The penultimate performer on Comedy Central’s Kevin Hart Presents: The Next Level (Sunday at 11/10c) is the LA by way of Sacramento comic BT Kingsley. Kingsley has been at it for 12 years, paving his own way, resourcefully hustling to stay busy and relevant. He’s an only child, which means he was born with a DIY ethic that he’s applied to standup, sketch, writing, and producing. “I don’t believe nobody owes me anything. Every opportunity that comes my way I’m super appreciative of. But I don’t have control over that. The control freak in me wants to plant my feet.” I talked to Kingsley about planning for rejection, proving yourself to family, and what it takes to get to the next level.
People that might not be familiar with you may see you this Sunday and think you’re just a standup, but in looking at your resume I see that you’ve been diversifying by getting into acting, writing, producing.
Absolutely. I went to the Academy of Art in San Fran. I went with the goal of when I make LA, if it doesn’t work out I’ll be able to do it myself. If somebody says no…don’t worry about it. I’ll do it myself. I produced my first feature called She Wins not too long ago. That’s in post-production now. I’ve wrote and produced on other shorts and projects. It’s always been in my wheelhouse to do as much as I can on my side and let the chips fall where they may.
A lot of people go to LA with stars in their eyes. They think they’ll be walking down the street and be discovered, or be performing at an open mic and get noticed by a big shot. It sounds like you were a little ahead of the game on that. Did you have any prior experience or had anybody given you advice on what to really expect when you got there?
My manager always kind of guided me that route. But just in general I don’t believe nobody owes me anything. Every opportunity that comes my way I’m super appreciative of. But I don’t have control over that. The control freak in me wants to plant my feet. What can I be doing on my side to make everybody’s jobs easier, or for someone to see the value of what I’m doing? I’m always going to be working hard at standup comedy. I’m going to be onstage every night. But what am I doing in the morning? Am I making videos? Am I writing? Am I going on auditions? Right now I am – in a very aggressive way – trying to become the best version of myself, i.e., going to the next level. There’s a lot of audiobooks, stuff about finances, how to invest your money, just getting more on par with being better.
What did your family say when you left for LA?
My mom’s still not convinced. She keeps seeing me with Kevin Hart so she thinks something’s happening. But she knows money still light on this side so she doesn’t understand it. “You still doing the comedy thing? You know, Sacramento’s got UPS.” It’s not fully present yet and it probably won’t be until I can take her off her job, take care of some family things, invest in my aunt’s cooking business, fly my sister back from Paris more. She came down to see me and saw my apartment and that I wasn’t living in shambles, but she still doesn’t get it. They’re all supportive, but they still don’t get it.
Yeah, it’s one of those things where if no one in your family or nobody close to them has gone down that path it can be a hard thing to imagine as a career, especially in those first few years when you’re piecing things together in the weirdest way. If you add up on paper the amount of time you spend trying to build something that doesn’t pay off at first and doesn’t have a promise of paying off, a lot of people would call it pure foolishness.
Absolutely. I don’t fault anybody for that. My humor has always been reactionary and random. When you’re a little kid and they say, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” kids say, “I want to be a police officer. I want to be a fireman. I want to be a lawyer.” My response when they would go down the line was, “I want to be a woman beater,” just to see the reaction on the teacher’s face. I didn’t even know what a woman beater was. I just knew it was bad. And to see their face… [laughs] In the same way I knew I loved Eddie Murphy, but I didn’t know what he was doing. When I would watch Eddie Murphy’s Raw it was the same to me as watching Coming to America. To me I was just watching a movie. I didn’t know that standup was something you could do. I don’t think a lot of people look at comedy on a smaller scale. If someone big time is coming to the city and you’re a fan maybe you’ll go. If Kevin is coming to the city, yes it’s an event, you might go to the stadium. But when you pass your local Punchline you’re not thinking about going in there when you’re 21. I was trying to go to the club, or go to the movies, or chasing girls. When I walked in and saw people doing it, who I didn’t know who they was, and they were good, I was like, “Oh, you can just do this?” So that disconnect for my parents and my family I understand. Slowly and surely they’ll come around.
I want to go back to what you were saying about being prepared if and when people say no. Was that your experience? Take me back to when you first arrived in LA.
In LA it’s like you’re jumping in a line for food, but the line is really long. There are ways to skip the line, but if you skip the line, when you get up to get your food you don’t get as much. You’re better off starting at the beginning and talking to the people around you.
I read that you’re an only child. From one only child to another I’m curious how being an only child has shaped your sense of humor and your comedy career.
It’s weird. It’s something I’ve acknowledged, but I’m not sure what the positives and negatives are about it. If you’re an only child you’re guaranteed three things: you’re guaranteed to be spoiled, you’re guaranteed to be selfish, and you’re guaranteed to be independent. Give or take your upbringing, your parents, and your own personal tendencies those things will weigh out differently for every person. For me, I’m more independent than anything, then I’m kind of selfish, then I’m kind of spoiled. I’m selfish in a way where if I’m going to get something to eat I’ll get you whatever you want, but I don’t want to share. Independence in me is the reason why I’ll be like, “I’ll figure it out.” The only child in me needs his space and quiet. You’re an only child so you know…you talk to yourself. As long as I don’t answer myself I don’t feel crazy.
Photo by Kevin Kwan & Hartbeat Productions.