Mainstream television viewers may know the corpulent comedian from last season’s Last Comic Standing on NBC. But this 18-year comedy veteran is no overnight success. With his sights on Hollywood and a new Comedy Central special airing on Feb. 22, Lavell Crawford is about to take an even bigger bite out of the national stand-up scene.
The baby boomers had Johnny Carson, the eccentrics had Robin Williams, and now, the overweight individuals of America have a new comedic voice to represent them: Lavell Crawford.
Proving that big is not only beautiful but funny as hell, too, this notable stand-up performer has been touring the comedy circuit for the past 18 years. Crawford is perhaps best known as the runner-up on the most recent season of Last Comic Standing; Comedian Jon Reep took home top honors, but nevertheless, being on the NBC show each week was a career — and life — changing experience that brought Crawford from the underground, urban comedy crowd into the homes of millions of mainstream audience members.
On Feb. 22, Comedy Central will air his first solo stand-up special: not bad for the former chubby Boy Scout. Checking in from Tampa, Fla., Crawford reflects on stardom, the “fat experience” and merit badges.
Who are your influences, both in comedy and life in general?
Well in life, it was most definitely my grandfather and my mother. My grandfather was my father figure, and my mother and I grew up together. She was a young mother when she had me and my sisters but she also stuck by me and did all the motherly duties she was supposed to do. But sheÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s also one of my biggest fans.
So obviously she’s proud of what your career in comedy has become.
I’m pretty sure she is. She was afraid at first because I had a short temper; I would jump out and beat somebody up when they didn’t laugh [laughs]. I had a guy I used to go on the road with named Danny O’Day: he’s old-school. He wore a suit and tie and did clean humor for nursing homes and VFW halls, and he taught me the aspects of being a performer.
As far as other influences, you have Redd Foxx, Richard Pryor, Robin Harris, Rodney Dangerfield, Sam Kinison and some of these newer guys like Pablo Francisco, and you know, guys like that that I really enjoy. There’s Bernie Mac, who’s never changed his ways even after being brought into Hollywood, and I respect that.
So these are comics you used to watch as a kid?
Redd Foxx used to make my granddaddy laugh, and that’s why I loved him so much. And Rodney Dangerfield, he was such a character, man, and everybody loved old Rodney. Yeah, I watched all those shows.
What types of experiences from your childhood have helped shape your comedic style?
I guess being a chubby kid, I was always trying to be clever enough to keep the bigger kids from beating up on me. I also tried to get with girls by making them laugh. And if I said something that wasn’t funny, they didn’t like me no more. “You’re not making me laugh! “Well, I’ll take your dolls!” [laughs].
Was being funny fueled by a desire to be accepted by the popular kids?
No, not really. I didn’t know who the heck was popular, but it wasn’t me. I couldn’t afford no Camaro. I had a Ford Pinto, but everyone seemed to ride with me. I played football and everything, but I didn’t consider myself one of the “in” crowd. I didn’t really care; I just wanted to be by myself anyway, but it seemed like people were just drawn to me.
Where do you see yourself fitting into the current stand-up comedy landscape?
Where do I fit in? Only in the big and tall section. I guess you could consider me a character more or less. People emulate me and copy me — not as far as stealing my stuff, but people like to talk like me and use my voice, so I guess I’m one of those character comics.
You discuss the issues of race and weight a lot in your routine. How do you differentiate your act from other comedians who delve into the same issues?
I only talk about what I know, primarily, and I try not to touch on a subject that I don’t know. A lot of comics will talk about the same thing, but they try to talk about it like they know what they’re talking about. I put it in my perspective as in, “When I was in school, this is what happened.” I try to share my part.
You have a bit in which you discuss airline regulations after 9/11. How much do topical and news references influence your act as opposed to personal experiences?
I fly so much that I’ve experienced, at the forefront, what goes on in airports. I see every airport never able to make up their minds on what they want: three ounces of lotion ain’t gonna cover nothing on my body. Take off your shoes, leave your shoes on, take off your sweater.
I was at the airport the other day, and I had on a jacket suit, the kind with the hood on it, and I ain’t got nothing under it but a T-shirt, and the security guard said that I had to take it off, and I said, “You know what? One of these days, I’m going to walk through that airport butt-naked!” It’s getting ridiculous, you know? I don’t know who these terrorists are, but why are you always letting everyone know what you’re about to do? They give out a newsletter when they’re about to blow up something, and that don’t make sense to me.
I loved your bit on your experiences with grizzly bears while Boy Scouting. Out of curiosity, how many merit badges did you earn?
I got a Wolf Badge, a Bobcat Badge, and an Arts and Crafts Badge.
What did you have to do to earn those?
I baked some brownies for the den mother, and she gave me some badges. I did have to climb a tree for one of them, and for Arts and Crafts, I made a lanyard. I don’t even know what the hell a lanyard is.
How did your experience on Last Comic Standing influence the ways in which your career has evolved?
It was powerful. It really was. It was like I was on a sitcom or a TV show for six months. It was on during the summer, I think pretty much all of America was watching it; there wasn’t much to compete with besides America’s Got Talent and Dancing With the Stars. Everybody saw it, from my hometown to right across the country, because we did a 40-city tour, and we packed houses.
