If you frequent your local comedy club, you've probably seen Darryl Lenox perform live, as he's been making the rounds across the United States and Canada for years. He's established himself as an insightful, ambitious, and hardworking comic, and while you have to keep your brain turned on to really enjoy his sets, it's most definitely worth it. Darryl has also made countless television appearances, including Comedy Central's Live at Gotham, BET's Comic View, A&E's Evening at the Improv, and Just for Laughs, plus several appearances on the CBC radio show The Debaters.
After getting his start in comedy in Seattle, Darryl spent 11 years living in Canada following a difficult time in his life, and so he has an incredibly unique perspective on Canada-U.S. relations. He's also spent the majority of his life dealing with deteriorating eyesight, but recently went back up to Canada to have experimental surgery in Vancouver that restored some of his sight. That experience pushed him into more humanitarian efforts, and he now works with Third World Eye Care Society (TWECS) to help bring exams, glasses, and treatment to those in need. Working with the Canadian health care system has not only pushed him towards more humanitarian efforts (he now works with the Third World Eye Care Society), it has also helped to inform some of his stand-up, which due to his many experiences North of the border includes a lot about the differences between Canada and the United States.
Darryl will be performing several shows at the Winnipeg Comedy Festival this year, including a show at Rumor's Comedy Club, a venue he has visited frequently over the years. I got the chance to speak with him last week in advance of his time in Winnipeg, and we discussed his experiences in Winnipeg and Canada in general, why he thinks living in both Canada and the U.S. has helped his comedy, his early influences, and the one-hour special he filmed last fall in Vancouver. And if you're in Winnipeg this week, be sure to check out Darryl at one his five shows at the festival.
Paul Little: I've been a fan of yours for quite a while now, so it's great to talk to you today.
Darryl Lenox: Really?
PL: Yes, really.
DL: (Laughs) Wow! Thanks.
PL: I saw your stuff a few years ago online and just really, really enjoyed it. So I made sure to check out one of your shows at Rumor's here in Winnipeg about a year and a half ago, and was blown away by your show.
DL: Well thank you very much, Paul.
PL: Do you think being an American who spent a lot of time living in and touring in Canada gives you a unique perspective to your comedy?
DL: I think it has been the best thing that's ever happened to me. And if I can say this without being boastful, I think it's given me one of the most unique perspectives out of a lot of the comics working today. Because to be able to combine both countries like that, and have indepth time experiencing both, I think I got the best of both worlds, to be perfectly honest.
PL: Have you found the audiences in each country to be much different? Do you have to adjust your material whether you're performing in Canada or the U.S.?
DL: Some of the nuanced stuff I have to. Like, I know that in Canada the collective consciousness of it is that there's a general underdog feeling, which I'm comfortable with, being a minority in America as well. I understand the nuanced parts of having to work a little harder and wanting to be better than the big, mighty American system, and so I'm a little more comfortable being able to talk about my complaints, you know, "It's nonsense. It's just not fair." So I really enjoy that aspect of talking about things like that in Canada. But when I'm in the States, I talk a little bit more from the perspective of, "You know, we can do better and here's why, here's how. I spent this time in Canada and I got my surgery done and it was so incredible and the doctors were so different. And that's why I think we can learn a lot from their health care system." And that way American audiences seem to get it more, as opposed to if I just beat 'em on the head with, "Our health care system sucks. Our politics suck." And so it's a little more congenial way of saying, "Our politics suck and our health care sucks."
PL: You talk about a lot of current events in your act -- you just mentioned the political system and health care system. Is there a conscious effort to talk about certain subjects like that?
DL: No, you know what Paul, I really talk about things that affect me emotionally, first. So obviously, I don't have any great interest or emotional involvement in gas prices because I don't drive. I think the first good political bit I had was a rant about George Bush on the microphones many years ago, and I was sitting in a car with a Canadian comic, and he said something about it and for some reason I got mad, and I turned that into a bit. And then I got emotional when I was sitting in the back of the club at Rumor's on Election Day and the screen came down and announced that Barack Obama had won, and so I talked about that. So I respond to what hits me emotionally. I don't know if it's a conscious effort to talk about politics or current events, it's just stuff that strikes me emotionally.
PL: Going back to when you first started in comedy, who were some of your biggest influences comedically?
DL: I'd never stepped foot into a comedy club before, so when I went into Seattle there was a local comedian named Rod Long who had just won a Seattle comedy competition. And ironically enough, he had spent a considerable amount of time in Canada, and so he'd always tell me, "You want to play those rooms in Canada, just holler." And I learned a lot from being up there, so he was my first comedy hero. And then I ended up living in Canada for a few years, and then I went back to the States to work with Chris Rock, and he blew me away, and so I really wanted to try to be as good as him. And then Brent Butt really pushed me a lot. And I was always a huge Richard Pryor guy. And then after I got those eye surgeries done, I really listened to a lot of Bill Cosby to learn how to tell a story about something that was important. And so, I think those probably were the biggest influences: Rod Long, Brent Butt, Chris Rock, Richard Pryor, Bill Cosby. And Bill Hicks, just because I think he was brilliant.
