Archive for August, 2008

Standing His Ground: Interview with Brian Copeland

Monday, August 18th, 2008

Brian Copeland is one of the top voices on KGO radio, but he also knows his television. When he first developed Not a Genuine Black Man—his riveting one-man show about growing up black in San Leandro in the early 1970s, at a time when the East Bay suburb was notoriously 99.9 percent white and determined to keep it that way—he set out to capture the style of All in the Family, Good Times, Maude and other groundbreaking comedies produced by Norman Lear, where the audience finds themselves laughing hysterically one moment and sobbing the next. “It would be really funny—then you’d find out Edith got raped, and you’d go, ‘Where in the hell did that came from?’” he explains. “Or you’d watch Good Times, there’d be a hilarious line, then all of a sudden J.J. gets shot by a gangbanger. So when I wrote the show, I knew the rhythms I wanted were the rhythms of Norman Lear.”Copeland nails those rhythms in Genuine, the long-running San Francisco solo show from 2004 that recently debuted in San Jose after successful runs in Los Angeles and off-Broadway. The show runs at the Historic Hoover Theatre through Aug. 24. At a time when Barack Obama calls for a national discussion on race in America, Copeland provides that and more in a two-hour roller-coaster ride that explores how our surroundings (and surviving them) make us who we are. It’s an evening of theatre you won’t soon forget.

I recently had a chance to chat with Brian Copeland for The Wave Magazine. Among other topics, we spoke about his one-man show, his beginnings in stand-up comedy, and how making a roomful of people laugh really is better than sex. An excerpt from our conversation appears below; the complete interview is available by clicking here.

What made you want to be a comic?
BC: I always loved comedy growing up. Then when I was in high school, I saw Richard Pryor: Live in Concert on HBO, and it literally changed my life. I did not know that comedy could be like that. Here’s a guy who’s talking about all of the things that happened to him the previous year, about being drunk on vodka and shooting the tires off his wife’s car and leaving, about his heart attack and having a dialogue with his heart (“Please don’t kill me”), about snorting cocaine and about how his father behaved at his mother’s funeral. In fact, Genuine is a lot like that concert film in spirit, because it’s very truthful.

This was the early ’80s (I was class of ’82). The comedy boom was just starting. Tommy Thomas, who’d been my CYO baseball coach when I was a fifth grader, opened up the original Tommy T’s Comedy House in San Leandro, right up the street from my house. The week after I graduated from high school, I called Tommy and said, “I’m thinking about trying comedy. Do you have an open mic night?” This was like five o’clock on a Tuesday. He said, “No, but I have a comic sick tonight, can you do about 15 minutes?” Being 18 years old, I said, “Sure!” Today I’d say, “Are you out of your mind?” But I’m 18 years old, “Sure!”So I pulled out the newspaper and wrote a bunch of stuff. It was a small crowd, maybe 20 people, and they laughed. Tommy invited me to come back the next Tuesday. The next Tuesday, I packed the place with friends and family, I wrote some more stuff, and I killed. Then the next week I came back, wrote a bunch more stuff, and died a horrible, horrible death. I was scared to go back on stage again for about nine months.

How’d you get over it?
BC: Just got back on the horse. I realized that I missed it. I realized there was nothing that made me feel like I felt when I thought of something, wrote it down, said it in front of an audience, and they reacted and responded. There is nothing like it, Ed, it really is better than sex. And only a real comic can understand that. To write a joke that you tell in front of 250 strangers and they laugh and applaud, it is better than the best sex you ever had.

Ed Robertson
Pop Culture Critic and Television Historian
Co-Host, TV CONFIDENTIAL
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In case you missed it, our tribute to William Conrad is now available on the archives page at KSAV.org.