing up my shop.” I said, “How?” He says, “These cats are coming in early and leaving work orders, leaving a lot of things out. We’re having a hard time getting them up out of here. This is what I think you should do. I’m going to have a party and I want you to host it. I’ll give you 250 bucks.”
What did he see in you that prompted him to do that? What were you doing?
A lot of the contractors at that time were getting paid by the hour. When you’re getting $20 - $22 an hour cats are going to be there. I you had a truck and tools and a 20ft ladder you could make some dollars. There were 80 technicians and I just wanted to have some fun. I would come in and do all type of stuff. I would say, “I’m going to take out the garbage and then run and jump in the dumpster.” We just tried to entertain ourselves until the work orders came. We would rag on each other. I would say, “I’ll give you 10 and I’ll take one. If you want to talk about me I’ll give you 10 chances, but when I talk about you it’ll only take one.” He would listen in sometimes, crack the door, “Grady out here! Grady out here!” Even the guys that weren’t fans of laughing in the morning I eventually won over.
Were you doing standup at the time?
No, that was my first time. Then the workload started getting light for all the contractors. I went and did some other work for HazMat and said, “Forget it.” My barber really put the jumper cables on me. I came through to get a haircut. He said, “Yo, are you exploring your gifts?” I said, “What do you mean?” He said, “Are you onstage?” I said, “No.” He walked me to the front door and locked me outside of the barbershop. He wouldn’t finish cutting my hair. I got it. I went onstage the next week.
What would you say was your first break?
I did a show for Katrina victims. Everyone did poorly accept me. The city kind of knew who I was after that. There were 13 to 15 comics. I went up fifth. There was no show after I went up. TV-wise it was when I did Martin Lawrence’s First Amendment on Starz. I wanted to be ready. I told my manager I wanted to be one of those guys they picked to do the show. Two years later I got my opportunity. There were 53 comedians on that showcase. I went up fifth again and kicked ass.
You became known for doing characters in your standup.
I actually morph into character. I become the character. I change my voice, my facial expressions. You really think you’re talking to a homeless person, or Jamaican dude, or somebody who works at the tollway. Any any person I see, I can mimic anything I want. If I saw you walking down the street, in 30 seconds I can pick your walk up.
How did you get on Kevin’s radar?
Kevin used to come to Chicago a lot. He was at The Hole in the Wall. That’s a rough lounge and bar. You can’t just come there. He was coming off the success of Soul Plane. At the time I was dressed like…my comedy style was the same, but I was a militant. I used to look like Fidel Castro. Kevin was at the bar. All these comics were at the bar. They were there to celebrate him. He was like, “What’s up with that dude?” They said, “Oh, that’s Grady.” He said, “What’s up man?” I said, “Yo, you can’t be in here, man. Get up out of here, bruh. You’re just a dollar sign to them. Get your little ass up.” I always tease him about that. He’s a very humble dude. The same way he is now is how he was in 2004 when I met him.
A lot of your set on The Next Level is about masculinity. Why is that such an important subject for you?
Well, because we don’t see much of it. Most of the time the comics are trying to entertain the women. A majority of our shows are 70% - 80% female. It’s a different angle. I said, “Hey, nobody’s really touching this,” and it just kind of took off on its own. There’s a power when I perform. I can stand there in silence, not get a sentence or phrase, and just control the room. If you’re a man and you go home and you’re around your uncles, your father, and your grandfather, there’s a certain stature that you have to obtain to be able to be in the room with them. When I was growing up the women dealt with the light, delicate stuff and the men dealt with the heavy duty stuff like cutting grass, taking out garbage, providing. The women were nurturing children. Whatever it was, you saw a male. Right now no comedian would touch that. They want to be accepted. If I’m going to have a niche in this then the carve out is right now and this is the perfect opportunity. Ten years ago nobody was accepting of a beard. Now everybody’s accepting of them. I’ve been growing my beard since 2002. Everybody else that looks, talks, and acts the same feels like it’s a mold they have to fit in. Me, I don’t do that. I set the tone.
Photo by Kevin Kwan & Hartbeat Productions.