Mo Alexander Talks Choosing to Work Smaller Venues, Finding Great Comics And The Two Deaths He’s Endured Thus Far.
Welcome to Humor Us, our column in which Dallas comedian Alex Gaskin interviews comedians about the ol’ funny business. Are these columns funny? Sometimes! But, more often than not, they provide solid insight into the thought that goes into making people laugh. Enjoy.
When I say Mo Alexander talks about dying onstage, I don’t mean that he’s complaining about a bad set. His last album, Got Clots?, is about his recent health struggles, which included (at least) two moments where he actually died.
That may sound like a tough subject to make light of, but Alexander’s candid about how finding the humor in those moments were vital to his enduring the experiences.
Tonight, Alexander is about to make his second appearance at the Sunshine Bar in Arlington. His return is a big deal to the show’s booker and promoter, Brian Breckenridge, who jumped at the chance to bring him back. When asked about Alexander’s first appearance at Sunshine Bar, Breckenridge says, “Mo delivered a legendary, unapologetic hour and a half set, with a couple of heckler takedowns, crowd work responses nobody could have predicted and some very in-depth stories about that time he died.”
It’s easy to see why Alexander is being so eagerly welcomed back. He can craft amazing comedy from his most vulnerable moments, and the controversial subjects. He also has the creativity and quickness to be excellent in off-the-cuff moments. In other words, he’s pretty much the perfect person to watch in the intimate, free-spirited setting of a DIY show.
You can catch Alexander at Sunshine Bar tonight for a free show. (Full disclosure: I’ll be there, too.) In advance of that set, I spoke with him about how comedy fans can find great stand-up acts when they look for them, why Alexander makes an effort to work smaller independent venues and, yes, how he survived those times he died.
You can follow Alexander on Twitter at @MoAlexander, and visit his website here.
You’re performing at Sunshine Bar for the second time. Can you talk about your first show there?
It was a small but crazy group of humans, and it was great. There was one guy we had to kick out who kept yelling something about Swishahouse, and I don’t even know why. He was drunk and kept yelling “Swishahouse!” We couldn’t even — we had to get rid of him before the show even started. It was really fun, though. I enjoyed myself. It’s a cool little bar with a bunch of weirdo people, which makes me feel right at home.
Do you have a preference for what kind of venue you’re performing in?
I like clubs. I work a lot of clubs, but when I’m not working clubs, small, weird, interesting places is what I like. I get the normal thing at a club — 300-seat room minimum, huge lights, maybe screens, a sound system that works. When you do a small bar like a Sunshine Bar, you never know what you’re gonna get. When I walked in, I was like, “OK, this place looks cool on the inside.” Outside, I thought it was either an old barn, or a whorehouse — one of the two. Wasn’t sure which one it was. [Laughs.] But I got inside and it was cool. I had fun.
You’ve been in comedy for more than 20 years, correct?
Yeah. Full-time for 20 years.
Did you start in Memphis?
Yes, I did. I started at a club called the Comedy Zone, which was part of a chain, and it was the larger of the chain clubs. It was a 300-seat room. I started doing the open mic at the outside bar. It was like the main room, and it was the bar area, and that’s where they did the open mic after the main show on Thursday nights. I started there, and then traveled all over the country and the world now.
Do you have a favorite place, or places, to visit?
Favorite places is always a weird question. I like Dallas a lot. I used to play the [Addison] Improv a lot. But I don’t know. Seattle. Vegas. New York is always fun because you’re always doing four to five shows in one night — one of those, you get up, do 10 minutes and run to the next show, which could be five to 10 minutes away, then do the next show. It’s crazy, but that’s fun and exciting.
How would you say the business has changed since you’ve been involved?
It has changed a whole lot. Social media is the thing these days, pretty much. YouTube is making stars out of people who, they’ll sell out a room with 500 people, but they’ll have about 10 minutes of comedy, because they’re not comics. Or they’ll have 10 minutes of their comedy, and then 50 minutes of stock stuff. There’s a lot of funny people out here that you guys don’t know, because they’re not what I like to call “TV-ready.” Because there’s people there who, they’re not pretty enough for them to be the celebrity stars like they want you to be. Comedy’s weird now. It used to be for the weird, abused kids. You remember Richard Belzer? He’s just a weird, creepy-looking dude. And now it’s gone to, like, Amy Schumer — and she’s a creepy looking dude, too. That’s a joke. [Laughs.] I mess with her, but whatever, she’s cool. They just want whatever’s going to last them five minutes. They’ll throw you up there, and if you can produce more than five minutes of material you’re great, and if not, there’ll be another kid coming up in two weeks. You’ll host a game show somewhere.
What would you recommend to comedy fans looking to find those people who aren’t getting that kind of exposure?
Play around and go to local shows because there’s comics you’ve never heard of who are hilarious. There’s comics like my friend JT Habersaat, funny dude. Cat named Jay Whitecotton, funny dude. My friend Spanky Brown, very funny dude. You’ve never heard these names, but I swear to God, if you ever go to their show, you will pee yourself before you leave.
You mentioned JT. I know you’ve been involved with the Altercation Fest, and he’s a big DIY guy. Is that something you’re getting into?
I’m starting more of it right now, because I’m changing the way…. well, I’m not changing my writing, but I want to change the way I write my next CD. The way I write is, I go out and experience stuff, and bring it back and put it onstage, eventually. It’s really easy to do in the club scene, because it’s a club. They come for comedy night. But at Sunshine, it’s gonna be 30 people who say, “OK, we’ll go see Mo, but we don’t know what else is going on. Is he this? Is he that?” It’s gonna be a different element, and who knows what’s going to happen.
