Talking Standup with the Stars of HBO’s ‘All Def Comedy’

After the success of last year’s All Def Comedy one-hour special, HBO ordered up a six-episode run of the All Def model, which premieres last Friday. The original Def Comedy Jam of the ‘90s shaped an entire generation of comics, including most of the roughly two dozen comedians chosen for the new series. I talked caught up with a few them – Alex Babbit, Just Nesh, Robert Powell, Kelly Kellz, and Clayton Thomas – to talk about their career beginnings, their memories of Def Comedy Jam, and what the All Def opportunity means to them.

Alex Babbitt

How did this all come about for you?

I did a show and this lady was in the audience. Apparently I had met her a couple years ago and I gave her my business card. I did well and she said, “Hey, come do this audition for Def Jam.” To be real I didn’t know what it was, so I was just like, “Alright, whatever,” because I had done some auditions for things. When it finally came about, I did the audition and did real well. They were talking to some people in the audience and it just so happened that the people I talked to in the audience were close with her and they were speaking highly of me. So she was like, “Alright, cool, come back tomorrow.” The second day the crowd was even better than the first day and I got a really good response from it.

That business card thing reminded me that a lot of people don’t think about the business side of comedy. They don’t treat it like an actual business.

But it is. I listen to a lot of podcasts and interviews with people and all the big guys, especially black comedians – the Kevin Harts, Steve Harveys, Chris Rocks, even Dave Chappelle – everybody always talks about that portion of the game where they that say being funny is cool, but hanging out at the clubs, networking, building a brand, that’s way more important. Every opportunity I’ve got – and I think that me being funny helped – but ultimately you’ve got to put that work in. People told me that Kevin Hart had business cards. Kevin Hart is the epitome of what standup is right now. If you do something good, I’m going to follow exactly what you do.

I read that you started doing standup as a teenager.

Yeah, I was 16 when I started.

How did you get into it that young?

I did some programs, acting, poetry. I was always performing. People kept saying, “You should try standup,” so I tried it and it went well. I believe in signs and stuff. That year, a comedian came to my school for career day. He’s pretty well-known, Jeffrey Joseph. He came to my school and told us about some comedy stuff. He told me about more open mics to do, so I started hitting them. It started to align where I was like, “I’ve got to keep doing this.”

Taneshia “Just Nesh” Rice

The last time I talked to you was when your episode of Kevin Hart’s The Next Level was coming out. How have things been going the last five or six months?

Things have been great. I’ve been on the road and then this HBO thing came about, so things have been really good.

When you say “on the road” have you been going out alone or opening for someone?

A little bit of both, but mainly I’ve been touring with DeRay Davis.

How did you get on the Def Jam radar?

Chicago put together an All Def showcase and they pre-selected all the comics they wanted on the show. They had a few of the All Def people come out to pick who they liked. It was pretty dope because I didn’t have to do an audition. There wasn’t any pressure.

Do you plan on leaving Chicago anytime soon? Have you been getting pressure to make the move to New York or LA?

Yeah, I’m getting all the pressure to go to LA. I’m probably just going to travel back and forth and just stay for a month or so. I don’t want to move-move, but it’s coming.

Did you watch Def Comedy Jam in the ‘90s when it was originally on?

I did. Oh my God, that’s all we did was watch Def Jam. I just watched the reunion too, which was super dope because you forget about all those comedians that you watched growing up.

Who were your favorite comics when you were younger?

I loved Martin. He was an amazing host. I remember loving Bernie Mac, Sheryl Underwood, Adele Givens, and Melanie Comarcho was always funny.

Robert Powell

I read that before comedy you were involved in state politics.

Yeah, I was involved in politics for a long time before I decided to step out and do comedy full time. That was my day job.

What made you want to get into politics?

I always had a thing for politics growing up, and then in school political science was really the only thing I was good at, so one thing just led to another. I kind of got lucky in that the mayor of my hometown kind of raised me. When I graduated from college I got a good job going in and working with his executive staff. I left there and went to the governor’s office. I got executive-level experience at an early age.

How much of your interest in politics has carried over to your standup?

I’d say a lot of it, maybe about 50 to 60%. When I first started I couldn’t do too much of it because starting out you have to be funny about everything, so I made sure I hit on a lot of topics. But now I’m putting politics more and more into it.

You’ve got plenty to work with right now.

My cup runneth over.

You’re a big Stanhope fan and I can definitely see some of that influence in your style. I’ve seen you quite a few times pick a position that is not going to be popular with the room and then work that premise until they’re laughing in agreement.