PL: Are there contemporaries of yours right now that you've really taken notice of?
DL: There's a group of guys who I think are in their 40s -- I have this theory that this wave of 40-year-old comics who have been in the business close to between 15 and 20 years or so are going to be the next batch of great comics. Because we got to learn from the aforementioned people, and then we also get to see how successful you could be. And so you look at guys like Dane Cook and Russell Peters, and those guys are enormous, and they're all roughly the same age. We have to be new pioneers. So this next group I think is really going to be impressive. Some of the best Canadian comics are living in England now -- Tom Stade, Sean Collins. Some of the guys that are there now -- Dave Hemstad. Glen Foster's been around for a long time but he's great. There's a ton of good guys. And on the American side, I just did a festival in Aspen where there were some great comics: Auggie Smith, Tom Simmons, Roy Wood Jr., Patrice O'Neil. These are a bunch of real good grown men comics that are coming down the pipe that people are going to start paying attention to.
PL: You've played quite a few shows here in Winnipeg over the years. What do you like or maybe not like so much about visiting the city?
DL: Being on that stage (at Rumor's) is pretty cool man. I've been there for so long that I feel like I grew up with those people that come to see me, and so they just let me get away with a lot. They don't make me have to be knock-out, smash-out funny every single time. I can just kind of take some leeway and explore some concepts that I may have. I'm comfortable with those Winnipeg people. They're just not overly high, not overly low, and that's just the best kind of creative pallett you can get on. The things that I don't like about it -- the obvious thing is that it's cold and there's nothing to do. But the comedy is awesome. I get to be there for two weeks and I work my ass off onstage. I love it.
PL: You've done a lot of festivals and television work alongside doing the club gigs. Do you prefer doing the longer headlining sets where you can kind of work out material or do you like being able to showcase your best five to ten minutes on a bill with other comics?
DL: The long set, because I think that's where I'm coming up next in my career. Hopefully my special that I shot in Vancouver at the Vogue, when that hits the networks, that will be able to showcase what I do in a long set. I don't think that there's much in a short festival type set or a short television set that is going to do a whole hell of a lot more for me than it already has. You know that Eddie Murphy Delirious special changed the game for him, and that Richard Pryor Live changed the game for him, and Steve Martin at Madison Square Garden. Those hour-long specials really do a thing where they get you to a whole other level in your career as opposed to a short set.
PL: So when will we be able to see your special that you just mentioned?
DL: We're still in the editing process. It's a slow process, but hopefully by fall we should have it ready to hit the airwaves. I'm keeping my fingers crossed. The work is a slow, grinding process.
PL: When did you film it?
DL: I filmed it October 2 (2010). It's called Blind Ambition, and I'm doing all the press on it now and stuff. It was the best thing I've ever done. I really had a goal in mind. It was to kind of thank Canada in general and show the American comedy community and the country itself what I had learned as a comic and as a person for living those 11 years in Canada. Basically, I spent the whole set talking to the cameras as if they were American audiences watching me talk to Canadian people, and so it was cool. It was a really cool thing.
PL: Yeah, it's kind of interesting. You see a lot of Canadian comics who go down to the U.S. and end up getting success almost ignore their Canadian-ness or don't talk about it on stage. They try and pretend that they're just from wherever. So I find it interesting that you, being an American, bring up the Canadian aspect a lot.
DL: You know, I've heard people say that. I mean, I tell people I'm American and they go, "Well what the hell happened? How did it happen?" And I say it was just a nice man. The man let me stay at his house after I went through a divorce, and people just embraced me and I got to start all over. And I learned how to do comedy all over again, just talking about being myself in the moment, and my life experiences became my comedic perspective. I mean, I'm telling you, everything changed, and so it would be dumb to try and go back home to America and pretend that nothing happened. It wouldn't make any sense. So I wanted to show my gratitude to Canada as a country for teaching me so much, and I wanted to also again show America that there's more than just one way. There's more than just the American way.
PL: Now a large chunk of the people reading this right now likely aren't in Winnipeg and won't be able to come to the Winnipeg Comedy Festival. So where else can people check you out over the next little while?
DL: Well I will hopefully be back in Winnipeg before the year is up. I basically try to revolve my schedule around the Oakland Raiders football schedule. So I'll be in Minneapolis when the Raiders play in Minneapolis and I'll be in Green Bay when the Raiders play Green Bay. You can hit my website (www.darryllenox.com) and I'll have all my dates and stuff, and then people can come see me there. And then once the special comes out, I'll be able to get some DVDs out to friends and everybody else, too.
Paul Little is the founder and Managing Editor of ShowbizMonkeys.com. When not interviewing his favourite musicians and comedians, he can also be found at The Purple Room in Winnipeg, where he is Artistic Director. (@comedygeek)