When it comes to comedy, Alonzo Bodden is one of the most popular “Alonzos.” “If you look up ‘comic Alonzo’ online, it will either be me or Cristela Alonzo [in the results],” he says. “And I’m not the Mexican lady. If you mix up me and Cristela, maybe it’s time to put the blunt down.”
Alonzo himself put the blunt down after years of indulgence, which predated his swift rise through the comedy ranks. And while live performances have been on hold for the past several months, it appears there may finally be a light at the end of a dark performing tunnel, one where the spotlight once again shines brightly on a comic holding a microphone on stage in front of a live audience.
When we connect by phone, Alonzo is itching to get back on stage, an itch—he explains—that is more like a necessity. To understand what compels a man to pursue comedy day after day, night after night, one needs to understand the comedic fuel that nourishes Alonzo Bodden. The journey through our conversation explores his transformation from airplane mechanic to “Last Comic Standing,” everything beyond and everything in between.
Growing in Queens, did you always know you wanted to pursue comedy or was it a desire that unfolded over time?
Alonzo Bodden: As a kid, I had no thoughts or ideas about it. I was a smart kid, but I was mechanical, and my first career for ten years was as an airplane mechanic.
I got a job at McDonnell Douglas training new mechanics, and while I hadn’t had any experience with public speaking—which is a big fear for a lot of people—when I took the stage in front of that classroom, it was the most natural thing in the world. I’d always had a sense of humor and always made people laugh, but I never thought of doing it professionally. Only after teaching that class for a couple of years did I start having thoughts of performing.
It’s kind of ironic for High Times, but I also started my recovery around that time. There was a thing in the 80’s called “cocaine,” not sure if you’ve heard of it, but it was very popular. I had spun out of control and gone to rehab, which happened to be at a place called Studio 12.
While the movie stars went to Betty Ford, the film crews went to Studio 12, so I was surrounded by grips, makeup artists and cameramen—all of these creative people. What that did for me was it made the entertainment business real. From the outside, entertainment was of those things you didn’t know how to get into. Meeting all these people made the entertainment industry something tangible, something doable.
Was there a specific encounter or meeting in rehab that pointed you to comedy?
Alonzo Bodden: There was one guy, but we’ll call him “Pat” to respect his anonymity. Pat told me something that always stuck with me. He said, “Never be surprised when you realize you’re the smartest person in the room.” In other words, “There’s no training for entertainment. It’s a weird business. You find what you do well, and you do it.” Obviously there’s training—you can go to acting school, film school, you can learn how to run a camera and this and that, but Pat was saying you just find your niche and you do it. That helped me to say, “I’m going to try this comedy thing.”
So you leave rehab. What was your next step on your comedic path?
Alonzo Bodden: Taking a six week comedy writing course. There was this six week course you could take with a writer, and at the end you performed a five minute show for the graduation. I didn’t want to be the only one [trying stand-up] for the first time, which is why I took the course.
At graduation, I performed those five minutes, and the thing I’ll always remember was how weird it was when people laughed. We had never talked in class about what to do when people laughed. There were about fifteen of us in the class—so maybe one hundred people in the audience—and these people laughed, which takes a little bit of time. I’m standing up there like, “Wait, I’ve got more to say!”
When I came off that stage, there was no doubt in my mind that stand-up was what I was going to pursue. I said, “I’m not working on airplanes again.” That’s how I started and I’ve never looked back.
Would you say walking off that stage was the first good omen in your comedy trajectory?
Alonzo Bodden: Absolutely. That was the moment. I’d read somewhere years later that Jay Leno said, “If you want to be a comic, quit your day job, that way you’re committed to comedy.” I guess that’s what I did. Of course when Jay did it, it was a bit different, but the same principle still applied.
From a process standpoint, did anything from your career prior to stand-up have an impact on your stand-up?
Alonzo Bodden: Nothing consciously, no conscious crossover. The only thing I could say—but this is more a personality trait—I’m a task-oriented person. If you give me a task, I’m going to do it. Obviously with aircraft it’s easy: if something doesn’t work, fix it. In comedy, it was like, “Okay, you’ve got to perform a seven-minute show.” So, I had to write and come up with material for those seven minutes.
