Q&A with Cincinnati standup comedian Tabari McCoy

By Nathan Alexander

Tabari McCoy will be performing in Louisville on July 20 at Gravely Brewing Company! He will be joined by one of Cincinnati’s rising stars Gretchen Schultz and Louisville favorites Eric Groovely and Peter Swanz.

This is a free show, but you can reserve your tickets here!

Tabari is known for his conversational style of comedy and cites pop culture, music, sports, movies, and his personal experiences as his influences. He has released two albums and his debut special Be Happy was released on YouTube earlier this year.

Tabari was kind enough to answer some questions from Louisville Laughs.

Louisville Laughs: How long have you been performing standup and what made you decide to go for it? Were you always the funny guy of the friend group and how easily were you able to translate that to the stage?

Tabari McCoy: I began performing stand-up comedy in April 2006. I had loved stand-up since I was a child, literally, as I recall seeing a very famous special by a very famous (but now disgraced) comedian playing on the television of a long-closed department store. As an only child, there are plenty of lonely times growing up and when you’re laughing, you don’t feel alone, you don’t feel scared… You just feel happy. 

At the time I started, I was working for a lifestyle publication produced by hometown newspaper, The Cincinnati Enquirer. I wanted to do a story on the local stand-up comedy scene and as part of that, I decided I was going to finally bite the bullet and do an open mic. I got laughs despite the jokes being half-baked and even less executed, and I was hooked.

I could be funny as a kid and knew how to use humor as both a way to get positive attention and as a defense mechanism having also done emcee battles 8 Mile-style in college despite not fitting a traditional battle rapper look. Over time, translating every day conversation to the stage has become much easier.

Did you get your start in Cincinnati? Do you remember any of the jokes from your very first open mic set and are there any that made it to an album? What’s the comedy scene like in Cincinnati?

Tabari: I started at Go Bananas Comedy Club, one of the best and most respected independent comedy clubs in the nation. I don’t remember one single joke from my very first set thankfully and none of them made it to either of my albums nor my special, “Be Happy,” now streaming on YouTube.

The stand-up comedy scene in Cincinnati is very good and filled with talented comedians who will push you to get better simply because if you don’t, you won’t last and/or fade into oblivion. Our proximity to several other major cities within a four-to five-hour driving range also makes travel and networking better than other situations.

Who are some of your comedy heroes? Have you gotten to work with any of them yet?

Tabari: There’s an old expression – “Never meet your heroes.” The real version of people can often be disappointing compared to what you think they are like. That being said, I’ve been very fortunate to meet several comics I respect and admire and save for a few random weekends where the comic in question would never remember meeting me, I’ve been very fortunate to avoid nightmare circumstances. 

What advice have you gotten that has made the most difference in your journey as a standup? Do you have any advice for new comedians, writers, performers? 

Tabari: The one piece of advice that readily comes to mind was something the late David A. Arnold told me one time at the Cleveland Improv. The Cleveland Improv is one of the most urban – that means filled with black people in the audience – clubs in America. I’m not built in the mold of many black comics who grew up in ‘hood situations. That is not a knock or judgment by any means; it’s just a fact.

Anyway, I used to struggle in front of crowds that I didn’t relate to because I went into the situation thinking they wouldn’t get me. A comedian’s job is to bring people into your world and make it relatable to theirs while establishing that “This is my stage” for the time they are on it. 

David told me he got over those hardcore audiences “when I realized they wouldn’t stop coming just because I didn’t want them to.” Going up with confidence, swagger and establishing that you are in control helped me far more than just working on my jokes did – but those audiences definitely made me improve my joke writing and knowing how to perform for more than one audience. Does that mean I’m everybody’s cup of tea? Hell no – but I definitely have more people sipping from my cup than I used to.    

There is also a Chris Rock quote that haunts me. I started stand-up late at age 29 and I have a house, like my neighbors and enjoy sleeping in a real bed. I know my situation is too comfortable – and I chose that word purposefully – for me to give up. But Chris Rock said “You can be the funniest guy in Detroit, but you’re the funniest guy in Detroit.”

The industry is in LA and NYC and it is extremely difficult to advance outside of those cities to be headlining nationwide and get other opportunities. I wish I was more of a risk taker, but I’m not in that sense. If I had some momentum or something to build on, then I would move to LA or NYC, so start before you have real responsibilities or commitments – that would be my advice. 

