Alvin Newsome Believes Dallas Comics Are as Good as Comics in Any Other Scene. Now It’s Just a Matter of Getting More People to Notice.
Dallas comedian Alvin Newsome came into stand-up loving the medium too much to waste anyone’s time. He wanted to know if he deserved to stick around, and he pushed himself to find out as soon as possible.
His early onstage success gave him the confidence to test the waters by seeking opportunities outside of Dallas-Fort Worth. That led to positive experiences at festivals and out-of-town shows, which provided the encouragement he needed to get serious about comedy. Newsome knows how daunting it can be to build a career out of a passion, and he’s well aware that having a wife and child make failure more precarious for him than for a lot of people who enter into the field.
But he’s clearly got skill. Newsome’s eagle-eyed observations allow him to find unexpected attack angles on everyday matters the rest of us can miss. His ability to isolate and articulate the absurdities buried in everyday beliefs and experiences helps him resonate with crowds. Even if you disagree with him, his enviable congeniality and quick wit ensure you’ll enjoy hearing him speak his mind.
I spoke with Newsome about his success in and out of the region, how he approaches new opportunities and how traveling to other cities has helped him appreciate Dallas’ comedy scene.
So you just got back from doing a show in Arkansas with Paul Varghese. What can you tell me about that?
It was a cool experience. There was actually a comic I met a couple of years ago, Raj Suresh, and I think he helps with booking that room. He’s a big fan of Paul’s, and he asked me, LaRon Wright, Seth Cowles and, of course, Paul to headline. It’s just a fun experience. When you go to small towns that have clubs, the people usually are really receptive. You may already have this mindset of certain types of people: “Oh man, do I have to change my humor? Do I have to change what I’m saying?” But, no, the people are great, and they’re always really receptive, because it’s the big thing to do. They don’t have a lot going on. So they say, “Hey, let’s go to the comedy show!” Both shows were great, Paul is always legit. It was fun. Those experiences getting out of town are really cool. You get to find out if your material works in other areas. You have to get outside your comfort zone, which is your city, or where your scene is, to find out do you have it. It’s always cool when you go out of town and you see, yeah, these jokes work.
At a pretty early point in doing comedy, you started reaching out, traveling and doing festivals, can you talk about what that was like?
For me, it was one of those things where I jumped full bore into stand-up. It’s been three years now. When I started, it was kind of like I didn’t know. I thought I was funny. I was doing well. I would go to an open mic, and if I was fortunate enough that there was a crowd where I connected with people. For me, because at the time I started I was married – and I’m still married – but I was married, and we were family planning, all that stuff, and it was like, “I’ve gotta figure out if what I’m doing works.” I always try to be very strategic and intentional about things I do with stand-up. It’d be one thing to just drive down to a city, hop on an open mic, and hope people are there and see it. But in these [festival] situations, it’s higher stakes because you’ve invested money, and a lot of comics are very cynical and jaded about festivals, but they’re usually some of the best opportunities to make connections. A lot of the out of town stuff I’ve gotten is because of festivals. It helped me see where I was. The first festival I did was the Ventura Comedy Festival. I was literally sandwiched between a guy who had just taped for Laughs on Fox, and another guy had just did something for Comedy Central. That was the lineup. It was kind of like, walking to this club in LA, I’m the new guy, and it’s kind of jarring. And then I go up and have a good set, and it’s like, “OK, I belong. Now I can take the steps.” From there, I end up getting another festival — the Sacramento Comedy Festival the next month — and had a great experience there. It kind of helped me know that, “OK, what you’re doing works. If you can keep pushing and keep going, you’ve got something.” And like I said, it helped me make connections, and a lot of comics I became fans of. In comedy, you need people who become fans of you — and you of them, likewise. That helps you keep pushing. The only people that understand this thing we’re doing are each other. That’s why I’m a positive person, always showing love to the comedy community. We get each other. We know what it’s like when you first start, and you’re going up at 12:30 or 1 a.m., and nobody really cares. We get it. We get when you get that first real weekend show and you’re excited about it, and you do it, and you do well or you do bad, but you have these experiences. I’ve become a fan of so many comics because of this. I’ve got so many opportunities because of it. You have to think strategically about this. It’ll test you. It’s kind of like, if you’re a basketball fan, it’s kind of like when they had the Nike ABCD or the Nike camps with the great high school basketball players. You’d find out, “Oh, this is the person they’ve been talking about! Is this person really funny? Oh, yeah.” So that’s the really cool thing about it.
