Did You Write New Jokes Today? Did You Get Funnier? Dexter Givens, Jr. Did. And He Wants To Know: What Have You Done For Dallas’ Comedy Scene Today?
Dexter Givens, Jr. abides by a simple set of rules: Put pen to paper every day, write jokes and continue improving.
That effort toward sustained growth has served Givens well. He’s able to win over audiences even when he dives into potentially thorny topics like religion and race, and he possesses a knack for writing strong jokes that are precisely crafted but feel conversational and off-the-cuff.
Nearing at the five-year mark in stand-up, Givens can’t help but notice how much the comedy scene in DFW has changed over that time. He’s had a hand in that himself, creating new opportunities for performers with a monthly show in Waco at Cozy’s Lounge (his show this Friday is headlined by De De T), and he’s optimistic about the availability of stage time currently open in DFW. But he worries that the weakening social ties among comics today might be making it harder for performers — and especially newer performers — to grow.
That in mind, I talked with Givens about his showcase, the benefit of having friends in the scene who push you to always be better and why it’s important to do something for comedy every day.
You have a show this Friday, correct?
Yes. Cozy’s Lounge in Waco. It’s a cool little spot.
How’d you get it set up?
About a year and a half ago I went down there with Alvin Newsome and Jimmy Nelson for a show. They took my information after the show, and it had been three or four months since the show had passed, and they invited me back down. We built a relationship, and now [we’re] doing the First Friday show.
So they approached you about setting up the shows?
Yeah. They got everybody’s email after the show… they emailed me, I said yeah, I’d love to do it. I was kind of dating a girl in Waco, so it worked out. It worked out perfectly. Since then, not so much. [Laughs.] But it’s a great room, I enjoy it.
Is it an ongoing thing? You’ll run it every month?
Yeah – it went from doing it once every two or three months to once a month.
Is this the first time you’ve run a room?
Second time. I had an open mic in Arlington at JJ’s Lounge, about two and a half years ago. That was an experience. It was cool. That was my first experience with the business side of comedy. They were like, “Hey, if you bring in so many people, we’ll pay you.” It was like, OK, cool. We brought in that many people, and they were like, “We’re still not going to pay y’all.” It was like, OK, so that’s how business works. So that lasted about two or three months maybe.
I don’t really blame you after that.
Now I know to get the money up front. But back then I was just gung-ho and I really wanted to do a mic, and it just wasn’t a good fit for me at the time.
So this will be your first time with an actual showcase where you’re booking.
Which is weird, man. People hitting you up out of nowhere. I’m like, damn…
You get that thing where people get into conversation with you and just find a way to work it in?
Yeah. I posted something onto my page, and it was weird because one guy inboxed me directly. I was like, “Oh, hey, what’s going on?” and we were just talking, and just before he finished talking with me he was like, “Hey man, you got any slots open for your shows?” I was like, “I’ve got a bunch of slots open, but I’m not really organized yet with it.” I have a bunch of people that want to do it, but I just don’t know how to plug everybody in yet. It’s weird. I hope I wasn’t like that when I was trying to get on shows. I don’t think I was that bad.
So now that you have a show where you can do the booking and dictate how the show looks and runs, is there anything in particular you’re excited to implement?
Not really. I think I’ve watched enough comedy shows to know, flow-wise, how I want the show to go. Not really that different from any other show you might see. I’ve never liked where the hosts do time after their hosting responsibilities, I definitely like to keep it tight up, like up top I do my time and then make sure the show is flowing. But other than that, it’s pretty much standard, traditional stand up-type stuff.
How long have you been doing stand-up now?
It’ll be five years in October.
Did you start in Dallas?
I started in Fort Worth, Fort Worth used to have a bunch of mics downtown. There was one point where I used to hit like eight mics a week.
Really? Just in Fort Worth?
Just in Fort Worth. Fort Worth had four mics just on Tuesday. Fort Worth had Embargo. There was another place right across Houston St Bar. It was four spots just in Fort Worth alone where you could work on stage time. My first two and a half years I went to about eight to ten mics a week just between Fort Worth, Arlington and Dallas. I’ve slowed down a lot since then, but I was very gung-ho out the gate.
I think everybody has a slowing-down period at some point after their initial start.
Y’know, it was so available to me at that time, I lived like fifteen minutes away from downtown, so it was like, if I don’t go on Tuesday, I really don’t want to work on my craft. That was like 20-plus free minutes on Tuesday night you could work on material.
It feels like it’s harder to do that many mics in the course of a regular week now. Am I crazy to think that?
