Preacher Lawson is jumping out of his skin. Both in his special and as we talk on the phone. The man has a lot to say, after over 10 years in the business, having started at 17 years old. And, as you watch him onstage, that energy becomes infectious.
His physicality is a tour de force we haven’t seen in a long time. He literally comes out of the gate running, leaving you wondering what you’re in for, but also happy to be along for the ride. The power of this tenacity never overtakes his comedy, however, but merely assists it. Think of it as a punctuation. The movements make up half of the story.
As is apparent in his new BET+ stand up special, though, there’s so much more to Preacher than just that physicality. Whether he’s talking about losing on America’s Got Talent, buying a Snickers bar for a fan, or his upbringing, Lawson has a true gift for telling a story that cannot be contained solely in his America’s Got Talent YouTube clips. What you got in AGT was Preacher Lawson lite. This here is the real thing. Nothing lite about it.
We recently spoke to Preacher about filming in Chicago, his new special, how he knew he was ready to move to L.A., how his mom feels about his jokes, and how AGT helped his career. His new special Preacher Lawson: Get To Know Me is the debut special for BET+, which is steaming now.
What made you want to film it in Chicago?
I didn’t care where we filmed the special. They suggested Chicago. I wanted to do it in Orlando, actually, to be honest with you. But by the time we decided when to film my special when I was ready, we had already done Orlando. So I was like “I want to go somewhere fresh and I want to do my second special in Orlando.” And someone told me about the Vic Theater, and all of the comedians, like Hannibal Buress taped a special there and I just think Chicago’s such a comedy city and they laugh so hard, I love Chicago, man. I love Chicago so much. So when they asked me if I want to do it in Chicago, I said “Yeah, I’m down. I’ll be there anyway.” So that was that.
And when you watch it, you can tell just how much of a comedy city it is by how electric the audience is.
They were such a good audience, right? I was like “Wow.” I could not have picked a better place. And it was not like an over-the-top fake laugh or nothing. They really laughed. I remember I went out there and I know it was my special and they wanted everyone to be excited. And they usually warm up the crowd. They’re like “Hey man. Laugh really hard.” I was like “Don’t say anything. Don’t say any of that. Let me do my job. Let me have fun. They came here to laugh, they know it’s a special, they’re ready to laugh. Let’s just have fun.” It was a beautiful moment. It was the second greatest day of my life. The greatest day was the day my special released. (Laughs). “This is so cool!” I was so happy, it was weird. I was like “It’s weird being this happy. I don’t like it.”
Right, because a first special is kind of what they say about a first album which is that it represents not who you are but everything you’ve worked to until this point.
Exactly. That’s my baby. That’s my first child. UntilI get my second child. That’s just how life works. The youngest is always the favorite until they mess up. (Laughs). But that’s my baby right there. So I was really excited to put it out, and put my all into it. My favorite production team, they did an incredible job. The editing, the coloring. Just shooting it. It looks like a special.
The first time I saw you was much like how a lot of people first saw you which was on America’s Got Talent. How has the experience and the exposure you had from doing that show changed you as a comic, if at all?
I mean, I’d say it has changed me so much. Well it hasn’t really changed me so much as helped me grow. I don’t think you’ve really figured out who you are as a comedian until you’re a full time headliner. I feel like if you look at my special and you look at me when I first got on AGT, you can tell that I’m way different. You can tell by my demeanor, I’m more confident. It’s just the experience. But I feel it’s changed me a lot. I’m the same comedian, I just grew up.
You mention America’s Got Talent in the first minute or two of your stand up. Do you feel like you have to bring it up onstage because that’s where people know you from?
I felt like before I did. I don’t think I’ll mention that show as much anymore. I think of that show like I will be forever grateful for it. If they need something, I got ’em. But I want people to be like “Oh yeah, and he was on America’s Got Talent.”
It’s not your whole career, but just your launching pad.
Exactly. But I did feel like I had to mention it on my first special, because that’s what got me there. That’s what got me a special to be honest. I made jokes about it in the special, but I feel like you got to know me a little better, you know I have siblings. One of my sisters is disabled, I’ve got a gay brother, my mom’s a single parent. You just know me a little bit. My dating, I’m vegan. So you get to figure out some stuff and you get to spend a little bit more time with me.
The thing that amazes me the most is I’ve talked to a few people who have first broken out via AGT or YouTube, and people don’t really realize how many hours you’ve put in or dismiss it as not being legitimate, which seems crazy inaccurate to me.
