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Without Tony Woods, There Would Be No Dave Chappelle

Tony Woods Photo-Illustration: Vulture and Netflix

“He hasn’t even released an hour-long special,” the New York Times’ Jason Zinoman wrote about Tony Woods in October 2019, “but few comics today are more naturally funny or have been as influential.” He may now have a Netflix half-hour, as part of Tiffany Haddish’s They Ready series, but Woods remains one of stand-up’s true legends, in that he is a bit of a mystery. It’s not just that Woods has a really unique, special way with the art form, which he does, but that comedians love to tell stories about him — stories about how slow he’ll talk, stories about him playing all over the world, stories about how comfortable he is onstage, stories about waking up from a nap and going directly onstage and still killing. But the story that gets told the most often is his mentorship of Dave Chappelle. Not only did Woods used to drive a teenage Chappelle home after nights performing in Washington, D.C., but it’s undeniable that Chappelle took much of his style from Woods. When Chappelle won the Mark Twain Prize in 2019, he addressed Woods directly, saying that the same way Miles Davis tried to play like Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie when he was coming up, “I was trying to play like you.” He added, “You were the first person I ever saw do it absolutely right.”

On Vulture’s Good One podcast, Woods discusses Chappelle, the importance of Def Comedy Jam, and more. You can read some excerpts from the transcript or listen to the full episode below. Tune in to Good One every Tuesday on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, Overcast, or wherever you get your podcasts.

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On Dave Chappelle Calling Him His Biggest Inspiration During His Mark Twain Prize Acceptance Speech

I felt like, Did they just say my name? Because I heard my name — I just didn’t hear it come out of Dave’s mouth. I looked around real quick, and everybody’s looking at me and I’m looking at him and I’m like, Okay … I’m like, We didn’t practice this! I was sitting up straight because I didn’t know if I was supposed to stand up and take a bow. And I thought, Wow. That was nice, but that’s not going to be on the TV show. But it was! I was like, My man! Honestly, it blew me away.

Some comedians think that [I’m bothered by Chappelle performing like me] when they come to me and go, “Yeah, man, he’s being just like you. He’s being just like you.” I’m like, “Okay, and he’s doing well.” Right? They don’t realize what they’re doing is they’re coming up to me and telling me how successful my son is. I’m like, Okay, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. I feel good that I influenced him for whatever reason. But you have to be thankful, because I’ve been all over the world and I can still go to the grocery store. I can still walk to the grocery store.

On Def Comedy Jam

That show was very important because before that, stand-up comedy was: You were already super, super-famous, and you had a big hour-long special. People didn’t even think about the fact that there’s other comedians out there working every night who do ten, 15 minutes in little bars and restaurants — comedians from all over the country with different angles, different perspectives. Most people couldn’t get past the profanity. This older guy back in [the D.C. scene] said, “No profanity,” and I’m like, “There’s no other way to say, ‘Oh, yeah, we got kicked the fuck out of our apartment today.’” I said, “Hey, man, that’s a profane lifestyle.” You can’t say, “We’ve been evicted.” That’s bullshit. You can’t just serve chicken with no spice on it, baby.

On Hollywood Executives Not Understanding His Style

You’ll come in there, and they’ll say, “What’s your pitch?” And you say, “I have an idea about a guy who has a magic teacup, and he can do this and he can do that.” And they go, “That sounds great, but let’s make the teacup a laptop.” Shut the fuck up. Right? I had a meeting with HBO once, and I was with the head of comedy programming, but I had a treatment about a funny dental office. It was in the same vein as M*A*S*H, but it was a dental office. And he sat there, and he said, “Traditionally, medical shows don’t really do well.” My manager, Jason, was sitting there all nervous, and I’m like, “Yo, man, let’s go get something to eat.” And he was like, “What?” Like this was the head of comedy. He was like, “What?” I’m like, “This dude just told me that M*A*S*H, General Hospital, 9-1-1 —” I just went through the gamut of medical shows, and I said, “So I don’t know how he got his job. He must know somebody. Let’s go get something to eat.” And Jason was all nervous. He’s like that. I wasn’t angry with him, but I’m like, “Fuck this dude, man.” His butt stink, do you know what I’m saying? I’m like, “What? Yeah, okay, man. Bye.” But, like, how did you get this job? Who do you know?

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Without Tony Woods, There Would Be No Dave Chappelle