comedians you should know

Kenice Mobley Wants to Create More Spaces for Comedy Weirdos

Photo-Illustration: Selman Hoşgör; Photo Courtesy of Subject

This week, we’re highlighting 22 talented writers and performers for Vulture’s annual list “Comedians You Should and Will Know.” Our goal is to introduce a wider audience to the talent that has the comedy community and industry buzzing. (You can read more about our methodology at the link above.) We asked the comedians on the list to answer a series of questions about their work, comedy during the pandemic, and more. Next up is Kenice Mobley.

When did you feel that you were funny enough to make a legitimate go at comedy?
I go back and forth on that. After a good set, I feel like the sky’s the limit, but after a bad set, I tell myself I should have gotten that Ph.D. in psychology (what I expected to do throughout college). After moving to New York and getting to work with the people that inspired me to start comedy in the first place, I feel like I’ll keep doing it.

In the last two years, I’ve gotten to write on some projects that matter to me, filmed a late-night set, and headlined in comedy clubs, but because I’ll compare myself to everyone else until the day I die, I still think, Am I really doing this? Is this legitimate? It’s not as much as so-and-so, so can you even call yourself a comedian? Actually, you know what? You asking me this question means people assume I’m making a legitimate go at it, so I’ll say today is when I felt I was funny enough. Thank you.

Describe your comedy in five words.
Absurd, biting, warm, intelligently stupid.

What of your work do you think you’re best known for, and what of your work are you most proud of?
I have a joke where I talk about different civil-rights activists I’ve been told I look like, mainly Harriet Tubman. I did it during my Fallon set this winter, and ever since, people have come up to me and been like, “Harriet Tubman, right?” I like that joke, but the ones I’m most proud of are the ones that were the hardest to write, the ones that touch on insecurities that I never thought I’d be able to discuss publicly. Talking about sexual assault and how I really feel about myself on my worst days, I definitely didn’t think I would be able to do that when I started doing stand-up.

In addition to stand-up, hosting, and writing, I also work with the Center for Media and Social Impact, a nonprofit that helps other nonprofits create comedy content and runs an incubator for comedy projects with a social-justice angle. That has been immensely rewarding and has helped get me through the pandemic. We create short writers’ rooms where we get to hear from the top thought leaders on labor, race, class, and environmental issues, then craft scripts, sketches, content, social-media campaigns, whatever they need. Knowing that I’m getting to be my weirdest self for a good cause means I don’t feel bad that my life’s work is hours of pussy jokes.

If there were a ’90s-style sitcom built around you and your material, in which you had to have a different job than comedian, what would be the title and logline?
I genuinely love this question and think about this often. In college, I majored in psychology and history, and was certain that I was going to get a Ph.D. in psychology and do research and practice for the rest of my life. I did experiments on the moral development of children, their perception of race, even an in-depth study on the positive effects of hand-holding on emotional stress. I tell myself that I’ve taken that curiosity in human behavior and shifted it to a different profession, which allows me to tell people I did use that degree in psychology. (Ha, in your face, self-doubt!)

In a ’90s-style sitcom with that flat lighting and an overly enthusiastic laugh track, I would be a renowned psychologist whose personal life is a mess. I would live in a huge apartment and my best friend, my psychiatrist, would have jazzy entrance music that played whenever he came into the room. My nemesis would be a Harvard professor I went to school with, and my mom would pop in constantly. Think Freud puns, emotional honesty immediately deflated with jokes, and special episodes about whatever mental-health issue they just wrote about in the New York Times; ’90s you would love it.

Logline: Shrinked — it’s Seinfeld meets In Treatment but nerdy, Black, and horny. She’ll fix you, if only she could fix herself first.

What have you done for comedy during COVID that you thought you would never do?
A lot of my comedy comes from the awkwardness of existing as a sexual person in a society that wants you to be sexual but also hates it when you’re sexual, so I never thought I would be doing stand-up in front of dozens of families in a public park, but here we are. I also wasn’t sure I would ever finish a pilot script, and I’ve written two this year. I really like flexing a different muscle and feel lucky that I’ve been able to use this time to do that. Oh, and I never thought I would do an Instagram Live unless I was having a full-blown emotional meltdown, but that’s where I was able to do a weekly show.

