“I just wanna have a good talk, I’m sick of talking about being “young” ya know? That’s not the best part of me and heck I’m only getting older. Damn near 30.”
This is what Neko told me when I asked for an interview. Neko White is a 26-year-old comedian and native New Yorker but after listening to him, it’s easy to tell he’s wise beyond his years. Raised in Harlem, White started comedy at 14 years old. While most went home to play video games and raid their parents liquor cabinet, White would go perform at shows after getting out of school. A veteran of New York City comedy, White has been doing comedy for twelve years and has a resume that many aspiring comedians are still dreaming about. At 17 years old, he was a warm-up comic for MTV’s Hip Hop Squares. In 2015, he put out his first one hour comedy special, Introducing Me, which you can view from his website. He won Caroline’s March Madness Competition and has TV credits that include Tru TV’s Laff Tracks, Kevin Hart’s LOL Network, Fox’s Laughs, and hosted his own Series on Vice called How to Be A Person. Recently he has been passed as a regular at New York’s Comedy Cellar.
It’s impressive considering he’s only been on the planet for two and a half decades, but if you ask Neko, no matter what his age, he has an “old soul.” Besides living his dream as a stand-up comic, he enjoys smoking cigars, and arguing with his friends about everything from music to comedy to politics to sports.
I met Neko at Casa de Montecristo, a cigar lounge off of 54th street on 2nd ave, for cigars and football, as the Jets third string quarterback was being destroyed by the Philadelphia Eagles. We talked about starting off in comedy, getting passed at the Comedy Cellar, and about telling “all parts of your story.”
What got you into Stand-up? Were you a class clown?
Not at all. I was more smart alec than clown. I wanted to be a social studies teacher or a history teacher which is what I would’ve been if I hadn’t found comedy. My best friend Rodney from high school was always funnier than me in conversation. During the last period of the first day of school, my teacher asked if anyone had a talent. Something in my mind said, “go tell jokes.” So, I got up in front of the class and I made jokes about white people, my teacher who was allergic to chalk, and how the school safety officers were obsolete. Whatever that feeling I got was after that first laugh, I fell in love immediately.
Were you a fan of stand-up? Did you have any inspiration?
I was always a fan. My earliest memory is when I was three years old and my dad was watching Martin Lawrence You So Crazy. I played The Kings of Comedy on a loop. The DVD had scratches on it I played it so much. Once I got into comedy my brother [gave me] Runteldat by Martin Lawrence, Delirious and Raw by Eddie Murphy. I had all the Richard Pryor DVD’s and Jerry Seinfeld’s I’m Telling You For The Last Time.
Was there a particular comic who inspired you? Did you watch a lot of Def Jam Comedy growing up?
I was inspired by guys like Katt Williams who is as smart as he is mobile. He knows how to use his whole body just as much as his words. Katt WIlliams is one of the people I respect the most because I believe he’s so smart, but he can present his point of view in layman’s terms. Both of which equals classic material. Then there are people like Steve Harvey who’s the best at being a master of ceremonies. Some other names that come to mind are Martin Lawrence, Dave Chappelle, Bernie Mac, Eddie Griffin, Chris Rock, Ray Romano, Dane Cook and others. Too many to name. Stylistically, for me, I think I’m more of a mixture of a couple of things. Social commentary, personal analysis and storytelling.
Chris Rock said he thinks the worst Def Jam type comic is funnier than most comics.
I still want to know what’s a “Def Jam type comic?” I agree in the sense that a lot of comedians who start in the urban rooms are in rooms where people may not be expecting a show. They learn to grab and keep attention in hectic situations, while also crafting great jokes in the meantime.
Some comics say performing in Urban rooms make you a stronger comic. Did you think that happened with you?
Yeah because it taught me how to be in no-win situations and win. I would perform in spots where it’s like “these people came to eat.” They didn’t come for a comedy show, it’s an ambush show. Coming up and watching some comics get laughs in those situations is special and something to be admired. The urban scene sadly is being suffocated.
Why do you think that is?
It’s because of the lack of industry attention on that side. You don’t see too many “mainstream” industry folks going in those rooms to scout. They might not even know where those rooms are.
There’s a myth that makes people terrified to perform in urban rooms that they don’t wanna hear jokes, just crowd work.
I don’t know why. People act like “Black rooms don’t wanna hear jokes,” and I always react like “what are you talking about?” You mean you never seen Dave Chappelle tell jokes? Dave Chapelle came up in Def Jam, Chris Rock hosted Def Jam, not to mention the countless other household name black comedians… did they not have any jokes?
Like one liner comedians like Mitch Hedberg or someone like Dave Attell would do fine.
