Joelle Hall had the chance to speak with upcoming comedian Travis Jay about his UK August tour, his rise to the mainstream, and how comedy has played a part in his life.
Joelle Hall: Thank you for your time today! Let’s start with a background.
Travis Jay: Sure. I’ve been on the stand up circuit for about ten years now. I started on the predominantly black circuit and was in that scene for the last 8 years or so of my career. Since being invited to Avalon last year, I have really been moving in towards the mainstream spaces from Nottingham down the country. I’m also an actor.
JH: Oh, I didn’t know that!
TJ: Yeah! The main thing I have been in is ‘Brothers With No Gate’ which was a web series that got picked up and was on the London Live.
JH: When was that?
TJ: That was a few years ago now. Acting is definitely a secondary passion of mine, though. Stand-up comedy? That’s me.
JH: So what brought you into comedy then?
TJ: My mum is a stand-up comic, so I grew up withstand-up comedy in the background of my life. If my parents didn’t have a babysitter for me, that meant I was going to the gig. I would be backstage hanging out with comedians, so now I know a lot of the pioneers of the black stand-up comedy scene just from being the boy in the corner! You had the Felix Dexters, the Curtis Walkers taking on the role of babysitting me while my mum was on stage! At first, I just saw comedy as something my mum did and then one night while sitting in the audience of one of her shows I just had that feeling like, “Yo! I can do this!” I don’t know where it came from but the fire had started. From that point, I just didn’t look back.
JH: As an upcoming black comedian, what was the journey to get access to more mainstream spaces?
TJ: It’s tricky because black comedy is quite marginalized in a lot of ways. You wouldn’t be able to get access to these spaces by just having success on the black circuit. You have to venture out. I got some attention after I filmed myself doing a one hour show called ‘Seriously Joking’ at the Youtube offices. I thought of how an online video can travel a lot further than I can, so I sent it to different agencies and the reactions were very positive. People were saying “I’m so surprised I’ve never heard of you.” And I was like “well I’ve been here for nearly 8 years.” But I never really get frustrated if people aren’t aware of me in the industry. I think it just gives me more motivation to keep pushing forward and to get the recognition that we deserve.
JH: So is that a route that you would recommend to other upcoming black comedians to get themselves out there? Social media?
TJ: I think social media has been forced to be our way to get out there. Look at Mo The Comedian. He’s a good friend of mine and we started out at very similar times. He’s always been an amazing comic but before he started doing videos on social media, he hadn’t really had many opportunities presented to him. The talent that he’s got was just waiting to be seen. So I think social media will continue to be our opportunity whilst the industry is a bit reluctant… but hopefully things will change.
JH: Would you say that, based on the diversity of the crowd, there are certain jokes that don’t land?
TJ: I won’t shy away from certain topics with different demographics, all that may change is my approach to the material. I’ll use very simple language tricks, but the joke itself doesn’t have to change. I tend to create and structure my jokes in such a way that they’re broad, that anyone can walk in there and understand what I am saying whether or not you’re from my world or background.
JH: On that note, what kind of themes do you like to explore in your comedy that you would want people to leave a show and think about on perhaps a less comedic level?
TJ: I have always wanted to be that type of comic where you can laugh at my material but you can also reference my material in serious conversations. Quite like Chris Rock, he has a lot of those gems where you can refer to it in an actual public debate. I like talking about fatherhood and my experience of fatherhood, and that’s for a variety of reasons. One is that it’s been a really huge part of my life and two, I think that black men get portrayed as absent fathers way too much. Being a great father is something I am proud of, and that’s something I like to put out there. I also like to talk about social injustices. Narrative is such a huge part of society, it twists and controls the way we think. For example, black boys in gangs are tarnished in the media, and at the same time [mafia movies, will make us think that those kind of gang members are compelling. Sometimes even highlighting the little comparisons makes a big difference.
JH: Absolutely. And just going deeper into the theme of fatherhood: would you say that some of your work is an ode to the father figures in your life?
TJ: Yes! Big time. I never want to take away from people who have had bad experiences of fathers in their lives, but the counter for that is people like myself who have had great experiences. Both my grandfathers are amazing grandparents I’m super close with my dad. When I hear only negative narratives, it makes me just want to stand up and say: “Wait a minute! There’s another side to this conversation.” I treat fatherhood as seriously as I do because I have been blessed to have experience a great father, so it is a real shame if I don’t try to be as great for my kids.
JH: Yeah, that’s really important context for how family features in your work. Do you go over the show with your friends and family before official shows?
TJ: I have done about twenty-five previews, and I’ll run the show by myself. I have got some really close friends who I run my material by, and also my girlfriend. So I am constantly in a state of evaluation. Right now I feel good, but if I need to get someone to hear a new bit of material, those people are there. Also, my mum has been here, done this, so it’s nice to be able to get her on the phone and ask, “Hey, what do you think about this?”
JH: But is that a lot of pressure if she thinks it’s bad but you really like it?
T: Sometimes I just know with a joke. I’ll let someone hear it and they’ll go, “ohh, I don’t know,” but in my heart I know that it’s going to work so I go ahead with it. And sometimes I’m right, but sometimes I am NOT.
J: That’s when the room falls silent, isn’t it?
T: That’s it! But then you just say to the audience,“Hey, I thought that was going to be funny,” and that’s enough to make them laugh.
Travis Jay brings his show Funny, Petty, Cool to Just the Tonic at The Mash House (Just the Attic) as part of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe from 1st – 25th August (excl 12th & 16th) at 2.35pm. More info and tickets available here.