This week, we’re highlighting 25 talented writers and performers for Vulture’s annual list “The 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, performing, goals for the future, and more. Next up is Curtis Cook. Tell us a story from your childhood you think explains why you ended up becoming a comedian.
I did an eighth-grade career project where the options were to either research a specific topic and put together a trifold poster-board presentation complete with MLA-formatted citations or do a li’l performance for a bunch of supportive parents. So I went down to the public library, rented a bunch of VHS tapes of old vaudevillians, and spent about five minutes doing a bad Mae West impression to a gymnasium full of confused kids and uncomfortable parents. Honestly? It went fine. I got a few laughs and told a haiku joke that I still kinda stand by.
And I know that, for marketing purposes, this is the part of this story where I should lie and be like “That was the day I understood the unifying power of laughter” or “It was right then and there I learned to love the limelight.” But all I really remember was seeing all the trifold poster boards and thinking, Damn. Look at all these suckers. They typed up whole-ass bibliographies, and all I had to do was embarrass myself to get the exact same grade? Looks like I’m going into the arts!
What unscripted or reality series do you think you’d excel at? What archetype do you think you’d be?
I think I could host the shit out of an HGTV show. Sure, comedy is what I do for a living, but my real passion is telling middle-class overspenders that a support beam has completely fucked their open floor plan.
What’s the proudest achievement of your comedy career so far?
I haven’t killed myself yet, and I’m not flat broke.
What have you learned about your own joke-writing process that you didn’t know when you started?
I’ve finally accepted that joke writing looks different than I thought it would. I used to feel bad if I wasn’t sitting down and physically writing a certain number of pages per day or putting pen to paper as often as I thought I should, but most of the writing I do now involves either endlessly pacing my apartment or staring blankly off into space for hours on end. My experience is that actually writing shit out does help, especially in the editing process. But when the concepts are loose, I’m a big fan of letting yourself spin out like a lunatic until you think you’re excited to try something new.
Tell us everything about your worst show ever. (This can involve venue, audience, other comedians on the lineup, anything!)
I bombed so hard this one time that I still think about it when I drive past the venue. If I’m being real, one thing was the booker’s fault, and then the blame was on me for everything else. I had an off night and made every wrong choice. I even did that cliché shit where I was like, Actually, fuck this audience. I wanna bomb. And, in retrospect, I was half right. Fuck that audience. There’s a type of twee, white group of spectators that I’d rather flounder in front of than trick into liking me. But in that moment, I had a job to do and a responsibility to the comics who booked me, and I botched it.
When the show was over, I decided to walk the five miles home to march off my humongous shame. Then, to add insult to injury, while I was walking, I got startled by an opossum eating trash on a fence post, and this fucking opossum barely even acknowledged my presence. It didn’t even run away from me, and I was clearly the larger mammal. The opossum just looked at me and casually went back to eating its trash. In that moment I was like, Wow. I am nothing.
Y’all ever been dissed by North America’s only marsupial? Truly devastating stuff.
Let’s say we live in a “Kings of Catchphrase Comedy” alternate dimension where every single comedian is required to have a hit catchphrase. What’s yours and why?
It’s funny you should ask, because recently I’ve been traveling throughout the various dimensions and killing alternate versions of Alonzo “Hamburger” Jones in the hopes that I might claim their collective hamburger powers for myself and become the ultimate Hamburger Comic. It’s been a gruesome task, and to be honest, I feel a piece of my soul chip away after every kill. My hands are stained with blood, and I will never see the light of heaven, but why bow to a god when you can become one?
Nominate one comedian you don’t know personally you think is overdue for wider recognition and why you’re a fan of their work.
This is a tricky question ’cause I’m one of those absolute fucking dorks who loves to buy old vinyl specifically to rediscover comics the world largely forgot. It’s a fun way to find influences and a nice reminder that no matter what accolades you earn in life, you’re definitely gonna die and then probably be forgotten. And you know what? That’s pretty freeing.
There are a bunch of dead stand-ups I wish more folks knew about — Brother Theodore, Belle Barth, Dick Davy, Rusty Warren, Pat Paulsen — but Godfrey Cambridge is maybe my favorite comic? In a time when Bill Cosby was pushing through racial divides (and also raping) and Richard Pryor was honing in on racial issues (and also beating his wives), Godfrey Cambridge was treating racism like a nuisance more than a life-defining tragedy (and, to the best of my knowledge, neither beating nor raping!). I dig all of his albums, but Ready or Not Here’s Godfrey Cambridge is probably my favorite.