Is that something you look forward to, or is it something you feel like you need to have in your skill set?
I have that power in my skill set, but it’s just fun for me right now. My last CD was about me dropping dead two years ago. But now it’s gonna be all over the map. Some of it’s going to be about the current situation of our world, and I don’t know what else yet, because I haven’t written it. A CD is somewhere between 45 minutes and an hour, and I’ve written the first 25 minutes. Over the next three to six months, I’ll write the next 20 to 25 minutes for it. We’ll see what the CD is, see how it turned out, see who it tells me I am this time. I like to have fun in different ways. I wanted to do a bunch of independent clubs this year, that I normally don’t work. Just to get a different element. I’m an old punk rock kid, y’know? That’s what I like. JT and me are buddies, and I love JT. Psychopath. [Laughs.]
You mentioned your last special, Got Clots?, where you talk about literally dying. Did that feel like a departure for you? Was that comfortable to talk about onstage?
Well, it was the only way I stayed sane in the hospital, because the stories on that CD, there’s so little difference than what happened at the hospital, how I laughed about it I could laugh, and then taking it onstage. It didn’t bother me to take onstage, it was weird because the first time I performed any of that onstage, I did it in a comedy festival in Chicago, seven days after I got out of rehab for physical therapy to learn how to walk again. So it’s kind of crazy. It didn’t bother me to talk about it onstage, it was just how I coped. I had to laugh at the hospital, because I couldn’t do anything else. I had seven surgeries, they killed me twice — maybe a third time, we don’t know about, because no one’s claiming the scar on my head.
Yeah, I have a scar on the back of my head that wasn’t there when I went in. [Laughs.] Seriously! And I didn’t know about it, because I didn’t feel it, because I was so drugged up on medication. One of the nurses was like, “What happened to your head?” And I’m like, “I don’t know, what are you talking about?” Then I felt my head, and I’m like, “Holy crap!”
Seriously, it was a huge scar on the back of my head that nobody had sewn up, it had closed itself. I was like, “Holy crap!” No one told me what happened, and no one’s claiming it, so… yeah.
So you’ve got a mystery scar from your time in the hospital, and no one’s owning up to it.
No one’s owning up to it. They’re all, “We don’t know what happened to you!” Uh-huh. I honestly think the second time I dropped dead, when I accidentally peed on a male nurse — this physical therapist dude — I fell and hit the table, but no one’s claiming that, because that means there’d have to be extra paperwork. [Laughs.]
You’re working on your new album now, and you’re talking about finding the material as it comes to you. You said you’re looking not necessarily at the way you write, but the way you approach things. Can you elaborate on that a little more?
Well, it’s not a change in the way I write things. I always write what happens to me, my life in my act. The world is my act. Most people see a fat black guy and think, “He’s gonna talk about being fat, and being black.” No, no. Why would I do that? You can get 30 other comics to do that. The world is a much larger place to make fun of. When you come to the show, I’m gonna talk about the whole Trump presidency, the whole inauguration, I’m gonna talk about having a possum invade my house for three weeks. Because all this stuff is going on in the world, and the possum stories happened to me. I’ve been to Denver lately, and I’ve found out you’re never supposed to fight a fat guy from Denver if you’re not in Denver. There’s a lot of things that happened to me that ended up being funny, that I have to talk about. You just can’t do the same thing: “Hey, airplane food, I got kids.” I don’t have kids, I don’t eat airplane food. So what do I do? I talk about the things I know. Weird, crazy sexual experiences, life, everything.
After Sunshine Bar, you’re in Austin, correct?
Yes, I’m in Friday and Saturday, the 3rd and 4th, and I’m down in the Velveeta Room the first time.
How big is your current tour? Where are you going?
For this week, I’m just doing those three dates, then I’m going home. I’m gonna see Neil deGrasse Tyson perform, have a lecture here. Then I’m gonna go back on the road for three weeks, then back for two. I’m just trying to work small places right now so I can play. Don’t worry, I’m not gonna screw around onstage at Sunshine, like, “Hey, what should I talk about?” We’re gonna play around, we’re gonna do different stuff. It’s gonna be a solid 20 minutes of material, and we’re gonna play around with another 10 minutes of stuff I’ve been working on. We’re just gonna see, we’re gonna play around and see what happens. That’s why I’m doing these small clubs right now, so I can make the hour ridiculous, and I can record the CD, and hopefully record a special this year.
That kind of leads into my last question, with you coming in and doing this independent show. I was going to ask for your best sales pitch to people on why they should check out smaller DIY shows.
Go to DIY shows because the people you have never heard of are the same people who end up on Comedy Central, SeeSo, writing for Conan, writing for Leno or writing for Fallon. You don’t know them now, but three months from now you will. That’s how it works. Back in ’99, I was on a tour that was just ridiculous. I was all over Texas. I ended up opening for Keenan Ivory Wayans at the Addison Improv three weeks later, I was his opening act when he went on tour. He took me out as his opening act, and then I started doing some writing for him. So those guys you’ve never heard of, come to those shows. Still go to the big guy shows — go see Chris Titus, go see Chris Rock if you can — but also go see some guy on a Thursday night at a small bar, because you never know. I could shake your hand, I could sign something for you, and next week I could be famous for doing something either funny or stupid. You’ll be like, “He shook my hand, I got this signed and I’m gonna sell it on eBay tomorrow!” Go ahead and do that.