Through the 80s and 90s, Frazer Smith had been a big time radio guy and he had a show at The Laugh Factory, “Frazer Smith After Midnight,” every Friday night on the radio. He hired me for his opener and his warm up, and so every week, I wrote five new minutes. It gave me great confidence being on stage every week at The Laugh Factory because when you’re starting out, it’s a big deal to be working with the pros. It also helped me get in the habit of writing and always coming up with new ideas.
Is that what spurred your crossover into film and tv?
Alonzo Bodden: It was a natural progression. I always looked to the people who were a step or two ahead of me. When I was doing open mics, I was looking for the people who were getting twenty-five, fifty-bucks a show. I was like, “Man, how do you get that?” Then I got to that level and it was, “Okay, now people are going on the road as an opener. How do I get that?” I was always interested in how to get to the next level, which is kind of what drove my progression.
My big jump was getting “New Faces” at the Just For Laughs Comedy Festival in Montreal, which in the 90’s was a different deal than it is today. This was pre-Internet, so it was very easy for the festival to keep us a secret. People literally didn’t know who the “New Faces” of comedy were going to be. They brought us up [to Montreal] a couple of days before the show and put us in a different hotel from all the other comics. When they brought us to do the “New Faces” show, all of the industry there was like an NFL draft. This was the combine and they wanted to see our five or seven minutes.
Were people trying to sign you right then and there?
Alonzo Bodden: It was crazy. Suddenly agents were coming out of the woodwork just giving you cards. You know who got me, it was William Morris. After that show, I couldn’t go anywhere without someone from William Morris being there. It was hilarious. Everywhere I went, somebody from William Morris was there. Being young and new in the business, it was overwhelming and flattering at the same time.
The coolest people were the comics who had been through it and showed me the ropes. Guys like Chris Titus. Joe Rogan. Kevin James. This was when Rogan was coming off “News Radio” going into “Fear Factor,” and Kevin had just started his show on CBS. I knew them from The Laugh Factory and they grabbed me like, “Hey man, we’re going to do some spots, let’s go.” These two guys were tv stars but they’re treating me like one of the boys. That’s your education as a comic, where you realize, “Oh, okay. I’m in.” We all hit a club and it was, like, “Now, go on stage and do your thing. You’re one of us now.” That was my memory from those days. The business side was great and made me money—I’m a big fan of that—but becoming “one of us” with the comics was a big change.
It must have been such a validating experience, one that reaffirmed you were making the right decision.
Alonzo Bodden: I had so many of those things happen, things that let me know that comedy was what I was meant to do. After I was laid off from McDonnell Douglas, I had no way to pay rent. A buddy of mine called and was like, “You know how to drive a U-Haul, right?” I’m like, “Yeah.” He was like, “Alright, they need a camera truck driver for this new kid’s show I’m working on called ‘Power Rangers.’” And I got the job.
The producers of the show saw me perform comedy somewhere and were like, “Listen. You’ll always have a job here. Go pursue your career. If you’ve got to leave town or whatever, we’ll keep a spot for you. And that was how I paid the rent early in my comedy career because working as a driver paid a pretty good amount. It was a sign that things were meant to be.
You saw the signs as they were unfolding and trusted them.
Alonzo Bodden: I never had any doubt I was going to be a comic because I just loved performing comedy -and still do to this day. Right now, as real comics, we can’t really work. And as real comics, you have to [work constantly]. Guys like Seinfeld, Ray Romano, Chris Rock—they’ve done it all—and yet they still get on stage and perform stand-up. Because if you’re really a comic, when you eliminate all the other shit [tv, movies, etc], you still have to do comedy. There’s something inside of you that says, “Man, I’ve got to get on stage.”
I know cannabis isn’t really part of your life anymore, but how did you previously interact with the plant?
Alonzo Bodden: I used to smoke a ton of weed. I was a daily, regular weed smoker.
