'I’ve always gravitated towards the unusual': Reginald D Hunter talks ahead of Birmingham and Telford shows
For Reginald D Hunter, nothing beats the buzz of stand-up. The brilliant American comedian says that: “It’s the only time of day that everyone I’m talking to is smiling. It’s the only time of day that people are very happy to see me – I can’t even count on that from my own family!”
So it’s terrific news all round that Reginald is returning to the stand-up arena with a superb new show entitled “Facing the Beast”. This spring he is embarking on a comprehensive 40-date tour of the UK and Ireland with this hugely anticipated new show that celebrates his 20th anniversary as a comedian living and performing in the UK.
Over those two decades, Reginald has established himself as one of the most electrifying performers at work in this country. He lights up venues up and down the land with his stunning, searingly honest, sometimes provocative material. His compelling routines have attracted an audience that spans the generations. He is a stand-out stand-up.
The critics agree. Awarding him five stars, The Times raves that: “Reginald D Hunter joins the top rank of stand-up comedians working today... A comedian going for broke flying in the face of received opinion in a way that is simply exhilarating… This is comedy of a rare scope.”
For its part, Edinburgh Festivals Magazine describes Reginald as: “A gifted storyteller… He has the audience in the palm of his hand.” The Scotsman, meanwhile, calls him: “Arguably the most accomplished act in a comedy section of your brochure.”
Reginald has been in the UK for over two decades and in that time he has become one of the UK comedy industry’s best-known performers for his distinctive take on subjects including race and sexuality. His work can be brutally honest and is often considered to be controversial but it is always meticulously thought out and he has never been afraid to face challenging issues head on even when the focus is on his own principles or beliefs. With good reason, he’s been described as being stand-up comedy’s coolest customer.
Reginald is just as magnetic in person. Over a bowl of chicken soup in a North London cafe, he makes for compulsive company and two hours in his presence flies by.
Reginald, who has gained a devoted television audience in such popular panel shows as Have I Got News for You, QI, 8 out of 10 Cats Does Countdown and Never Mind the Buzzcocks, begins by underscoring just what he loves about live comedy. “I adore the interaction with the audience.
“What I live for is those moments where something comes out of my mouth or an audience member’s mouth that completely surprises all of us. You can’t orchestrate that. That’s when you laugh till there are tears in your eyes.”
The comedian, who has presented the enormously popular BBC2 documentary, Reginald D Hunter’s Songs of The South, and its equally successful follow up, Reginald D Hunter’s Songs of The Border, both of which charted the growth of American popular song, goes on to give an example of the sort of off-the-cuff line that fires up his stand-up shows. “There was one moment where I came on stage when I was lean and pretty.
“A woman in the audience shouted out: ‘Show us your c**k!’ I immediately replied: ‘I decline to do that, mam, because it ain’t that kind of party. Let me ask you, ‘Do you go to strip clubs and shout out, ‘Tell us a joke!’?’”
On another occasion, Reginald recalls: “I walked onstage at a club and asked, ‘How much were the tickets?’ Someone shouted out, ‘£14’. ‘Relax,’ I replied, ‘here comes £9.74!’” It is this sort of hilarious, spontaneous humour that elevates Reginald and makes him one of the most thrilling live comedians around.
The stand-up, who hails originally from Albany, Georgia, particularly enjoys performing in this country. He explains why he has such a tremendous rapport with British audiences. “I love the fact that they will hear you out. I’m a black man from the South of the US. I was born in trouble, and I don’t expect no game to be 50-50. All I ask is that I know what the rules are going in.
“In the UK, the rules are simply these: you can talk about anything you want, no matter how graphic or goofy, as long as you’re funny. But if you talk about stuff that isn’t funny and isn’t going anywhere, you will be asking the Brits for your ass back. ‘That’s my ass over there on the floor. Can I have it back, please?’”
We are currently going through an especially turbulent era in politics. Reginald admits that, perversely, bad times can actually be good for stand-up. “They make comedians tougher and sharper, if you can survive and you don’t let it shrink your nuts.”
These troubled times are provoking extremely angry debates, and in Facing their Beast Reginald will be addressing that. The comedian’s eminently sensible response to the prevailing air of fury is simple: civility. He reasons that: “If I wanted to question your view, I’d say, ‘Sir, you say that, but could I ask you this?’”
He adds: “There’s no problem on earth can’t be solved between two people by 15 minutes of considered chat – that goes for marriage, Brexit, or the Middle East. These things are easily solvable, but the fact that we have talked about some of these things for 50 years tells me that the powerful prefer the issue to the solution. It’s a matter of divide and conquer.”
In Facing the Beast, Reginald will also be tackling the thorniest issue of our times: Brexit. “I consider my team of friends, comedians and writers to be ‘Drama-cide’ Detectives – the name comes from my all-time favourite series, Homicide.