Exactly because they’re great comics. You just have to go in and do what it is you do. You can talk about whatever you want, if it’s good they’ll laugh. If it’s not they won’t. That’s not a “black thing” it’s the same with every audience.
Eddie Murphy started very young just like you and he’s getting back into stand-up? I kinda feel he may be off because he hasn’t done it for so long.
He’s too talented to be off. All you have to do is give him room and time to work out his set. Stand-up isn’t like riding a bike but take someone as talented as he is and surrounded by the amount of talent he’s around, I think he’ll be fine. So many generations are looking forward to this.
What are your favorite subjects to write material about?
Anything that I have a feeling about. Whether it’s where I grew up, the person I am, the people I see, politics, culture, etc. It’s a trait I get from my parents.
Do you have a writing process?
I get real romantic with it. I sit down and light candles then just go. I got a workout book for jokes I’m trying, a book for my set, then there’s a lot of editing and chopping down. I have a Glad bag of joke books. I used to fill a book in a week. Now it takes a little longer, but the quality is better. I can also voice record my sets and listen back to it.
Have you seen any distinct changes in the audiences at comedy shows now than when you started?
I’m not of the belief that everyone is more sensitive now. The same people who were sensitive in 2008 are sensitive now. They’re just the one’s willing to be the loudest. The biggest difference is the use of technology or the entitled feeling to record a comedian. That’s the only difference.
Has that happened with someone recording you?
I was at the Knitting Factory and this lady was recording my set on her phone. I went up and asked, “Excuse me, can you delete that?” She told me it was her first time at a comedy show and I said, “Listen if you could delete it that would be cool.” As I’m leaving, she comes up to me and said “Maybe you should have asked nicer for me to delete your set.” But you were in the wrong for recording me without permission. That sense of entitlement is new. But those types of people have been around forever, they just exist in a different form.
It’s been such a constant argument about comedy and political correctness that it’s becoming boring. It’s just a minority on Twitter that’s upset over… say “Did you hear what Damon Wayans said?”
We feed into it too because as comics we feel the need to fight it on social media when we’re just giving it more attention than it deserves. We wanna defend our art form but our art form needs no defense.
Plus, it’s not like you’re going to jail for what you say on stage or a podcast like Lenny Bruce or Carlin.
No, but you can lose money and your career. It’s a weird give and take because it’s like killing someone without burying them. We will leave them in obscurity and move on with the day.
When you started stand-up so young was there anyone who mentored you along the way?
I didn’t really have any. Someone who gave me the best advice was from an older comic named Francisco who I met at one of my first open mics at Ha! Comedy Club. Ha! Comedy Club made a lot of people assholes. My first open mic and I had ten dollars and I was 14 years old. I would bring people to write on the comment cards “Neko’s funny you should hire him,” so they could stuff the suggestion box. Francisco said to stop doing that and told me, “If you wanna make it to 16, learn how to wait and listen.” He was mean at the time he said it, but I thought it was good advice.
Donnell Rawlings was good to me. He ended up showing me more than specifically giving me advice. Things like, no matter how big or small the audience is, give them the best that you can and appreciate the fact that they showed up. Be confident in yourself, go everywhere, and do everything. Don’t change your set because of the room.
I heard a story about Greer Barnes giving you some advice?
I had a joke about money, and I couldn’t get it to work. I crumpled up the binder paper and threw it in the garbage. Greer Barnes went into the garbage, unfolded the paper and said “Take that home and put it on the dresser. It’s not that the joke is bad, you’re just not in a place where you can get it to work. Look back at it with fresh eyes.” It might just be a seed that needs to be watered and it will sprout. But I was just an angry gardner.
Was there a show or moment that made you realize “this is for me?”
Once I found this I fell in love. It changed all my plans. It wasn’t a make or break moment. I didn’t take the SAT or go to college. I just said to myself, “This is going to work out.” I started buying calendars in 2011 and started jotting down how many shows I was doing. That’s how I approached it.
So, you’ve been passed at the Comedy Cellar, did you want to talk about how that happened?
I auditioned for Estee back in November of last year. I got it through the Comedy Central thing they were doing over there, and I couldn’t lock down recommendations. Mind you there were people I didn’t want to necessarily ask and people I did ask didn’t have the power to recommend me. Once I had the audition, I was very excited. The day came. I go on after Daniel Simon, who killed. I go on and I had a good set, but I wanted to MURDER.
So I come off Estee comes over says send your headshot, availability, and phone number. I sent my avails every week and didn’t hear anything. I started worrying about it because I didn’t know if I should celebrate or not.