How many places have you traveled to do comedy?
L.A.; Sacramento; Atlanta; Seattle; Houston; Austin; San Diego; Grand Rapids; Memphis; Paris, Texas, the wonderful Paris, Texas; Stillwater, Oklahoma…
How much has the location mattered so far when it comes to what you’re doing onstage?
For me, that’s the beautiful thing about these festival experiences and these out of town shows. DFW within itself is such a different place. You can do jokes at one club, and you can do them at another open mic somewhere else, and you can get a totally different audience. You get kind of a read. I’m enjoying the process at this stage. I love doing stand-up – it’s a passion. When I’m doing it, I want the people who are there to enjoy the process. So I say very broad things, but I also make observations in them. I like to say comedy’s either polite disdain or laughing at the absurd. There are things that, when you break it down to people, even if someone doesn’t agree with you fundamentally on something, if you point out the absurd about something, it’s funny to everybody. That translates everywhere. There isn’t a joke that I told in Seattle that I didn’t tell in Atlanta, and vice versa. There are certain universal things that we can all laugh at.
Do you ever second-guess getting out there that early in stand-up? What goes on in your head when you take those early steps?
For me, I’ve always been an ambitious person. It let me know if I have it, or don’t. I don’t want to waste anyone’s time, I don’t want to waste my time. Making those connections early on, that wasn’t a concern for me, because I knew if I got in front of the right person and they thought I was funny, that meant something. That had some sort of validation. It may not be the biggest stamp, but it’s a small stamp, it’s like a passport, it’s a small stamp, and it said I’m going somewhere. I never worried about exposure or getting something too soon, because it’s all about perspective. I’m really a comedy nerd. In my off-time I literally watch interviews all the time with comedians. I watched an interview Jerrod Carmichael did with Hot 97 a couple of years ago, and he talked about is there really such a thing as getting something too soon? Is there such a thing? You’ll know where you are at that point. Is it too soon to headline for me? Probably. More than likely, yeah, it’s too soon. But if you’re saying you have a showcase, we need people to give us their best 10 minutes, I think my best 10 minutes are as good as anybody’s. So it’s not too soon for me. It’s all about perspective. These connections help me know I’m moving on the right track. I don’t want to waste time. I appreciate comedy, I appreciate this scene. I think DFW comedy has made me better overall, and I don’t want to take up a spot that could be reserved for some young guy or girl who’s really grinding at it. I want to be among the best if I do this. That helped me find out quickly if I’m up to snuff.
You mentioned that you started out with a wife, having a career, family planning, etc. What’s it like to have career commitments that you have to balance against comedy commitments? How do you manage things when comedy is starting to get more prominent?
For me, it’s one of those things where I feel like I’m very transparent, and I think that helps. I’ll do some of the vetting before it has to get to my wife. My wife is awesome, and there are certain things people approach me with and it’s like, “Eh, probably not…” It’s important to be around. Now we have a little one, we have an 11-month-old, and it’s important for me to be around for things. A lot of times I just weigh the pros and cons and really think about it. It is hard. I’ve found a good balance, because I try to take inventory of what someone’s approaching me with. It’s easier to justify doing a festival if I’m just focusing on the weekend. My wife has more leeway, she has more time. If I’m out all week, it’s gonna be a problem. I try to make compromises and balances before we even get to that point. It’s managed itself pretty well. going back to my first festival experience, once I got off that stage in L.A., it was like, “OK, this is what I want to do full time.” So now I have to make those strides. And I explained to my wife, “My responsibility is to take care of you, and now our little one, and I take that as the greatest responsibility that I have. I love this, this is my passion, this is what I want to do, just trust me in the process.” And she’s done a great job trusting me.
