chat room

Pete Holmes Talks to Sinbad About Getting Started, Being Clean, and Getting a Deaf Guy to Laugh

SANTA MONICA, CA - OCTOBER 21: Actor/comedian Sinbad attends the Ninth Annual Alfred Mann Foundation
Sinbad and Pete Holmes. Photo: Frederick M. Brown/2012 Getty Images

When comedians talk about their influences, there are certain names that come up over and over — Steve Martin, Richard Pryor, Steven Wright, Sarah Silverman, Dave Chappelle, Dave Attell. But there is another kind of influence that is just as important, the immensely popular kind that happens to correspond with a comedian-to-be’s childhood. Sinbad, who had a run of superstardom in the early and mid-’90s, is one of those comedians, and Pete Holmes, host of The Pete Holmes Show on TBS and the “You Made It Weird” podcast, was one such young comedy fan. With Sinbad’s new special, Makes Me Wanna Holla, debuting on Comedy Central tomorrow night, Vulture arranged for the pair to tape an episode of “You Made It Weird.” Running nearly two hours, we have excerpted and edited down a small section. Check the “You Made It Weird” page in the coming weeks to download and hear the full interview.

You’ve been doing comedy for …
30 years. 30 years man.

Here’s what’s crazy, I was gonna say that’s how old I am. I’m 35, but I think I’m 30.
You’re aged, man.

I’m your comedy!
You were born, you were spawned on my comedy.

Well, Sin … bad. I was gonna call you Sin. Sin, listen to me, you come up on this podcast all the time. First of all, I’m a fan of yours. Second of all, I quote you. I say, “Comedians are funnier when they’re riding the bus.”

You said that.
Know why? Because we wanna be seen. We’re always working on stuff. We hate rich people. Whatever happened to us, we’re always misfits. You don’t meet many comics who came from rich families or were captain of the football team and had a nice car.

Well, that’s because this is supposed to be for us. I still get that way when I see a really good-looking person doing stand-up or a very athletic person.
And he knows it! I’m athletic and you don’t know it. You know? You gotta have some awkwardness about it. It’s like a comic I knew; she was six-foot-three, beautiful. I was like, “Talk about your big feet or something, because women are gonna hate you until you show your flaws.”

She’s one of us!
Yeah, you can be too pretty for comedy, man or woman.

I agree, although I will say when a really good-looking person gets onstage and they’re great, there’s something nice about it.
That’s gonna be an actor. Eddie Murphy? Good-looking guy who has a film career. He’ll be funny, he’ll still make fun of himself, but he’ll have a film career.

That’s all it is.|
Cosby, man! Cosby was a good-looking dude. He just had that thing about him.

Cosby, we all think — at least I think — of Cosby as an older guy, but you can see old black-and-white footage of him doing late-night shows. Good looking dude!
Remember, I was still young then! With Cosby, I was like 10 or 12 years old.

Yeah. You loved him?
Dude, I loved him. I loved him, I loved Richard Pryor, I loved Jonathan Winters, I loved Red Skelton.

You got to work with Cosby?
Yeah, a lot of my heroes, Cosby, worked with Red Fox, so I got to work with some of the cats I loved, man.

That’s what my life is like now.
I know! Think about it! You get to hang with people! 

You’ve seen so much. You’ve had all these shows, all these films. You’ve been around the block. I feel like the new guy, but I don’t see the — I always go to Laugh Factory as my example —
The Laugh Factory is different because you can’t get in there! Remember, now there’s no hierarchy. I’d say a lot of black comics were forced to do the black comedy circuit. I’d go into black comedy clubs and see what they’re going through, which is different because they’re almost made to be in another world.

You do Chocolate night, Latin night, salsa night, hot night. There’s always white night, so we don’t call it white night. It’s just, “We’ll have a Chocolate Sunday!” So this is it, if I don’t get in on Sunday, aw, man, they only have two negroes on Monday. You gotta make Chocolate Sunday.

I helped run a club before, and I agree with you. The way that people were just looked at as commodities. This was in New York, where there were a lot of black guys, a lot of women, a lot of white guys, Asian guys, and the way that we would discuss it — or the way I learned to discuss it — was like, “You can’t put another woman on, we just had a woman!”
“Oh, you can’t put two black comics on in a row.” But no one ever says, “That’s been three white guys in a row. We’ve gotta mix this up!” So it’s funny that this is 2014 and that hasn’t changed much. Create your own show. Get on YouTube. Do what you did. The door is open now, but quit trying to go viral, just do what you do.