Absolutely. I’m not as brave as he is yet. I always tell my people I want to be as brave as Doug Stanhope one day. Crazy story, the Shaq All Stars were doing a show at the Wilbur Theatre and Doug Stanhope walks in to the show because he has a show there the next night. Keep in mind, I’ve never met him, but I’m just in love with him. I come off stage and get on Twitter and see that Doug Stanhope tweeted at the Wilbur Theatre about me. I’m standing next to the producer of the Shaq All Star tour like, “Is this real or did you all set this up some kind of way?” They don’t know who Doug Stanhope is at all. I go out front to look for him and find out that he’s in the back looking for me. When I finally found him he had written my name down on his hand so that he wouldn’t forget my name. He didn’t expect the show to be funny at all, but I changed his mind about it. He’s a huge influence on me. Just hit them right in the mouth and stand there with confidence. If you believe it, they will believe it with you.

Kelly Kellz

You’re in New York now, but were you originally from Milwaukee?

Wisconsin born and raised. Let’s go Packers.

How was the scene whenever you started out?

There wasn’t much of a comedy scene. We all pretty much had to travel the Midwest. We had comedy clubs, but they’re selective with who they let in, so we just had to go out and get it.

How long were you doing standup before you decided to make the move to New York?

Mother’s Day 2018 would be eight years that I’ve been doing comedy. We just decided two years ago to just go. We wanted to move sooner, but finances wouldn’t allow us to. One day my husband woke up and said, “Babe, you know what? You’re a superstar and you’ve already hit the ceiling here. Let’s go. I’ll work and you’ll do comedy full time and we’re not going to miss a beat.” It happened just like that. It was the best decision I could have made my entire life.

You found yourself a good one.

I know. “Let’s go. I’ve got your back, babe. You’re funny as fuck and the world needs to know.” I’m like, “I love you.”

Did you used to watch the old Def Comedy Jam from ‘92 to ‘97?

Let me tell you this, if you’re an ‘80s baby and you didn’t watch Def Comedy Jam, what were you doing? I had to sneak into my mom’s room because back in the day cable was only in a certain room. I used to sneak in before it came on because my parents were like, “Y’all can’t be watching this.” I have a brother three years younger than me and we would be in that bed dying laughing. I feel like that helped shape who I am.

So how did you feel when you found out you were going to be on All Def on HBO?

I had the ugliest cry, super ugly, you hear me? It was one of those “ahhh” moments. It was like reaping the harvest. You plant the seeds and go, “This year is going to be exactly what I need.” A few times you get disappointed, but this time I felt that feeling, even just from the very beginning of the process. I felt like, “Kelly, this is your season.”

Clayton Thomas

Did you start standup in Detroit?

Yeah, I started my senior year of high school as I was graduating. We had the opportunity to welcome a comedy show to our school and I asked the comedians who were performing if I could open up. It was one of those things where they were like, “Oh, you’re a comedian, huh?” and I was like, “Yeah, yeah, I’ve performed all over the place.” They’re like, “Oh, where?” and I made up some place and they were like, “I’ve never heard of that.” I was like, “It’s closed down now, but I’m all over.” I’ve been doing it ever since.

I’m jealous of you guys that started young. I didn’t start until I was 31.

You know, it’s an advantage and a disadvantage. You starting in your 30s, I’m super jealous of that because you already knew who you were and are able to talk about your life experiences. For me coming in so early, I grew up in standup. None of my material had any substance. This was back then, it’s not okay to say now, but back then I was just talking about, “Yeah, so have you ever dated a special ed girl?” It was just all this ridiculous make-believe that wasn’t relatable. The only great thing I can say about starting so early is that who I am now has the veteran time I put in, but there were a lot of bumps in the road.

Yeah, I am glad that a lot of the “comedic” ideas I had in my early 20s were never uttered in public or posted on social media.

Oh man, I have so many videos of me in my super early 20’s dropping the N-word every word, cursing for no reason, so much ridiculousness. It’s all online, so it can’t go away. That’s the downside of growing up in the business. It’s like, “Oh God, what was I doing? What was I thinking?”

How did you get involved with All Def?

I did a showcase. They had done a special last year, I think to get this season greenlit. I didn’t get the call for it, but I reached out to one of the producers and they said, “You know what, would you be interested in doing warm-up? Would you be disrespected if we had you do warm-up?” I said, “I would not be disrespected. I appreciate you asking. I would love to come down.” I went down and did warm-up and this year when they came back I was fortunate enough to get the same call: “Would you feel disrespected if we asked you to do a showcase?” I said, “No, absolutely not.” There’s so many of my peers who would be like, “I should have got the call. I should already be booked on the show. You know who I am. You know what I do.” I never take that approach to it because you never know who you have to perform in front of or who makes the decisions. My thought was, “I have an opportunity for the network to possibly see me and maybe they’ll want me.” I worked extremely hard on my performance and got the opportunity to tape the show. The rest will be history on December 1st.

All Def Comedy airs on HBO Friday nights at 10:00pm

Photos by Mathieu Young/HBO.

Talking Standup with the Stars of HBO’s ‘All Def […]