No, no – it was a lot of dedicated people when I first started. I remember Patty [Patricia Sweeney], I don’t know if you ever met Patty…
Yeah. She had — herself, outside of Hyena’s — about three different mics. She had one in downtown Fort Worth, she had one on the west side of Fort Worth, she had one in Arlington, so she really, y’know, she ran all of them by herself. More people wanted to be involved on that side. Open mics…well, you know, it’s a grind in itself [to run an open mic].
It’s tough to promote a show where you have no way to control its quality.
Just, “Hey, come out and hear some free jokes, some might be good, some might not, just come out and have some beer and have a good time.” That’s pretty much…I feel like the comedy scene was more close-knit then. When I got in, it seemed like every comic was at every open mic, for the most part. Those relationships grew a lot quicker. It seemed like it was just more fun, just hanging out and chilling at a mic with your friends. Doing your stuff, getting feedback. That’s changed a little bit. I haven’t been on the mic scene as much, but it’s a little bit different.
You feel like people don’t go everywhere as much as they just hit their favorite spots?
Yeah. I mean, I’m guilty of that myself, I’ll find myself in a two- or three-week period, I’ve only done the same one or two mics. Like, I need to get myself together. But with work, a child, and different responsibilities, you try to balance it, but you know how life is.
What would you say the biggest change for you has been from when you started out up until now?
I get to the point quicker. I used to dance around the point a whole lot, but now I don’t. My writing’s gotten a lot better. If I want to talk about this, I have to start here, get to there – I used to have a lot of fluff and useless words between my joke that didn’t need to be there.
What do you think helped you get away from that habit?
Writing with people, writing with different comics. The reason I know about this spot [where the interview was recorded] was because me and Tim [Edwards] used to come here twice a week, and it would be, “Hey, that’s too much,” or “you’re over-explained it,” or “it’s not explained enough.” Things like that.
Do you still meet up with people to write?
I do. It’s not as often as I used to, but if someone says they’re trying to write, I’m all for it. I love writing; I write almost every day myself, so if anybody else wants to write, I definitely have stuff I can work on.
That’s a great habit, I talk to some people in these interviews who talk about how they just write when the ideas come to them. You make a point to just sit down and do it.
Yeah, even if it’s no more than five minutes, I’ll just jot down thoughts or something. I always find a way to come back to something I jotted down, some way or another I can always pull from that. For me, I found that works. For some people, they have to write when inspiration hits them. That works. If you don’t have something to write about, you can’t just sit there and force yourself, but I try to at least put pen to paper at least once a day.
When you mentioned people writing together, I’ve talked to comics who’ve been doing this for a while, and it seems like it used to be more common, and it’s less common now.
Honestly, I don’t know where the change came from. It was literally like writing with your buddies, writing with your friends. Like, “Hey, you want to write?” Now I think, y’know, with people stealing jokes, people having similar jokes or ideas, that may be a reason. I’ve never run across that personally, but I can see how someone could be afraid to write with someone, they’ll feel like a person will use their joke, or take a piece of their joke and keep it for their own, whatever the case may be.
You think people are a little more guarded?
Oh yeah, absolutely. You’ll ask to write nowadays, you kind of see them do a face like, “Hm. OK…” They’re thinking about the pros and – you can see it on their face, they’re thinking about the pros and cons. It’s like, y’know what? It’s all good.
You had a pretty big year last year, at the end of last year-
I wouldn’t call it a “big” year, but it was all right. [Laughs.]
Well, you got into the finals of the Funniest Comic in Texas. Can we talk about that?
I’m a procrastinator to no end. I barely got the deadline in. I was actually on the reserve. The guy that runs it, Sean [Traynor] called me, he said, “Hey, you’re a reserve, all the spots are full, but if someone drops out, I’ll call you.” He called me like two days before the first showcase. And then from there, I just had to tell these jokes. Just slangin’ these jokes, Alex, trying to be funny. Somebody thought I was funny.
Was that the first time you were in the competition?
Yeah, first time. It used to be by submission, so I was denied my first three years. Didn’t even hear back, didn’t even get a “Sorry, we considered you, but…” message, nope. I sent my video, and then, “OK, the competition passed. OK, Linda [Stogner] won this year, that’s great.” But I never even got an email back. But yeah, it was sad, I was bummed out a little bit.
So you went from not even getting a formal rejection to going to the finals? That had to feel pretty good.
It did. It felt — I ain’t gonna lie, it felt really good. I feel like I work hard, and I feel like…people say if you work hard enough, it pays off sometimes. In that particular instance, I’ll say, y’know what? They were right about that. A lot of funny comics [in the finals], too. I was just happy to be there. It was such an honor to be there.