So, am I hearing you right, that you’re saying you think — this sounds like such an obvious question — for the young black comic today, it’s still a different scene. Is that right?
I’ve had black comics today that’ve never worked in a white club and they can’t get into clubs. They can’t get into the Improv unless you become a big name, but how do you become a name? You gotta be working. I think back in the day, when there were so many comedy clubs. When I was coming up, you had a chance to work a lot. And you worked, and you worked, and you worked, so you could find your spot. Now where do you work at? Where’s a comic work on the road? They make no money on the road. I’m like, how are you surviving as a comedian? 

Those early years, where you’re drowning or starving and any scrap of food will keep you alive. You see other people who are starting to die of starvation quit and you’re just so desperate and then you get to a point where you’re like, “Everybody, relax.” If you say something funny –  funny! Just relax.
I was blessed. I was headlining in three months because I didn’t know better. I had no home club. I got kicked out the military. I was older. So when I became a comic, I already had these world experiences. I wasn’t some kid, 17, trying to make stuff up. So when I went onstage, I was in Kansas City and the guy said, “Just do two or three minutes. If you can’t do two or three minutes, just do what you can do.” I said, “Who can’t do three minutes?” I walked onstage, and you know what I did? I handed the newspaper to the audience and said, “Read me something.” 

I didn’t know how comedy worked.

So you just riffed.
I just riffed. 

I remember knowing that about you. Afros and Bellbottoms [Sinbad’s 1993 special] changed my life. I would watch it constantly. I grew up religious, and you were clean, but you also had this thing that was like, I think he’s just talking! As opposed to some of the guys who were more reciting their material. It was alive, and it had a rawness to it that I really liked. A while ago I went on eBay and I bought it on VHS so I could watch it again and again. I remember you saying that you liked to write onstage. You were one of the first people that I knew to do that. Now all my favorites are those guys.
That’s a gift, too. I look at guys who can do that, they become good comedy writers and sitcom writers. A lot of those guys don’t make it as comedians, but they become writers on shows. I didn’t wanna make it as a writer on a show. I’ll create a show and hire you.

[Laughs.] That’s working the system right there.
Plus, it got boring to me! If I did the same thing, I would get bored to death.

So would you literally just go up and improvise?
No. Say I’m doing a Comedy Central special, I said, “I’m doing 45 minutes new tonight. I don’t know what it is yet.” I would just have one word, two words, that’s all I’d need. I’d do a thing when comics would go, “He doesn’t make that stuff up,” I’d say “Give me five words before I walk onstage.”

No way.
Comedians would say, “There’s no way!” I said, “Give me something right now while you’re talking to me. As a matter of fact, I’m gonna do your act, the one you just did, the one that wasn’t funny, the jokes you’re not getting laughs on, I’m sure I could get laughs on it. I’mma do it for you clean, I’mma do it for you dirty.” Because I was dirty when I started. The thing is everyone was dirty. We all sounded like Richard Pryor. We sounded like bad Richard Pryors. I said, “Oh, man, I can’t sound like everybody else!” 

One night in Chicago at the Comedy Cottage, I said “I’mma do everything I did. I’mma do it clean. But I’ll push it to the edge.” So I didn’t call it clean; I just called it comedy. When I got done, cats said, “Did he cuss? I think he did.” That’s what I wanted. They didn’t know if I did or not. It wasn’t until I got to Hollywood that I got so caught up in, “Are you a clean comic? Are you a dirty comic? Oh, he’s an all-American comic; oh, he’s squeaky clean.” I just said, “Y’all put me in a box that I have to always fight to get out of.” 

It was almost like, if you talked a certain way, you really were that way. I said most of comedy and rap is theater. Most of the cats that were doing rap were not gangsters. It’s theater. White kids from the suburbs did it. Were they gangsters? It became a thing. 

I actually think that’s why rappers are such good actors often.
It’s theater, man.

They know how to do it. They know how to represent a side of themselves, the hard side.
Yes, a side. And next week you’re selling Vitaminwater. 

That’s what’s so offensive about Last Comic Standing, or when I see a business card that says “clean comedian”—
“Christian comic.” Man, you kill me with that crap. That means you suck. 

How did you get this confidence right away? I’m fairly confident now, but I don’t have it like you have it where, “Oh, I can be funny.” I’m always like, “I can be funny if it’s correct.” Don’t get me wrong: I have huge self-love. I’m a huge fan of my own comedy. In fact, a lot of my act is talking about how much I’m enjoying it.
I watch your show!

You’ve seen me live. I have it, but I think it’s a black thing, coming up in the black circuit, like, “Let me tell you what it is. Let me really have that boldness, that confidence.”
There was no black circuit when I was coming up, remember that.