Today, I’m not some guy who’s anti-cannabis or anything, I just don’t necessarily want to be in a greenroom full of weed smoke. In the same way I wouldn’t want to be in a room filled with tobacco smoke. It’s just a personal thing.
I think weed should be completely legal, especially CBD and the medical side of things. I have two friends who went through cancer and medical marijuana absolutely helped them with their treatment. It was cannabis that brought back their appetites and eased their pain.
I’ve always seen weed as sort of like alcohol, in that someone is figuring out “how are we going to get rich?” before it’s legalized. Whether it’s politicians, distributors, whatever, they’re going to figure out how to get a piece before it’s legalized nationwide.
There’s always going to be an eye toward the economics of it all.
Alonzo Bodden: [Laughs] I don’t think they’re too worried about your health.
How did you get involved in the radio show “Wait, Wait… Don’t Tell Me!”?
Alonzo Bodden: My agent had been talking to [the “Wait, Wait” folks] when I performed a show in Chicago. Some of the “Wait, Wait” producers saw me and liked me and invited me on the show. I had never listened to “Wait, Wait…Don’t Tell Me!”, but I knew it was a panel show about the news. I’d been on panel shows before, where you have two or three comics talking about a topic, which was the extent of my panel experience. All I knew for my first show was that I was doing a panel show about the news and that I had to be funny.
After the show, [host] Peter Sagal came over to me and was like, “Man, that was one of the best ‘first shows’ we’ve ever had anyone do.” I was just like, “Well yeah, Peter. I’m a comic. This is what I do.” I was fortunate that I didn’t know how big and popular the show was because then I probably would have been more nervous.
I love doing “Wait, Wait.” We’ve been doing it from home now, like a Zoom meeting but with really good sound. The thing I love about the show is that it has to be the broadest demographic I’ve ever encountered. Everyone from housewives to CEOs, from college kids to studio heads. I’ve been in Pakistan doing shows and there were people coming up to me telling me they listened to “Wait, Wait.” I was in Cape Town, South Africa and people were like, “Yeah, I listen to ‘Wait, Wait.” That part of it [the well-received reach] is really amazing to me. I’m very happy to be a part of it.
The show has worldwide appeal.
Alonzo Bodden: It’s worldwide, it crosses generations, gender, everything. People just love the show.
One of the coolest “Wait, Wait” moments I’ve had was when Dave Chapelle said to me, “Man, I love you on ‘Wait, Wait.’” I was like, “Oh shit, Dave Chappelle listens to ‘Wait, Wait?’” And it’s not that he wouldn’t listen, you just don’t think about it, you know? He’s a great fan.
And “Wait, Wait” fans—you talk about a discerning group…I was doing the show for a year before they were like, “Alright, I think he’s okay.” They’re very protective of you joining the “Wait, Wait” family.
And make no mistake. It is Paula Poundstone’s world and the rest of us are just living in it.
In terms of living in your world, I understand you have quite the affinity for cars and motorcycles.
Alonzo Bodden: As a kid, I always loved cars. The motorcycle thing—when I was about seven years old, my grandmother had a farm in South Carolina. It was one of those properties with a two-mile dirt road from the house to the main highway. The renter’s son had a bike and one day he put me on the back of it and we went for a ride down the dirt road toward the highway. Riding a motorcycle is still that much fun for me. Whatever I felt or got out of the experience as a kid has stayed with me all this time. It’s something I love. Motorcycles are my escape vehicles. They’re meditative. I’ve thought of more jokes and more bits and more routines while riding a motorcycle.
I also love the mechanical part of cars and motorcycles as art. I love how machines work. Someone asked me once during an interview: “Is there anything that you loved or dreamed about as a kid that you actually get to do as an adult?” And I was like, “Yeah, ride motorcycles.” I guess it’s like a pro athlete on some level, where as a kid, you like playing this sport and then you become so good at it that you get to make a living doing it, but you still love doing it. Riding motorcycles is a passion that I’ve had all my life and it’s worked out that I get to enjoy it.
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