You’ve talked about going into comedy with a plan, and being deliberate in your actions. Do you feel like other comics, particularly those who’ve been doing it closer to the same amount of time as you, exhibit those kinds of commitments?
Yes and no. Yes, I do see it. I think it’s more once you get that validation, you see that light switch come on. You see them become more long-term thinkers. You have to think that you’re playing chess, not checkers. And you see some people get it, and some people don’t. On the no side, when I say no, I think a lot of that focus for me came from being 30. I started when I was 29. I started May ’14, so it’s been three years, but that light switch really came on for me when I was 30. I was like, “OK, I love doing this. I just got back from this festival, now I’ve got to really hit it.” That was that moment where it was like, I’ve got to be intentional about everything I do, I’ve gotta be deliberate. I can’t waste any time. One of the cool thing about being a younger comic – like most of the comics are in their early 20s, and that’s a time when you’re still figuring you out, you don’t know what you want to do in two or three years. When I was 22, I thought I wanted to work in the front office of a sports center, then I got a job working for a sports center and I was like, “This sucks. This is absolutely terrible, and I cannot do this for the rest of my life.” You’re still figuring it out. So you haven’t really thought about the long term. That’s one of the beautiful things about being a younger comic. That’s one of the pros, that you have time to play with concepts, ideas, what you want to be in stand-up, what your voice is. At 30, [I] have to be really intentional with what I was doing, and what I was saying onstage. That helped me overall, because I had to put everything into focus, I had to keep the blinders on immediately, I had to.
If you had to give advice to someone who’s just starting or just about to do their first club gig or their first festival, what would you tell them?
Just be strategic. I’ve been doing it three years, which in the comedy world is a drop in the bucket — it’s not that long, but it’s longer than most. Just be strategic. Your time is valuable, you’re there for a reason. If you get into a festival, chances are the people booking it thought you were funny. They see something in you; you have to justify that selection. People spend $10, $15, $20 to apply, and they pay for travel. There are people who would kill for this opportunity. Be strategic about it, don’t just go, “Oh yeah, I’m just going, this is just something I’m gonna do.” Really find out what you’re about, what you’re trying to do with comedy. These are great opportunities. You never know who you’re gonna do these festivals with. There’s comics I’ve done festivals with I’ve seen on Comedy Central, I’ve seen shooting stuff. It’s really a cool experience because it shows you you’re not that far off. We have a great scene, and I find that out every time I go away. Any time I go out to these festivals and I do good, someone asks, “Where are you from?” and when I tell them Dallas, it’s “I didn’t really realize you guys had a scene.” I feel like I have to carry the mantle when I’m doing these things. You have to be strategic about where you’re going because you never know who’s going to be there.
You mentioned people being surprised that there’s a scene in Dallas. Why do you think that is?
That’s a great question. I don’t know, man. There’s so many talented people, and what I’m about to say, hopefully it doesn’t bite me in the ass five years from now, but I’ll never forget this. My first festival was in L.A., and I remember I spent a couple weeks out there. I was going to open mics, and the people I saw there, I remember thinking, “OK, they’re pretty decent, but I expected to be blown away and to be wowed.” But then I was like, “No, the people we have in Dallas are just as good, just as comparable, in some cases even better.” I don’t know why. I would say it’s a geography thing because we’re so spread out, but Atlanta has a great scene, and they’re spread out. I don’t know why that is. I wish I did. There’s so many talented comics here. Even I’ll forget some people, because people will mention someone and I’ll think, “Oh, she’s good! He’s good!” But I don’t know why that is.
Cover photo by Stephen Hildreth.