Your first showcase you’re running is down in Waco – would you think about running something in the DFW area?
I think about it all the time, but this opportunity was really unexpected, I didn’t really expect this to turn into that type of… to get that much steam. People in Waco, they really love the show, they’re really turning out in big numbers to support it right now. I definitely wasn’t expecting that. But I would love to be able to drive 15 minutes to do a showcase, as opposed to an hour and 15 minutes I’m driving now. I definitely want to do something here, but we’ll see. I feel like we have enough people in the city doing stuff, y’all don’t need my little showcase.
You think so?
I feel like we do, man. I look around and I see different…I look at a guy like Joe Coffee in Denton. I mean, I don’t know how many mics he’s doing in Denton. If I had to guess, I’d say ten. Then you have guys in Dallas, Arlington, everyone’s doing mics, everyone’s doing showcases. Butch Lord has his thing at Hyena’s. I feel like there’s enough in the city for everyone to get some quality stage time. But I would definitely want to do something in DFW, but I think we’re good. What do you think?
I…I go back and forth, honestly. Sometimes I see stuff come up and I’m like, “I hope it goes well.” I do wish we had more independent stuff. I talked to an Austin comic [Chris Tellez] who’s been running a Monday night monthly showcase for the last five years, and I just can’t imagine having an independent show run for that long here.
People lose interest quickly. And not just the crowds, comics as well. It’s one of those routine things. You see something, you can go to something every week, you see the same thing every week, it’s hard to keep supporting it. Not me personally, the trend that I’ve seen. Someone starts a mic, it’ll have some steam for a little bit, then people are like, “OK, well that’s just what’s-his-name’s mic.” It’s kind of like the value isn’t the same. I used to live to go to – did you ever get a chance to go to Embargo?
I used to live to go to Embargo. It was one of the coolest mics in terms of staff, the host, the comics. It was really great. I don’t think we have that type of excitement for open mics anymore.
You think so?
People used to be excited about going to open mics, now it feels like an, “I’ll catch it when I catch it” kind of deal. I just remember when the Dallas scene was more close-knit than it is.
Why do you think it’s not as close as it used to be?
When I first started comedy, I met like seven people that I still communicate with to this day, we still do comedy, we just built that relationship, built that friendship. We pushed each other. Like, “OK, I’m going to this mic tonight, you better be there.” Next thing you know, that message would get to all seven of us, and then all seven of us show up to a mic to work on our craft. I don’t think we have people holding each other accountable. Like, “Hey, what did you do for comedy today?” That’s the slogan I use on my friends. “What did you do for comedy today? Did you write? Did you do this?” If you didn’t do anything, we’ll have some words back and forth, rib each other a little bit. But for the most part, try to do something for comedy every day if you want to get better. I don’t see a lot of people doing that.
You think people got complacent?
I think some people come in just not knowing. You see a lot of new comics come in, they don’t know what the scene was like. They just come in and say, “OK, this is what it is,” and they go from there. I was in LA a couple years ago, and I just saw their veteran comics onstage, almost like the gate keepers, like, “We’re not gonna tolerate this, we’re not gonna do that, this is how you conduct yourself at a mic.” It was kind of like that feeling when I started doing mics. There were gate keepers who gave you etiquette on how to do stand up comedy, and we don’t have those anymore.
I know we had a lot of comics move away a few years ago…
When I first started doing comedy, we had about seven or eight comics on the scene move away. You know what? That definitely could have been it. That could have been it. I don’t think people really care to be a gatekeeper, honestly. It’s more like, “I’m gonna keep my head down, do my time, do my mic, go home.”
Everyone’s there for themselves and not their scene?
Yeah, and y’know, people’s situations have changed in their lives. You can’t expect people’s lives to stay the same after a five-year period. I didn’t have a child when I first started. So now, y’know, that takes priority over doing a mic sometimes. Things change for people. I’m a perfect example of that.
So you’re coming up on five years in comedy – what’s your biggest goal for the next five years?
I’m a firm believer that if I just work on my craft and get it…work on it and keep being consistent, good things will happen. As far as goals, I can’t think of any goals that I have. Everybody can say, “Hey, I want to be on TV, I want to write for a sitcom.” Realistically, I just want to keep getting funnier, and when I get those opportunities, I want people to see the hard work I’ve put in. But hey, I ain’t gonna lie, if I get on TV, hey, listen, that’ll be great. But I also want to make sure that when I’m put in the position for someone to see me, they’ll be like, “OK, that guy, I can tell he’s put a lot of work into his craft, and he enjoys what he’s doing.”