Listen, man. There’s people that think I had never done stand up in my life and went up onstage and freestyled that. So yeah. It’s like “You thought I just went onstage?” It’s crazy. Even when I first moved to L.A. Because you’ve got people who move to L.A. and work for years and years. Four, five years, ten years and then they finally get that big break that helps them out. I moved to L.A. and it was like a year before I got on America’s Got Talent. So it was like a crazy launching pad. People just think about AGT, they don’t think about what happened in the year, but I was moving up the whole entire time. Like I wrote down all my goals and everything I wanted to do. I didn’t get all of them, but I got most of them. I quit my job and then within 6 months I was doing stand up full time, doing stand up at colleges. And then I went and did Bridgetown, that’s what got me my manager. I did Big Sky, which is one of the biggest comedy festivals in the U.S. I did the Seattle International Comedy Competition and I won that, that’s how my manager got me on Carson Daly. And then I went on AGT. So it was a whole bunch of stuff I was doing. It wasn’t like I was just chilling doing nothing. But I moved to L.A. when I was 20 years old. I moved here when I was 20 years old, and then I was here for 2 months and I was like “Alright, I’m not ready.” So I left, back to Orlando, and I came back 4 years later, when I was ready, and everything started happening.
That’s really good you were aware that you weren’t ready, because most people don’t. They just assume “I’ll get ready here.” But you can’t really get ready in L.A..
Exactly. I feel like I was getting worse, to be honest. It’s hard to get better. But the people that do get better are amazing. They start here and blow up. But they’re like born to do this. They’re like incredible.
And going back to the special, this is the first special on BET+. That must feel pretty good being the first one in there, I’d imagine.
That’s a great feeling. Especially because people ask me all the time “Who were your favorite comedians growing up?” And I don’t know them. I don’t know my favorite comedians growing up because usually I’d watch like sitcoms, and when I did watch stand up, it was on BET. So that was my earliest influence. And I don’t know any of their names because they would just do compilations of different comedians. So it was great to have my special on BET+ because that was the comedy I grew up on. And it’s the first one, so I thought that was pretty cool.
Are you someone who still enjoys going on the road? Because, if I’m not wrong, you’re still a relatively new headliner somewhat, no?
Well I’m not new to headlining. I’m new to headlining for people coming to see me. I used to do off-nights. I used to always do off-nights and colleges and just do really bad comedy clubs. It’s pretty cool that people are coming to see me. It’s still weird. It is. It’s weird, man. I remember this lady, I was at Tempe Improv. She said “I can’t believe I’ve seen you on T.V. and I’m seeing you in person right now.” I said “I can’t believe you’re excited to see me.” (Laughs). That’s weird to me, because I used to dream about stuff like that. Doing my own show, people knowing who I am or coming to see me. Sometimes I have to sit down and be in the moment and be like “Hey man. Look where you at right now.” I still think I’m broke sometimes. I was getting groceries, and then they were like “You want some bags?” And they charge 10 cents a bag, and I’m like “How many bags?” Because I was so used to being broke, I was like “Well, two bags is 20 cents. I’ll carry the milk. Don’t worry about it.” I’m just so used to being broke.
I can imagine it’d take a while to sink in. And you talk about it a bit in the special, but how often do you get recognized on the street now?
Every day. I think it’s really cool. It’s less in L.A., unless I go to some place like The Grove or something or a really public place.
I feel like nobody cares who anyone is in L.A.
Yeah. Usually when people come up to me in L.A., they’re tourists. But there are people that come up to me, but everybody’s famous in L.A., so you just don’t care. But yeah, every day. Which is pretty cool, but I think what helped me out a lot with that show is when they uploaded the YouTube clips. So when they uploaded the YouTube clips, people would go back and watch them, so that helped in a huge way.
A portion of the special features you telling stories about your mom and your upbringing. How does she feel about hearing all of this onstage?
First off, I want to say this about her. She almost ruined my joke. (Laughs). She almost ruined my special, because in the special I say “Didn’t you buy my a race car bed in high school?” She says “No I didn’t buy you no race car bed in high school. It was in middle school.” First off, listen, it was in high school. I wasn’t 21. That’s the joke in the special. I was 19. (Laughs). Nah. But here’s the thing. I was in high school. But even if I wasn’t in high school, you better lie, mom. It’s my special. Go along. But yeah she likes being apart of it. Everybody likes being apart of jokes. So she loves them. My brother, my gay brother, he was laughing so hard at that joke. You could hear his laugh in the special. It’s so loud. People love when you make jokes about them.