Who are some of your favorite comedians right now? Who is putting out work that excites and inspires you?
Jay Jurden. He’s got tight, multilayered joke writing that makes every set he does funny with no gaps. He’s thoughtful and nice even though he’s ridiculously hot and doesn’t have to be.

Dylan Adler. I haven’t always been a fan of musical comedy, but his is raw and emotional versus clever and a bit twee. He does a Lin-Manuel Miranda impersonation that makes me literally squeal every time I hear it, and it’s not fair that he’s musically talented and funny.

Nick Chambers. He and I started together in Boston and produce a show called The Lab: A Very Black Experimental Comedy Show together. I have seen him do 15 minutes off the top of his head about Seventh Day Adventists and how they don’t dance. Every time I see him, I know I’m going to laugh in that cathartic way that makes your day better.

Caitlin Peluffo, Brittany Carney, Sam Morrison, Sonia Denis, Brian Parise, Becca O’Neal, Ethan Simmons Patterson, Franqi French, Julia Shiplett, Sam Evans, Dan Perlman, and Eudora Peterson are all people I will stick around to watch even if it makes me late to something else because they’re hilarious, genuine, original, and it’s a pleasure to watch them work.

What is the best comedy advice, and then the worst comedy advice, you’ve ever received, either when you were starting out or more recently?
Worst comedy advice was when I was just starting out in Boston. I was told not to talk about my gender or race because it was somehow both hack and unrelatable. The same person later told me that it must be so easy for me as a Black woman because no one wanted white men anymore. This was while he was driving us to a show he was headlining and I was hosting and not getting paid. Hahahahahahahahahahahaha (until my eyes fucking bleed).

Best comedy advice: “Focus on what you find funny.” Like, the thing you wish you would hear or see in the world — write, say, or be that. Also the first draft is exactly that — the first incarnation of a joke. You can put in the work, and change it, and hone it, but it doesn’t have to be amazing right away.

Tell us one story from your childhood that is a good representation of your life.
When I was 13, my mom dropped me and five of my friends off to go see The Cider House Rules. We were excited to see the movie, but decided instead to walk around (read: terrorize) a strip mall instead. We took the money we had for the movie and brought several boxes of condoms. We set up a table outside a Rite Aid and told people that they needed to have safe sex as we gave the condoms away. The adults who took them were very suspicious. When my mom came to pick us up, we told her that we couldn’t go see the movie because it was sold out. She pushed back — like, “The Cider House Rules was sold out on a Saturday afternoon, three weeks after it came out?” I broke down crying admitting that I lied. She was like, “That was a very dumb lie, and it’s easier to just tell the truth.” I don’t know that I’ve lied to her since.

Or: When I was 5, my mom walked me and my twin sister to the bus stop for our first day of kindergarten. We were really excited to take a bus, and my mom was recording the whole thing. A bunch of neighborhood kids are jumping around talking about how they couldn’t wait for the bus, but about halfway through the video my demeanor changes completely. I walk up to the camera and wave my watch in my mom’s face. I point to the watch that I’m holding over my head and say very matter-of-factly, “Mom, we’ve missed the bus! Look at the time, we are going to be late!” That’s when they knew that I would be prompt, into spreadsheets, and a buzzkill for the rest of my life.

What’s an embarrassingly earnest goal you have?
I want to create spaces for people to be their weirdest, most emotionally vulnerable selves. I host a weekly show called Make Yourself Cry on Planet Scum where people show me what makes them cry, and we see if it makes me (a notoriously bad cryer) cry. It’s some of the funniest, most open conversations I’ve had in my life with some of the best comedians I know. I started doing it during quarantine, and now it has people that watch every week who have seen us talk about depression, anxiety, suicide, self-esteem, the stuff we’re all dealing with. I also run an experimental Black comedy show where people have ten minutes to try the weirdest things they can think of. I knew I’d keep doing it when Brittany Carney did comedy burlesque dressed as Barack Obama. I want to keep creating shows for weirdos, but for increasingly larger audiences and paychecks.

If you had the power to remove anything from the comedy world right now, from trends with material to how the industry operates, what would it be?
I respect the training and resources that people who went to NYU and Harvard have, but they’re not the only funny people. I’d love for some of those resources (classes, connections, production equipment, everything) to be available to more people so it’s not so dependent on generational wealth to pursue comedy. It’s so much harder to do comedy and get anywhere if you’re poor/broke.

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Kenice Mobley Wants to Create More Spaces for Comedy Weirdos