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It's become something of a Brooklyn comedy cliché to joke about how the neighborhood is changing. But what does it take to be part of the solution and not the problem? At comedy stages all over the city, Gastor Almonte hits crowds with brutally honest stories told in his signature, booming East New York accent. And with the release of his album and special Immigrant Made, Almonte declares himself as a champion of his neighborhood. We asked the pro about his creative process and where he likes to kick back and perform.
Something you have that's rare in comedy is a real point of view. Not a lot of performers on the scene come from where you come from. Was there a moment when you realized you had a unique voice?
Appreciate you saying that. A big part of that is the fact that I started comedy later. Most of my friends that I’m coming up with are five years younger than me. Most of them develop their ability to be funny first, and then they have to live life in order to have something to say, whereas I came from it the other way. I got married, I had kids, had a mortgage. I was dealing with issues with my family, while also hopefully making a positive impact in my neighborhood. All those are real conversations that I have. My father owns property in East New York, Brooklyn. So, we’re regularly weighing out between his properties and mine, what’s the best move for us financially, versus what’s the best move for the future of our family, versus what’s the best move for the future of this neighborhood. And those conversations are starting to bleed into my comedy, because they were always there. If anything, I had the opposite situation: I had a lot to say and I had to just learn how to be entertaining.
Photograph: Courtesy Chad Griffith
Any stand-up show is going to have jokes about Brooklyn changing, about gentrification. You’re actually really in this.
For sure. You’ll still see me going to the 75th Precinct; they have a monthly meeting for the community board, and you’ll see me once every three to four months myself, because it directly affects my family. I genuinely live and breathe and bleed this neighborhood, because it’s helped mold me. I’ve seen friends and family that live in other parts of New York experience a change that they weren’t always happy with. And I feel that each neighborhood has gotten closer to getting it right, where, being frank, the change that’s coming isn’t all bad. Some of it is good, and we’re trying to balance how we’re going to work that out. And for the first time ever, the changes we’re seeing in East New York—versus Williamsburg or Soho, where the locals and the art community got really shifted out—we’re seeing how the locals are really rising up and giving direct input. We’re getting a better balance of: Here are these amenities that we really would appreciate having, and in turn, how can we get these things to benefit the people that are already here.
I’m actively in my art trying to make people aware of the fact that people like me exist. I want you to see me and literally see that I wear Jordans, I wear Tims, I still wear baggy clothes. I still look like that guy that you would associate with: I don’t want that in my neighborhood. Until you hear me talk. And hopefully I convey the fact that I still got a real, Brooklyn, authentic East New York accent, but I’m educated, and I’m a family man. I hope that comes through in my story. The more that people see that there’s people like me that look like me, they’ll better understand that the people we’re kicking out have the potential. There’s a benefit to doing better by them.
Did you have any moments when you started to understand your power, and how your comedy is serving something bigger?
The first real a-ha moment was the taping I did for This is Not Happening. When I did the Brooklyn Batman story, it went really well and I enjoyed the performance of it. When the clip went up on Youtube, the comments were half: This is a beautiful story. And there was this other half, saying: Yo, I’m from there. I love that he’s repping us. I fully relate to that, because I’m from a similar neighborhood. And it made me aware that there’s this group of people from these neighborhoods that aren’t spoken for. And they felt a connection to what I was doing, despite it not being “dangerous.” So much of what I do is trying to show people that despite how tough a situation might be, the community comes together. For the better of what they see as potential and what they see as the future. Even in that story, my cousins weren’t in the ideal job, they were both drug dealers, it’s unfortunate. But they acknowledged very quickly: This kid has potential to be more. He’s trying. And his parents have that vision. We could be part of that vision. Let’s help make sure that he doesn’t have to do this. That community aspect is important to me.
I love the story in Immigrant Made when you’re explaining beef jerky (and, essentially, white culture) to your son. When you entered the comedy scene—which is largely white—did you have any moments of: Where the fuck am I?
David, I have that moment every time I’m up there, bro. Every show I go to. I’m regularly surprised at how out of my element I am. I don’t know how it works, and I think everyone else can feel it. They’re like: I don’t know what this guy is doing here. And then I perform and we come together. It becomes a family thing after that. But man, before every show, in particular with the way comedy has become a real big thing in the bar scenes and alternative rooms in Brooklyn and Queens, I’ll end up in some rooms I would have never pictured in my life. I did a show last week where I was pretty sure the amount of pet dogs outnumbered the amount of people at the bar. I actually befriended a pet dog after the convo and added the dog on Instagram. Did not add the owner. I’ve had several DMs with the dogs, just because I insist on only talking with the person that led the room. I very regularly end up in environments where I’m not quite sure why I’m there, except that performing brings us together.
Photograph: Courtesy Chad Griffith
Something I talk about with queer comedians a lot is: Straight dude comics don’t open up. But you’re really down to be vulnerable.
I don’t think people value that enough. Being frank: I know I’m tough, I know I got that already. But I got tough because I learned something at some point. I was wrong, I made a mistake. You’re not just instantly 100% superhero. It’s a journey. It comes with mistakes along the way. And on top of that, if I want people to get better from my stories, I can’t just tell them how I am now. They need to know the justification for that, the reasoning for that. If my kids hear these outlandish and funny stories, there’s usually a moral to it. But I want them to know how I got to that moral. If I want them to know something without saying the “why” of it, it doesn’t hold the same weight. I think that’s the big advantage that performing in storytelling and stand-up offers me. A lot of my friends who are in stand-up avoid doing storytelling shows. And on one hand, they become much sharper comics faster in terms of the technical aspect of it, but they miss out on being their most pure and vulnerable selves on stage. Which is what I think you need to be special and cross over. And storytelling allows for that.