“If I was launching a ‘Drama-cide’ investigation of Brexit, I would advise my British friends to go back and look at whose idea it was. Once you have filled in the blanks, then you have the freedom to decide whether or not you should be mad about it.
“The people who are against Brexit are blaming each other, but they weren’t even in the room snorting cocaine or chasing $3,000-a-night hookers with the people who instigated it. To quote my favourite lyric from that great philosopher Eddy Grant in his song Electric Avenue: ‘Who is to blame in one country? Never can get to the one’.”
Hunter was born in Georgia, the youngest of nine. He undertook an acting internship in Jackson, Mississippi at age 20.
Whilst appearing as a guest on Richard Herring’s Leicester Square Theatre Podcast, Hunter revealed that he has a 16-year-old daughter whom he met for the first time in 2016.
He came to the UK at the age of 27 as a summer student at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. He turned his hand to comedy as a dare, for which he received £100. Realising that he enjoyed performing comedy, and that it might be profitable, he turned his attention from acting to stand-up.
It worked and Hunter was nominated for the Perrier Award in the 2002, 2003 and 2004 Edinburgh Festivals. He won the Writers’ Guild Award for Comedy in 2006 for his show Pride & Prejudice... & Niggas.
“I grew up in a sleepy place called Albany in Georgia. As a teenager, I played basketball and baseball. I liked Saturday Night Live, chess and girls. My desire to act came from years of watching television. I was a 1970s child and grew up watching Star Trek, The Six Million Dollar Man and Man from Atlantis. By the time I was 18, I was a good mimic.
“Until I was six, my mother and I were best buddies. Then my teens hit and my mom was terrifying. She regularly hit me over the head. My British friends keep telling me she was abusive, but I disagree; she only punished me when I had crossed a line. It was also the culture of the time. My mom was of the “spare the rod, spoil the child” school of thought.
“When I came to England, I was angry with my mother. I probably even hated her some. Since her death in 2006, I’ve started not only to understand her, but like her. A lot of the things I used to find really cruel about her, I just find hilarious. Sometimes you have to leave your home before you can fully make sense of it.
“When I got a place at Rada in 1997, I took my parents out to dinner to tell them. My father said: “Well, son, you ain’t married, you ain’t got no kids, if you’re going to do something like this, now’s the time.” My mother said: “I just hope it works out better than it did the first time you left home.”
“My family doesn’t mention my success – it’s the elephant in the room. It saddens me because they don’t know how good I am at what I do. There’s not a week goes by when I don’t ask myself whether I’ve paid too high a price for my career. I’ve given a lot to this job and I’ve made a lot of people who have tried to become attached to me learn to be patient. The truth is it doesn’t matter whether or not it’s true because it’s too late – I’m in it now. It can get a bit lonesome sometimes.”
Comedy has scuppered any hopes of settling down. “I’ve always gravitated towards the unusual. I’ve tended to choose women who are anomalous in some way: the women who have been the ones at the back of the room, just observing quietly. They have great stories. Getting married, going off into the sunset and having a couple of kids is just one ideal. That, in itself, is not my ideal. But never say never.”
The comedian has been responsible for two bestselling DVDs, Reginald D Hunter Live and Reginald D Hunter: In The Midst of Crackers. On his new tour, he will also be talking about how the right wing has triumphed in the US. “They worked out that they could never beat us liberals on civil rights or morality. So wisely, they decided they didn’t want to engage with that. Sometimes you’ve got to tip your hat to the devil.
“So this has been their strategy over the last 10 years. Our lawyer will stand up and say, ‘Crop rotation is not just good for the soil and the crops, but also for the long-term good of the earth.’ The right-wing lawyer will then stand up and say, ‘I love mom, apple pie and yabba dabba-do,’ and the judge will declare, ‘Case dismissed’.
“The right wing has been whupping us over and over with that since George W. Bush. It has culminated in Trump. He responds to morality and facts with anger-inducing, divisive nonsense.
“He can’t get us in the arena of facts and morality, so he’s moved it to a circus where all the laws of gravity are suspended and context doesn’t mean anything. All that matters are feelings, and perspective is greater than reality.”
Reginald makes for a terrifically entertaining comedian. His act is replete with dazzling and thought-provoking material.
So what does he hope that audiences will take away from “Facing the Beast”? “I hope that sprinkled in with the jokes and the absurdities is a reminder that we do have solutions like civility and being able to admit you’re wrong when you clearly are wrong.”
But ultimately: “There’s nothing new under the sun. The only new things in the world are mobile phones and the internet. Everything else is based, as it always has been, on money, power, land and sex.
“The people who read Shakespeare will recognise that!”
l Reginald D Hunter’s Facing the Beast tour reaches Telford’s Oakengates Theatre on June 6 and Birmingham Town Hall on June 26.