I still got people coming up to me saying, “Aw, man, I thought you were gonna win! I loved it!” I had the urban market, and now I’ve got the suburban market. I was doing pretty good before, and it’s like solidified now. It’s written in concrete.
And what I learned from the show? TV is just a bitch! [laughs]. Networks can be so anal: they try to control comedians and don’t realize that one thing that makes comedy so great is the freedom. If it ain’t the cuts, then it’s just what we say. I had a joke about how black people don’t like to work — I’m black and I know we don’t like to work — and I had to change it and use myself in the third person. I’m really still talking about black people, but I had to cover it up, dress it up, but then they got commercials for Viagra, you know what I mean?
It’s crazy, its how the world is: Oh, we’ll show porn, but we won’t say it’s porn. But that’s where we are now; when I look at it, I think that TV execs shouldn’t touch on comedy and instead should have a comedian judging on comedy all the way through.
And I’ve learned another thing: You’ve got to be ready when the opportunity knocks. Some of these comedians are doing Last Comic Standing and they don’t realize you’ve got to be on your game. They made me rewrite my jokes probably 35 times, every time, and if you’re not a joke writer, that could kill you. I’ve been doing this for 18 years, and I always rewrite and watch my audience; sometimes you take something out or you put something in, and you have more to give.
You’ve got to keep the interest going. I learned that sometimes you gotta listen to the power before you fight the power. We’re always trying to fight the power, all the time. But sometimes you gotta let the power be, until you get the opportunity and can say, “This is my day.”
Comedy Central is airing a special of yours in February. Can you tell me a little about that?
It’s a half-hour special. They’re supposed to have a background of me standing between a gym and a restaurant, trying to make a decision. It’s a great show: I do all kinds of stuff that you might not have heard. I do things about my mom that people haven’t heard; it’s hilarious. It’s a great show. I thought I did 30 minutes of it, but I only ended up doing 21, so I had to go back out and do another set, which was cool with me because I went out and did 20 more minutes and got a standing O twice. If they edited it right, you’re gonna have a blast.
Have you ever wanted to quit comedy?
Many times! You get to a point where you keep thinking, Where’s my chance? I’ve been hitting home runs, but I haven’t broken any records or won the World Series. I can do the mainstream world as well as the black world, and I kept wondering how long I would have to keep paying my dues. I felt like quitting a couple of times, but realized that I just couldn’t because, if anything else, I maintained the people’s vote.
Every time I get on MySpace, I find out how many people gave a crap about me. MySpace is a weird venue sometimes, but people go on there and recognize you, and people would tell me how I changed their life. It makes you feel good about just everything. Making people laugh has always been my inspiration to keep going.
Yeah, MySpace, I guess, is a great way to get in touch with fans.
I have people come up from everywhere and connect through things like YouTube. YouTube changed my life, too, because I couldn’t believe how many people go on there and watch those clips and put the clips on. I got over 300,000 hits on a thing of mine, and saw some guys doing a skit about a joke of mine that I wrote. On YouTube, I’m a pretty popular guy.
What impact do you hope to make on the world of stand-up comedy?
I don’t know what sort of impact; I guess I’d have to hear from other people. I’m a pretty modest kind of guy, but if I’d leave any impact, I’d want to make it about being fat. I don’t do fat jokes; I do jokes about being fat and the fat experience. I talk about the honesty of it and the reality of how some people say dumb things.
When I talk about this stuff, the impact that I want to leave is that I gave larger people the voice and the reality; I do jokes about having diabetes, and I share with these people and I make them laugh, because a lot of these people didn’t have parents who allowed them to be who they are. God made them that way, and you can change or alter your life but, hell, you got a life: that’s a gift there.
One thing I try to tell people is to be happy with what you got, and sometimes that’s hard as hell, but it’s better than being dead. I ain’t seen no brochures about being dead; nobody is making any great commercials about being dead, like, “C’mon by, it’s wonderful over there!” So I think that’s my main impact; I gave bigger people a voice that said, “We’re here.”
What one defining thing has to happen to you for you to know that you’ve made it?
When I wake up and I got maybe about 10 million in the bank, and I’ve worked on my fifth real hype movie with a megastar, and my mom has got her house and we’re living down the street from each other, and my kids are healthy and my wife is beautiful, lying next to me, and I don’t have to get up and do anything if I don’t want to.
That’s the American Dream right there.
Most definitely. When I have everyone healthy and I can afford to get my mom a house, I’ll know. Being able to get into Hollywood; making a movie without any questions asked is important. Once I get there, I’m going to do a couple of movies, and then I’m going to get the hell out of there. I don’t want to become Hollywood; I want a piece of Hollywood, but I don’t want to become a part of it.
Once you become Hollywood, it’s so much work; you have to walk around all the parties and make sure you have on the right outfit, and that’s bull crap. I tell people that all the time. It’s nice to be famous and it’s nice to be rich, but I gotta make sure I’m always on point with everything I do. I watch VH1 and those guys who talk about celebrities, but who the hell are they? It’s so hard to just live in this society, and go through all the work you do to make it.
Some of the people they talk about didn’t have to work, but a lot of them have. You shouldn’t sit up there and talk about it because you don’t know what they’ve gone through.