What’s your comedy horror story?

Tabari: I’m not rich or famous enough to go into detail, but I’ll say this: There are few things worse than working with someone who needs to FEEL like a star off stage at all times versus simply being a good person. I’ve had that happen more times than I care to remember.

Every comic gets booed at some point – anyone who says they haven’t hasn’t been doing it long enough and/or is just a liar – but egomaniac comedians make me wish I didn’t have a mortgage, family I care about or no common sense so I could just wild out and go full Rick James/Charlie Murphy (who I got to emcee a weekend for once at the old Louisville Improv) on them.

What’s your comedy highlight so far?

Tabari: I’ve put out two albums (Remarkable in 2018 and Laughing with a Panther in 2013), performed on the main stage of a major event in front of thousands of people and even put out a special which has 5,000+ views (and counting) on YouTube. I also got to perform on the main stage of a historic theater in my native Cincinnati. I’ve got miles to go, but the ride has had some nice highlights thus far. 

You have a podcast called A Tight 45 with Tabari McCoy, you’re a movie blogger, writer, journalist, and standup comedian. How do all these different creative endeavors inform your standup?

Tabari: I haven’t put out a new episode of my podcast in months because it became too hard to try and book guests on a routine basis and every comedian (or person that THINKS they’re a comic) has a podcast. I enjoy doing it, but I gave it a year to build and it didn’t reach where I wanted it to listener-wise if I’m honest. I am thinking of bringing it back because I enjoy it, but when you are juggling so many balls, it’s best to focus on a couple to do them well as opposed to possibly doing them all mediocre. 

I have a STRONG belief that drives me, however: People make time for what’s important to them. That applies to every avenue in life. I made time to do my podcast, my daytime hustle, my movie blog (http://mccoyonmovies.blogspot.com/) and of course stand-up because I make time for them. The same principle applies to dating and any other job/hobby. If it’s important to you, you’ll find time to do it and do it well.

I try to make opportunities when I’m not getting them because it’s important. I’m doing this interview because anyone that might be interested in seeing me perform after learning more about me is important to me. And going up on stage and making people laugh and showing I’m a good comic is important to me. That will all come out Thursday night.

What do you hope to achieve in a standup performance? What are you aiming for the audience to take away from the Tabari McCoy experience?

Tabari: My goal is to make the crowd laugh. If I can make them think, cool. But the job is to make them laugh. I love comedy for two reasons: (1) Comedians are the last truth tellers we have in society and in every good joke is a modicum of truth. (2) You can cry from laughing, but rarely laugh from crying – people that do that probably have bodies under their house. 

I will say this: I’m single. If women come out and see that I am an honest, decent human being that can make them laugh, that’s my in. I just saw the Barbie movie tonight before doing this and having seen Ryan Gosling’s physique in that movie, I NEED to be funny!

You’ve released multiple comedy albums. You released a special this year called Be Happy. Congratulations! What was that experience like and what made you want to put out a special? How did you prepare for the special and was this preparation different from what you’ve done ahead of your past album recordings?

Tabari: The internet is to comedy in 2023 what The Tonight Show was to stand-up in the late 1970s and mid 1980s. You have to get eyes on you to make other people be willing to book you to put asses in seats. Why do you think I’m doing this interview – to NOT have people show up?

I prepared for this special by doing everything possible to make it feel special to the audience. Jokes are jokes; a special should feel like a moment in time captured on video and/or audio. There were jokes I look back at that I could have tightened up, added to, said differently, but it was all captured in one take in real time. I literally only cut out one joke from the final cut and added the monologue at the end back in because it meant something to me that I wanted those watching to feel, too. 

Now, I’m working on building a new 45 minutes to hour of material and I already have new material I didn’t have when I was in Louisville earlier this month. If you want to come laugh and maybe help me pay for another pair of sneakers by buying my merch after the show, I hope to see whoever is reading this at Gravely Brewing Thursday night!

Come see Tabari McCoy and friends tomorrow, July 20th at Gravely Brewing Company! Free tickets can be reserved here.

You can find Tabari at his website, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, and McCoy On Movies.

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