So. East New York. Where do you like to eat?
Right off the bat, my favorite place to eat is at El Gran Mar de Plata. It is located right under the J train by Logan and Fulton. It’s a Dominican restaurant, and it’s huge. It caters to a lot of Dominican musicians—a lot of meringue bands come in. The other reason I like it is because it’s 24/7, so you can always—regardless of what time of day—get a full dinner or breakfast. They don’t play that McDonalds nonsense where after 10 they shut it down. They’re always available regardless of what end of the menu you’re trying to eat at.
There’s the empanada ladies who are always walking around here. My favorite is Rosa, who you’ll also find under the J train. I can’t give you an exact stop, because clearly, she is not an official store. She’s under the J train from Cleveland to Van Siclen, where you’ll find her selling her $1 empanadas and dope juice.
Where do you like to hang out in the neighborhood?
I am a big advocate that whenever you go to the movie theater, you need to go to the movie theater most related to the movie’s culture. I had this experience of going to Astoria with a whole bunch of friends from my high school when My Big Fat Greek Wedding came out. It’s an incredible experience, because you’re in the room, and it’s like a home game. They relate to all these little nuances. And I only got the idea to do that because whenever a real pro-black movie came out, I always went to Linden [Boulevard Multiplex]. The movie theater is incredible. And it’s such an intense place to see films at, because you’ll get a live review every five minutes. There’s nothing like it. Anytime you see a movie there that you know is going to have any type of say on black culture, see it there opening weekend. Seeing Django Unchained at that movie theater: Incredible. I cannot fathom anything beating that experience. I made the mistake of going to see The Good Shepherd there. This was during Matt Damon’s peak. It was advertised very similarly to a Bourne film. However, if you’ve seen The Good Shepherd, an incredible film, it’s all dialogue and no action. The Linden Boulevard movie theater was not as thrilled with this turn of events, and they let us know about it for the last hour and a half. They regularly booed; it was fantastic. It was well worth it to not enjoy the movie and not hear the dialogue just to hear the audience participate. Beautiful times.
There’s a lot of dope shopping spots, in particular on Fulton Avenue and Pitkin Ave. You’ll find a lot of incredible places to buy gear. Those are our two major streets where you’ll find anything you need. If you’re big on picking up liquor, I’m always on Pitkin Ave and East Barryman at East New York Drinks. I’ll be picking up a Henny bottle to help celebrate this week.
Photograph: Courtesy Chad Griffith
Where are your favorite places to perform?
Right off the bat I gotta give QED shots. That’s a beautiful place, and that’s much respect to Kambri Crews. She’s catered to anyone who wants to try new things out. She’s super pro-female and LGBTQ, and she’s given so many opportunities to comics to try their new stuff out. It’s probably the place I performed at most during my first few years.
I’ve been doing comedy now for the last two iterations of Comedy at the Knit, and both crews have done an incredible job. It’s been dope to see the baton pass on to the girls, and the crowd is so excited for them. They really give it a party atmosphere. I’ve never seen a comedy show where the show ends and people still hang out for an hour and a half. People are just kicking it.
Photograph: Courtesy Chad Griffith
I gotta shout out to Sameer and Gabe, who run the Fun House Show at Pete’s Candy Store every Wednesday. It’s another Brooklyn staple where it’s a smaller turn-out because of the nature of the room. But people go and record albums there. It’s a real dope place for the comics, because it’s a later show, so most of us will do our spots and we’ll end up there and connect.
Where do you like to go out?
You gotta understand that I’m a family man, so that stuff is limited in terms of the range that I can do. I gotta think of a lot of people. My kids have horrendous taste in my opinion, but they force me to go to Dave and Busters far more often than I would like to. I think it’s cool, I think it’s fun, but I don’t think it’s as fun as my kids seem to think it is. I don’t think it’s OK to pay $14 for pina colada. But that’s the life that they want to live, so for their enjoyment I do that.
A place that I do like that they’re into would probably be The Chocolate Room on Court Street. Real dope spot. My wife and I went there for the first time two or three months before we were expecting our first kid, and we go there every year for our anniversary now. Their entire menu is centered around chocolate, obviously, and most of it is made there. I am big on two things: I love leaving with a chocolate shake, which annoys my wife because she feels like there’s a certain level of chocolate that once you’ve crossed it, everything just tastes the same. I disagree. I think there’s nuance to chocolate, and this milkshake is beautiful. It takes the edge off of everything. There’s nothing my kids could scream in the car that’s going to make me angry. So it’s worth having the milkshake coming with me on the road. There’s a chocolate cheesecake that I like to pair with their chocolate ice cream that’s fire. Real dope place.
One of the main things I’ve done my whole life out here is kick it out outside. Highland Park is a big part of my whole upbringing. I do it with my friends, and now I do it with my kids. It’s a huge park. It’s publicly funded and kept maintained, and it offers you the ability to do everything, you know what I mean? They have a fully maintained football field, soccer field, tennis courts, basketball courts, and so many of my childhood memories are tied to that, you know what I mean? Going there to pick up girls, play ball and talk to people. It was kind of the routine to go kick it there on Saturdays.
After we got sweaty and did all that, we’d go home, we’d shower and we’d meet up in either City Line or Knickerbocker. They’re mini-shopping zones that border Brooklyn and Queens on different sides of the boroughs. It’s such a beautiful cultural clash where you’ll get these modern stores—Starbucks or Foot Locker—and you’ll see these independent businesses. You’ll see a store named Michelle’s, because it was some girl’s dream to open up a shop where she sells outfits. Any type of cultural food that’s in the area, you’ll find there. It’s such a dope place to link up and hang out for the day, see where the adventure takes you. And I think it’s dope that both boroughs come together for it.