In a new Fusion comedy documentary, Chris Gets Money, Austin-based standup comedian Chris Cubas endeavors to make sense of income inequality in America. Cubas grew up financially insecure and has never been able to comfortably make ends meet as an adult. Why? He works hard for over forty hours per week. His family worked hard. Why do so many hardworking people still struggle to pay for basic necessities like shelter and food? Cubas reasoned that if he could live like the super rich for a little while, maybe he would develop a more nuanced understanding of their logic. The documentary explores questions like, why do those in the top 1% find it sensible to purchase seven sports cars, but unreasonable to pay their employees a livable wage and offer health benefits? How is finding tax loopholes for wealthy people a real job? Is the American Dream truly achievable? Cubas gets money – $30,000 to be exact – to spend over the course of 30 days and embarks on an anthropomorphic journey into Austin’s wealthy westside.
In your new documentary Chris Gets Money, you get to be rich. How did it feel?
A lot of it was what I expected. Like oh, it’s nice to live in a giant mansion with a pool that’s bigger than any apartment I’ve ever lived in. Not having to worry about food or bills to pay, that all felt awesome. There is a little bit of separation there that I didn’t really expect. Like I’m in the neighborhood, but none of these wealthy people will talk to me. Even just physically different. I’m used to living places where people are all right on top of each other. You can wave to your neighbors on the street. But when you’re rich, you can isolate yourself, which is nice, but then, man, you sort of forget about everything else. Why even bother turning on the news because my bubble is so sweet? I think that’s part of the problem.
Did that give you some insight into how income inequality is maintained?
Definitely. When you’re wealthy, you can choose when you want to interact with the outside world. If you live in a house, you have a gorgeous landscape blocking noise and all this stuff. I imagine it’s real hard to empathize with a world that you really don’t even know exists. You see your pool guy or whatever, but at the end of the day that existence that you have is coming off the backs of everybody else.
What was your experience of income inequality growing up?
I mean we never had money. My dad worked for the post office, my mom was a stay-at-home mom. I was born in the projects in Staten Island, we moved out when I was seven and moved upstate. We never had money. Bill collectors would call and it just kind of was what it was. But it’s funny, when you’re in it, you don’t even think about inequality because everyone around you is living the same life. I think when you get older and see the extremes in wealth first-hand, then it changes. I worked in the service industry forever, you know cleaning bathrooms of people who were drinking Pappy Van Winkle. But as a kid, you know the richest kid at my high school had his own car and that was because his dad owned the dealership. It wasn’t the true inequality you see with the top one percent.
If you were extravagantly wealthy in real life forever, what would you do with the money? Do you think one percenters could use their wealth in a better way or do you think nobody should ever have that kind of wealth to begin with?
I think it’s impossible to attain that extreme level of wealth without exploiting people to do it. I mean if you can find a way to pay people a decent, livable wage that allows them to achieve a middle-class existence so their kids can be comfortable and go to college while still making a billion dollars, then hey, go buy a solid gold boat. I don’t think that’s a very good investment, but my point is, if you can figure out a way to attain that wealth without being a scumbag, than you are free to do with that money what you wish. But if you’re making that kind of money, but still paying people a seven dollar an hour minimum wage, then you’re a crook. And if you’re earning that money by not paying taxes, then you don’t deserve it. If I had that kind of money I’d like to think that it wouldn’t change who I am at my core. But it’s hard to say if you had a billion dollars what you’d really do.
I can imagine that in thirty days it would be hard to figure out how to spend $30,000 dollars.
Oh no, it wasn’t hard.
What kinds of things did you spend it on?
A lot of it went to the housing, that was the biggest chunk. And I bought myself a nice big TV, a laptop, a custom suit. But I was also able to give $2,500 to Make-A-Wish which is not a position I would have ever found myself in otherwise.
Would you like to do more projects like that?
It was really interesting. I learned a lot in that time period. I rode around with this professor Eric Tang, an Associate Professor of African and African Diaspora Studies at UT who taught me so much about the racial segregation history of Austin. I’ve been here for eight years and never knew any of that.
What are some of the surprising things you learned about Austin?
There’s this old-timey racist covenant written into the deeds of many of these old gorgeous houses in the western part of town that says it’s illegal for black people to live there. Not only could black people not live there, but if you were a white person and you wanted to buy the house, you had to promise never to let a black person live there. Those deeds still exist. That was real bad. But even later in the seventies, there was a football stadium where the high schools played. One of the opposing teams tried to use that covenant rule about the field to get out of playing a black team because they knew they were going to lose. So that shit is much more recent than we’d like to imagine. That was fascinating.
Do you think of yourself as a comedian with a cause?
I think I’m a comic first, but if I can make a point afterwards, that’s great.
Your standup is very funny. How did you know that comedy is where you belonged?
Well ever since I was a kid, I was – it’s uncomfortable to say now – but I was listening to Bill Cosby records as a child, sneaking comedy specials on HBO, getting a copy of Eddie Murphy Raw. My favorite thing was watching all those brick wall shows from the 80s and 90s. It’s just always what I’ve wanted to do and once you start doing it, it’s like okay this is right. Yeah, I can’t do anything else.
Do you remember what your first standup set was like?
Yeah, I remember driving two hours to this club in upstate New York, I think it was called the Funny Farm or something like that? I know that I wasn’t that good, but I was relatively better than the other comedians at open mic and I was just like oh, well that’s it. Here I come Hollywood! I’m a genius! And then immediately bombed for two months straight.
What’s your endgame? What’s the ultimate goal for you?
I think it’s always been standup. I really enjoyed working on the documentary, but I’m not a comic who is doing standup so I can get a TV show. But if that happens, cool. I just want to be the best standup comic I can be and whatever comes along with that is awesome.