Fast forward to April of this year. I was doing a spot at New York Comedy Club, and a comic asked to switch spots. I didn’t want to because I was bone tired, but I thought “Fuck it. I’ll do it for the karma.” I had a great set. After the show in the green room, the host comes to me and says “Buddy, you’ll never believe who was in the audience.” I asked who it was, and he says,“Liz and Noam,” (the owners of the Comedy Cellar). Later that week, I sent in my avails again and Estee booked me for a spot. I went down did the spot, ripped the way I like to. Then I went upstairs and thanked Estee who said, “my pleasure.” When I said goodnight to Noam, he said “I saw you at New York Comedy Club, you were great, get something to eat.” I got crab cakes and went home happy. Started sending in my avails and I’ve been doing spots ever since. I don’t think I could have planned or dreamed for it to happen better than it did.
Were you nervous before the audition?
Of course, I was nervous. That whole week I had headlining gigs, so I got the reps in before. But I was nervous because it was like facing the final boss of a video game. Whether you know it or not we all have respect for Estee. She said yes to my heroes and no to my heroes. To this day Katt Williams was talking about the cellar at the Barclays Center. He talked about how “They never let me headline Caroline’s and they never put my name at the Comedy Cellar.” He’s making $500,000 performing at the Barclays Center and it still sticks out in his head.
How do you deal with nerves?
Just have them. I’m human, I don’t have a mystical way of getting over them. My stomach turns and mouth turns dry, look away during conversations. Just play through the pain.
You recorded a special two years ago. How long did that take you to create?
I’ve written three or four hours. I recorded Introducing Me which was my first and I’d say it takes about a year or two to come up with a fresh new hour. If I ask people to come support me I wanna make sure I have something different for them. I had my ten-year anniversary show at New York Comedy Club, so now I’m doing a show for my 12-year anniversary there. I want it to be completely different from before. So that consists of working it out until the sword is as sharp as it can be.
What was the worst show you ever had? Like one time you think back and thought “I really ate it?”
I’m not sure. There was this show that I did starting out, that was run in this gymnasium run by the Fresh Prince of Harlem.
Who’s the Fresh Prince of Harlem?
Exactly. (Laughs). I met him in the barber shop, and he had performed at this party in a gymnasium. Not set up for comedy at all. It didn’t go well, but I just laugh it off thinking about it. The one show that gives me PTSD is this show I did in Jersey. I’m very competitive and I use to run around doing spots with one of my best friends in comedy a friend of mine Nick Alexander, we use to be broke doing spots wherever we could take them. We’re on Kool Bubba Ice’s show and Nick had a better set than me that night. To this day that keeps me up at night. It’s like when you’re kids and you always race your brother and you’re used to winning or tying… not losing. I STILL THINK ABOUT THAT SHIT MAN (Laughs).
You’re tired of people always thinking of you as the “young comic,” What do you want people to remember you for?
God forbid I die, I want people to know I was as honest as I wanted to be. As a comedian, I care a lot about the craft. It equipped me with skills to help me support my family. I would also never take for granted the people that pay to see me, so I would want people to remember that about me.
The big goal is to start selling out theaters. I wanna be able to sell Radio City Music Hall to be able to tour but I also want the next generation of comics coming up to argue about where I’m ranked as a comic the same way I argue with you about Dave Chappelle or Chris Rock. I want to be respected by my peers but also reap the fruits of my labor. It’s all steps, just to focus on making it happen.
A young kid in Harlem comes up to you and asks for advice because they want to start out in comedy. What do you tell them?
I tell them to start. Start now, don’t wait. Plus fight the shame of the circumstances that you grew up in. There’s a lot of personal stuff that I include in my material that I didn’t talk about before because I was kind of ashamed of it. People assume you’re doing well on the outside but it’s like “Yeah but there’s piss in the elevator.” So,I held back like “what if they judge me?” But they probably won’t, or they went through some of the same things themselves. So be proud of all parts of the story. Don’t just talk about the highlights, talk about the low lights. People like that too. It’s a way to show that you’re human. Hold on to as much confidence as you can. You’re as good as you think you are, you suck as much as you think you do. New York comedy scene can be a cheese grater to the emotions. It’ll make you feel like you’re low. You’ll find yourself around people who don’t think highly of themselves, so they try to drag you down with them. All you can control is what you say on stage, who you are off stage, and the places you go to. If you’re proud of who’s looking back at you in the mirror than you made it.
Are you willing to finally admit that New Jersey is the greatest state in the union?
I’ll finally admit that you’re fifteen pounds heavier than when I first met you.
Anything to promote?
I’m headlining New York Comedy Club on (241 East 24th Street) on Friday October 25th at 11pm. Tickets on sale now at http:// www.nekowhite.com, promo code “kang” for discount.