There was no black comedy clubs. Matter of fact, it was strange. When I was headlining, cats would say, “How’d you do that?” I would say, “Because I refuse to accept that I can’t.” “You will not not let me be on this stage.” Remember, I had blond hair and a Jheri curl. I was wearing colors. I said, “I’mma make it easy. They won’t have to go, ‘Is that Sinbad?’ It can’t be anybody but Sinbad!” So I created this whole image.

Even the name was a deliberate thing!
Everything was deliberate. When I started, I would call the comedy club and say I was my manager. They would not book me. I would show up and say, “My manager said I was booked here.” They’d say, “I told your manager ‘No,’” and I’d go, “Jesus. I don’t know what I’mma do. That’s the third time this week.” All I wanted was a minute to get onstage, not for money, but for a room at the comedy condo and food. I said, “I ain’t got time to do this long, this comedy thing. This has to hit now.” It’s being bold as hell. I heard Jay Leno would give comedy clubs $100 and say, “If it ain’t funny, keep it.” I stole that. The guy who was emceeing, “Hey, guys, there’s this dude with blond hair named Sinbad coming up.” He’s laughing. The comics are laughing. And I’m thinking, “I’m taking his job tonight.”

What the fuck, no? What are you talking about?!
I said, “I’m taking his job tonight. He doesn’t even know what he did.”

What is this?!
So I would go out and I’d get a standing ovation. I’d do a minute. I’d have to get a laugh in the first four seconds, and that laugh can’t stop. I would see club owners come out the back, “Is that that kid?” I’d come offstage and the other comic would go, “Damn, dude, give him a hand. I don’t know what that was about.”

Were you improvising at that point?

You … that’s not fair!
One comic dogged me. I did his whole routine. I did every one of his jokes and I made them funny. I personalized them to me.

Oh my God.
I’m not gonna say his name, but he went on to be a great writer, and he said, “Look, man, would you write for me?” I said, “I don’t know how to write. When I watched you, I saw where you should go with it. You’re scared to go left or right.” See, cats are scared. What holds you back in comedy is fear. 

Eddie Murphy came in last place in the New York Comedy Competition. Last place, and they all said, “Man, you’ll never make it. You’re doing Richard Pryor jokes.” He said, “I’ll be famous next year and you’ll be here next year.” And it happened. He was famous on Saturday Night Live and they were all doing the competition next year because he knew who he was. As a comic, you have to know or it doesn’t work.

The power of knowing what you want in life in general is just one of the most appealing things in the world when it’s genuine.
You ever seen comics talk about marriage and he ain’t married? I said, “Dude, I don’t even know who you are!” The only guy who can do something like that is like Andy Kaufman. We’ll never know what the hell that was. He might not be dead! He’s the only guy that makes us question his death. Thirty years after his death, he might still be sitting somewhere like, “Not yet, not yet, not yet!” 

But he was being him is what you’re saying.
We don’t know! But that thing he picked, he did not veer from.

I like putting positive stuff out there, but there’s gotta be that side of you too that has nights or days where you can’t go into the club and hand the $100. You just don’t feel it.
No, I’ve never had one. 

I have to lie to people and say, “Yeah, I bombed it.” I’ve never bombed. I’ve always found a way to come out of the hole. I’ve always. Because I refuse to lose. I refuse! I look at Michael Jordan and Lebron James: “You can hold me, you can grab me, I’m dunking on you whether you want this or not.” 

The strangest night was when I was doing a place in Massachusetts. I showed up in town and Boston clubs were so cool. This is back in the heyday of Boston, ‘83 or ‘84. They gave me their gigs. 

Lenny Clark and all those guys?
Yeah, Lenny Clark. “Come here!” Lenny and his brother gave me gigs. Gave me.

Their gigs?

So everybody was backstage, all the Boston cats, and they said, “Man, just go up there, we’re not gonna be doing this place much longer. I don’t wanna be here. I hate these guys.” It’s a senior citizens’ home.” And every comic came onstage, “Oh, you deaf? Can you hear me? You deaf? You can’t hear me?” So I walked onstage and said, “Y’all have orgies every night, don’t you?” They just flipped. I said, “Everybody thinks y’all are old and don’t wanna do stuff. You’re old and your knees hurt. Your backs hurt. But otherwise you’re trying to hang, ain’t you?” I said, “Who’s the pimp here?” And all the women pointed at this one guy. He was the dude!

I’m talking to this guy the whole night and I said, “Man, you haven’t cracked a smile yet.” And his wife said, “He’s deaf.” And comics were like, “Oh, how’s he gonna get him?” He wasn’t totally deaf, but he turned his hearing-aid down. I said well, “He’s a blessed man because he doesn’t have to hear what you’ve got to say to him.” She fell out. She told him, he fell out.  I reached down in the pit of my stomach because I had nowhere to go. It was the end.

Pete Holmes Talks to Sinbad About Comedy