Edwards: 'Set something up one way, and then go the other way.'
After moving to New York from Jamaica at age 17, standup comedian Ian Edwards began his career at a Burger King drive-thru. While taking orders through the speaker, he'd talk in odd accents. Joking with strangers was a way to pass the time, but it soon changed the course of his life.
A random customer was the catalyst.
"Was that you taking my order?" he asked as he pulled up to the window. "That's funny, man. You should do standup," he said.
Edwards realized the customer was right. Over the past 15 years, he's honed his standup act, appearing on programs such as Late Night With Conan O'Brien and HBO's Bad Boys of Comedy along the way. He's also penned episodes of Saturday Night Live, The Boondocks and a planned reboot of the sketch-comedy show In Living Color. He even starred as a prankster-for-hire on several seasons of MTV's Punk'd.
I asked him about his standup origins, the art of writing jokes and the likelihood of a comedian becoming president.
The Daily Page: Where did you first begin doing standup, and how was your first experience performing?
Edwards: There was a comedy club down the street from where I lived in New York called the Governor's Comedy Club. I started going to their open mics just to check it out, and maybe a few weeks after that, I started there. I had to get used to it. Plus, I bombed. I had a horrible set. I'm in front of all these strangers, and the lights are blinding me. I had tried all the jokes out on people, slipped them into conversation, so I knew they were funny.
But on stage it's completely different. I was nervous, and the lights were hitting me in the face. It made me realize why cops shine a light on you when they pull you over. Once you can't see, that's all you're concerned about. I was performing with my hand in front of my eyes, which is very amateurish. So I did bad, and only one joke worked. It was the only joke that I said right, so I figured that if I say all my shit right, I'd be alright. The first part of my quest of being a stand-up was getting through nervousness.
How long did you live in Jamaica, and how do you think living there influenced your comedy?
I lived in Jamaica from about the time I was nine to 17. I was born in England first, then moved to Jamaica, and then moved to New York. There's a way that English people look at the world, there's a way that Jamaicans look at the world, and there's a way that New Yorkers look at the world. I guess I'm a combination of those three things. Jamaican people like to joke around and have fun. They love to laugh over there. My mother is very funny.
Is there a style of comedy Jamaica is known for? For instance, in the Dominican Republic, a popular style involves telling well-known, story-oriented jokes in the first person.
I've done shows with Jamaican comics, and that's exactly what they do. Sort of stock jokes is what it is. The Jamaican comics like me though, because I write and make my stuff up.
For people who may be more interested in comedy writing than performing, what was the course you took to become a writer for shows like The Boondocks and Saturday Night Live?
It wasn't a planned course; shit just happened. When I was an open-mic [performer], the people at the Governor's used to let [me] come and spend the weekends watching the headliners that people were paying to see. That was when I knew you could make a living doing [comedy], and I knew I wanted to make a career of it. But the writing thing happened later, through a manager I used to work with. He called me up, asking if I wanted to run the Gotham Comedy Club, and he said, The Keenan Ivory Wayans Show is looking for writers. You want to come down and do a set?"
At the time, I really had my shit together and had been working it out. I had put a brand-new set together. So I went in there and crushed it, and a woman who worked with Keenan asked me, "Do you have any written material, like sketches?" And I said yeah, but the only reason I had sketches at that time was because comics spend a lot of time hanging out at night and talking after shows. So in the middle of a conversation, one comic was like, "I have 265 sketches." And I was like, "What? What do you have 265 sketches for?" And he said, "Just in case someday I become a writer for Saturday Night Live, I want to have sketches every week."
And I was like, "Shit, I don't have any sketches. I'm in fucking trouble." [Laughs] I'd never even thought about writing. So I felt like I was way behind. I had sketch ideas but never wrote them down, thinking that I'd remember them later. But I decided from there on to always write my ideas down. So years later, when this audition for The Keenan Ivory Wayans Show came up, I had a couple sketches written, and three other funny ideas that I developed that night. So, within 24 hours, I was able to send this lady a sketch package. And she told me I was hired. That was my first writing job.
What is the anatomy of a good joke? Is there a formula to it, or is it more intuitive?
Surprise and misdirection. Set something up one way, and then go the other way. If you set something up that is kind of obvious, say the punch line in a way that no one would expect. Or, if you're discussing a topic that everyone is familiar with, probably the first couple things you could say about it are the things that anybody could say. But you have to keep flipping it around in your head until you find out the thing that has been there the whole time but that no one has said about it yet. When you say it, you should be like, "Oh, shit, how come nobody thought about it like that?"
For example, I was writing for the show In the Flow with Affion Crockett last year. We were in the middle of writing, and an award show came on. And I thought to myself, "Let me come up with an award-show joke." And as I was looking at it, it occurred to me that cocaine and heroin should be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as Greatest Music Producer of All Time. Because so many rock stars have used it, and it's destroyed their lives, but it's also made their careers.So, that's when I wrote a sketch about cocaine getting a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame lifetime-achievement award. [The show] never shot it, but then I turned it into a joke.
What's the status of the In Living Color reboot?
I don't think it's gonna go. I worked on it earlier this year, and they were supposed to have aired it already, but nothing has come out. So, I get the feeling that for whatever reason, Fox isn't going to release it. There are just so many shows that get made every year that the public will never see. There's more stuff that people don't see than stuff they do. This just happened to be one of those.
Do you think a comedian would make a good president?
Yeah, but there's probably so much tape of them saying horrendous shit. The opposing person would just have so much dirt on them. Shit, you know how many things I've said that I've forgotten I've said? If someone had the Truman standup tapes of my life, I'd be like, "I said that?" It wouldn't even be damaging stuff. It'd just be really badly constructed jokes. That'd be the campaign against me. Someone would be like, "Do you want someone this unfunny to be your president?" And then the tape would roll of all bad jokes.