Reginald D Hunter: interview
Ahead of his Apollo shows, honorary Londoner Reginald D Hunter tells Time Out what he loves about British audiences.
There's been a raft of US stand-ups visiting our shores recently. Jerry Seinfeld rocked the O2, Kathy Griffin spiced up the West End and Bo Burnham wowed Shepherd's Bush. But with these rare flying visits there's a danger of overlooking the London-based American comics we've dubbed honorary Brits.
Laidback Georgia-born stand-up Reginald Darnell Hunter is one such nominal Londoner. He initially came to the UK 15 years ago to study drama at Rada, but tried stand-up for a £10 bet and hasn't looked back since. The 41-year-old comic's ability to charm an audience instantly with his cool, Deep South drawl has made him an in-demand headliner on the circuit for many years. But recently his popularity has escalated and now Hunter has found himself playing the biggest solo shows of his career at the Hammersmith Apollo. At last, the masses are embracing the coolest man in comedy's suave brand of challenging stand-up.
American comics can often be loud and fast-paced, but you're very relaxed and smooth. What's influenced your style?
'Well, it's funny. If I had been reared comedically in America as opposed to Britain I would probably be bad in all the usual ways. But I did the black and Latino clubs in the States recently, and I did learn something about that loud, pounding delivery. I thought that it was born out of American churches with the fire-and-brimstone preachers. But I think it actually comes from just being in clubs where there's a bar in the back, people are conversing with each other, there's a dance in the next room and you just have to talk over everybody. You can't let the fact that a joke didn't go well let you pause - you have to drive straight through.'
Running themes and linking pieces of material are also less common with US stand-ups, whereas in Britain solo shows often have a narrative arc or theme. Do you feel it's important to have a flowing structure?
'It depends. It works over here because, compared to a lot of other places, the comedy audiences are quite literate, so that appeals to what they understand about stories and art. Whereas in America our attention spans have largely been shaped by television. We can pay close attention for about five to eight minutes, and then we need a break, because of commercials. One of the things I'm fed up with is an artistic arrogance or entitlement. You'll hear an artist say, “I'm just gonna do what I do. If they don't like it, fuck 'em.” Well, you need an audience if you're doing it to be appraised. It doesn't make you false to try to meet people where they are. It's vain to think: I'm going to be this one self all the time, if you don't like it, fuck you. You're a different person when you're with your parents as opposed to when you're with your friends, as opposed to the people you work with, as opposed to your woman. All of those different “yous” are legitimately you. That's you recognising that the people in your life will need different versions of you. I don't know why artists can't seem to make that connection.'
So you adopt different personas for TV work, performing live etc?
'Sure. I'm currently of the opinion that television most serves the talentless. TV forces people who are talented or genuinely have something to say to conform to whatever it is it needs. So, you might watch “Newsnight” and there's an intellectual on who knows a lot about something that's in the news. But the show only has room for a soundbite or a quick explanation. TV has never really accurately served intellectualism and it doesn't really make art. It occasionally shows art, but it does not make art.'
You perform a new hour at the Edinburgh Fringe most years. How much time do you devote to comedy?
'I clear out a lot of space in my life so I have room to come up with new jokes and new shows. But I do that at an expense. I do that at expense of being married or having children or even seeing my friends routinely. So, that's the drawback.'
So is comedy your whole life?
'It's not my whole life. But it's probably among the first two or three things that I care about. And not just from an artistic standpoint. I work with a lot of people, and right now a lot of my other projects are fuelled by the fact that I'm doing well in comedy. So other people - my family, my friends, my co-workers - they need me to continue doing well at this too. And that's nice to have; I've got to have something to drag me out of bed.'
And how are you enjoying your recent popularity boost?
'Well, I think the spike in popularity you're talking about is only here in Britain. And even with that, I'm not quite a household name. I'm quite able to walk the street. When I meet people, sometimes their face will tighten in recognition and the best they can come up with is, “You're that black guy!”.'