He’s got a long character bit on that record where he plays a wannabe-courageous actor who slowly convinces himself that it’s okay to play a self-hating slave if it means he gets to be on TV. It’s one of those jokes where you’re like, Haha, then immediately like, Oh no, this album is from 1964 and is still relevant today. I don’t know if comics withstand the test of time or if culture fails to move forward for so long that people who were right 60 years ago are still right today. Everything is sad.
Also, Cambridge made a movie called Watermelon Man where he plays a white guy who wakes up Black and slowly has his life unravel in a Kafkaesque nightmare until he eventually joins a militant organization à la the Black Panthers (it’s a comedy).
When it comes to your comedy opinions — about material, performing, audience, trends you want to kill/revive, the industry, etc. — what hill will you die on?
If some dude worth millions of dollars picks on your wife’s insecurities in front of a room full of your peers and co-workers on nationally broadcast television by making a lazy reference to a film from over two decades ago, then you should — at the very least — be allowed slap that dude in the mouth, and any coward who says otherwise is less than half a man.
If you had to come onstage to just one song for the rest of your life, what song would it be and why?
“Mothership Connection” by Parliament, ’cause it sounds like being invited to a party that you know will get sloppy while still somehow staying safe.
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?
I started comedy when I was a college kid in Ohio and would sneak into dive bars in Cleveland, Kent, and Youngstown for stage time. Everyone was older than me, and the general vibe I got from people was, Dude. You’re in college. What are you doing here? After graduating, I started showing up to mics even more, and everyone was like, Dude. You have a full-fledged college degree. What the actual fuck are you doing here?
I think there are some places where people get to coddle their ambitions to such a point they feel entitled to success, but something I like about the Rust Belt is that no one really lets you forget that no matter what your plan A is, plan B is “Be broke and die.” It’s not that the Midwest is unkind or uncaring, it’s that there, it’s not considered cute or quirky or brave to abandon an educational opportunity others would’ve killed for just to pursue a childhood dream. So I can’t remember who said it to me first, and I don’t even know if it was ever explicitly stated or just repeatedly suggested, but the best advice I ever got was: “Decide you want this more than anything.”
At the time, I remember thinking that shit was so inspirational. I remember driving home from open mics and thinking about how I wanted to do comedy more than anything. I wrote journal entries about how excited I was to be doing what I knew in my heart I wanted more than anything. I read that Steve Martin book every new comic reads and was like, Ah yes, this best-selling memoir truly speaks to me in a way it must never have ever spoken to anyone else. Perhaps I too shall play the banjo.
In the years since then, some comics I’ve known have killed themselves. Others have died from health issues that probably could’ve been cured with a little bit of money. A few started families and realized they spent years coasting on a dream instead of setting down a foundation for the next generation. At some point, I realized that “Decide you want this more than anything else” wasn’t meant as an inspiration, but as a warning. It doesn’t mean to believe in yourself and make a handful of sacrifices. It means to make sure you want to pursue your creative goals more than you want to own a house or have a sense of stability as you slowly creep toward middle age. It means to decide that a lifetime of five-minute sets is more important than having a retirement plan, or putting your kids in a better school district, or being able to financially provide for your parents as they wither away with age and lose the ability to provide for themselves.
And I get that this is, like, kinda shitty advice for me to be passing on as I’m being featured in a write-up, right? Like, not shitty in that it’s wrong, but the only thing worse than watching a celebrity Canuck like Jim Carrey telling you to shoot for the stars with reckless abandon as he looks down at you from the comfort of hindsight atop a pile of money is hearing a guy like me, who’s doing perfectly fine, callously cautioning others to double check the waters before diving headfirst into their hopes and dreams. So far be it for me to dissuade anyone from anything; all I’m tryna say is that I’m currently restructuring how I sleep in my sedan between gigs ’cause my back is starting to catch that early-30s hurt. I’m lucky, and I’m as happy as I’ll ever be, but I can finally say from experience that in moments of regret and self-doubt, or when you’re comparing yourself to the success of others, or pulling over on the freeway to search for “safe rest stops near me,” it really does help to take a second and think, Oh yeah, that’s right. This my own fucking fault, and it’s because I — like an asshole — still want this more than anything.
It’s kinda disgusting, really. Comedy is selfish, art is bad, and stand-up is the worst thing that’s ever happened to me. But also, thanks for including me on this year’s list.
And then the worst advice I ever got was “Be undeniable.” Fuck you. I don’t know who first started saying that shit, but they need to cut it out. We’re blessed to live in a time where ambitions of all kinds can be witnessed and appreciated on a global scale at any given moment, but when it comes to seeking industry accolades and career validation, anyone can deny you for whatever reason they want. So don’t do it for them. Do it ’cause you’re kind of a selfish dick who wants it more than anything.
Curtis Cook Wants This in Every Possible Dimension
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