GMP Humor Editor Omar Shaukat interviews comedian Erik Griffin on the inspiration and intentions of his stand-up comedy.
Comedians You Should Know is a new series where I feature both male and female comics who are discussing important issues that align with the Good Men Project. These comedians have worked tirelessly over the years to refine their craft and now use the art of comedy to discuss issues including race, gender, and sexuality. The first comedian to be featured in this series is Erik Griffin.
Comedian Erik Griffin’s hard work is finally paying off. In 2003 the stand-up comic quit his day job to fully pursue stand-up comedy. After years of honing his craft, in 2011 Griffin landed a role as Montez Walker on Comedy Central’s hit TV Series Workaholics. On February 28 of this year, Griffin recorded a Comedy Central half-hour special at the Royale Nightclub in Boston. Shortly thereafter, on March 12 Griffin’s debut comedy album, Technical Foul: Vol. One, will be released on independent label Side One Dummy Records (Pre-order link is provided at the very bottom of this post). Chances are, if you have not heard of Erik Griffin, you will soon enough.
I chatted with Griffin over the phone about his beginnings as a comic, what it means to be a good man, the inspiration for his material, and advice to aspiring stand-up comedians.
How did you know when you wanted to become a comic?
I knew I wanted to be a stand-up comic when I was a little boy, because my mother told me I said that. And I don’t even remember saying that. She said, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” And I said, “I want to be a stand-up comic”… But then I floundered with it for a little while when I was younger. Then in 2003 I realized, “You know what, I don’t want to wake up at the age of 50 and know I didn’t follow my dreams”. And here I am.
What in your opinion does it mean to be a good man?
I think what it means to be a good man consists of three things: First, following your dreams. Second, keeping yourself healthy by keeping yourself away from things like bad foods, drugs, and alcohol in excess. And finally being a family man through being a motivator for yourself and those around you.
Speaking of keeping healthy, how do you stay healthy while you’re on the road as a comic?
You know people say that it’s hard to be healthy on the road, and I really don’t understand that. I work for one hour a day. So the other 23 hours of the day, I can be healthy. It’s all just a choice. It’s just about making good choices for yourself and not excuses.
Are there any specific memories growing up that changed your way of life or shaped your worldview? On your new album, Technical Foul: Volume One, you discuss your racial background
I think what comes to mind is hearing what my mom went through growing up as a naturalized citizen. She came from another country and became a US citizen, and for me to hear the struggles she went through affected me. She hoped I wouldn’t go through the same struggles. So she took me around the world. When I was 7 years old I went to London, Paris, Rome, and Germany, so I was very worldly as a kid. When I experienced some racism growing up, it really didn’t affect me as much as it would have affected her growing up.
I had a few experiences with race in particular that I remember. I remember going to the YMCA in Beverly Hills growing up, and this white kid telling me that he didn’t want to swim in the pool with me because I was going to make it dirty because of how I looked. And I just remember laughing at that time. I thought, “Oh wow, racism still exists. Oh, this is cute that someone still has these feelings.” It was nothing major that made me think about it. It’s just how people react to me.
When people ask me, “What Are You?” They don’t know what I am. People just want to know so badly. It’s so important for people to define you, and to be able to put you into a box in order to understand you. It’s something that I deal with all the time so I talk about it.
It’s really great that you had a critical perspective at such a young age, because that allows you to translate experiences into humor much more easily.
Yeah, I have to thank my mom for that.
Is there anything you wish to achieve in particular when discussing race in sections of your comedy? Or is it more to just put the ideas out onto the table?
I would say it’s more of a way to discuss how I cope with it all. I don’t even think about it really. I’m not saying things to make people necessarily think about what they’re doing so much as I think that everyone should be able to be made fun of. No matter who you are, I don’t like when people get very sensitive about whoever is saying whatever they’re saying. It’s just a joke. We can all be made fun of. Let’s just take it for what it is.
Was your standup always reflective, or did it progress to this stage where you were more comfortable talking about yourself in front of an audience?
It’s funny you say that, because now I am starting to think maybe I am reflecting on something while on stage. But I think that just comes with age and experience. It comes with experience of doing stand-up comedy and trying to be yourself on stage. That literally is the hardest part and the greatest achievement… If you’re a sensitive person, and you’re able to be sensitive on stage then you’re achieving something. So I think the vulnerability of it all just came from the experience of wanting to be honest with the audience and myself.
I want to talk about one particular bit on your new album that I really respect. It’s the segment where you talk about wanting to reclaim the words “faggot” and “retarded”. You discuss the conflict of using these words in society. I think that it’s brilliant to be able to put two of the most difficult words to use in comedy out there in the open for discussion. It really shows craftsmanship to be able to throw out those words and dissect them in front of the audience. Where did that bit come from and how did it develop? And what sort of backlash have you received from performing it?
Yeah, I’m waiting to hear what people think about that bit. I don’t know if everyone is going to feel the same way about it. There’s always going to be backlash. I did a college, and I heard some rumblings about it later. People saying, “I can’t believe he said that”… I don’t really care though.
I feel that way about those words. And I thought to myself, “How can I express how I feel about this on stage without it being the same as everyone else”. I didn’t want the joke to be, “Oh look at me I’m saying this edgy word.” It’s more like, “This is why I think we should say this word, and you can agree with me or not it’s up to you”. But I didn’t want to be disrespectful to the comedy of it. I didn’t want to be gluttonous about it. I think my personality lends itself to being able to talk about things and people not take them so seriously.
What advice would you give to aspiring humorists?
My advice would be that people don’t fail in this business they normally quit. So I would stay at it. For stand-up comics I would say get to the point where you don’t need the laughs. When you don’t need the laughs then you’ll really start being more thoughtful and understanding of yourself. The last thing I would say is to know what you’re talking about. Why is what you’re talking about funny to you? Because that’s what you’re trying to convey to the crowd: “Why is this funny?” Most comics don’t know why what they’re saying is funny, and that’s why they struggle early on in the writing process. You have to be able to break it down… There’s no right or wrong way to do this. I’m not trying to be a pretentious asshole either. Stand-up comedy is also about just having fun. I don’t mind people who want to be silly. It is entertainment – it’s an escape. These people who come to the shows have tough lives, and some of them just want to escape. There’s no right or wrong way to do comedy. Just be genuine.
Erik Griffin’s debut stand-up album, Technical Foul: Vol. One is available for pre-order now on iTunes here.