Onstage you’re very physical as a storyteller. At what point did you find yourself leaning into that physicality to help tell the jokes? Was that always there?
I’ve always been like that. I figured out I liked making people laugh. There was an Asian kid on the swings when I was like 7. And him being Asian, it matters to the story. Just trust me. So he was on the swings, and I fake like he kicks me and I fall onto [the ground]. And that’s not the softest thing in the world. It’s soft for your feet, but not for your arms. So I was all scratched up. But he was dying laughing, so I did it again. He started dying laughing and changing colors. That’s why it’s relevant to the story that he’s Asian. (Laughs). And I was like “What is this feeling?” I just love this feeling. I just love making people laugh. So I’ve always been super physical, man. I’m super hyper.
I love Jim Carrey. He’s a huge influence. He would hurt himself for laughter, I’d do the same thing. (Laughs).
It’s a cliche question, but I love to hear stories of the worst someone has ever bombed. What would you say was that moment for you?
(Laughs). The worst I’ve ever bombed, I was in Atlanta, I was 18 years old, and I went up at a place called Uptown Comedy Club and the security was like “We need to see some I.D.’s. You’ve got to be 21 to get in.” And then I’m like “I’m 18.” And he’s like “Well then I need $20.” My auntie was like “For what?” He said “Security.” I’m like “Ain’t You security for this whole entire place? What’s $20 going to do?” So anyway, my auntie had to pay $20.
So I started stand up two weeks before I turned 18, I was 17, and had gone up onstage a few times and only had bombed once. So for me, I thought I was funny. I didn’t think I was hilarious, but I thought I was okay and I think I’m 18, so if I do stand up and people see that I’m 18, I’ll just be famous. “Okay, well he’ll develop and be funnier. And he’s young.” That’s what I was thinking. So I took all the money I had, I got a Greyhound Bus one way to Atlanta, with no place to go. I just went. And my mom let me do it. She was like “Yeah, you’re getting out of the house.” And so I get there and my auntie’s there and she’s waiting for me at the bus. And I’m like “What’re you doing here?” And she said “Your mom said you were crazy. I didn’t know she was serious. Get in the car.”
And then I go to Uptown Comedy Club for $20 and the comedian before me bombs and I walk onstage. And the D.J. is onstage with me. And if you’re bombing, he does this gun-cock. So the bit is “I’m trying to look for a job. And everywhere I go they give some dumb excuse about why they don’t want to hire me. I go to McDonald’s. ‘Oh, we’re only hiring managers and assistant managers.’ ‘Oh you’ve got to be certified to fly a plane.’’ So the third one I used to say was “I go to Hooter’s. Ya know, it gets annoying after a while. Because yeah, I’ve got some hair on my leg, but I thought it was a plug.” I legit thought that was funny. Anyway, I said that, and it was like (gun-cock). And I’m like “Hold on. This is Atlanta, let me do a big booty joke. I’ve seen this girl, her booty was so big, she sat down, she was still the same height. (Gun-cock).” And then he’s like “Get offstage.” He started playing music, he started roasting me. And this is what he tells me to do. “Kill yourself. Kill yourself. As soon as you go home, don’t go to the microwave, don’t watch no T.V., go to the bathroom, open the pill cabinet, and take all the pills like shots.” I was 18. That’s what he told me. (Laughs). I thought I was going to get onstage and that was going to be my big break. He’s destroying me and my auntie is just wiping tears. She’s laughing so hard. She’s dying. And I’m just like “Ya know what? That’s not even a bad idea. All the pills?” (Laughs). I was looking at my auntie wiping tears and I thought “Well, she’s going to be wiping more tears in a second because I’m feeling pretty bad right now.” You better stop laughing. So that was the worst I’ve ever bombed.
And I remember this one guy who told me to keep going. He said “Don’t worry about this crowd. Just keep going.” And I’m like “Yeah, I’m telling you, I’m funny sometimes.” And he’s like “Man, get out of here. I’m trying to be encouraging.”
I feel like there’s a few angels in my life. They don’t realize it. The reason I moved to L.A. the second time, there was this guy, and he was like “What’re you doing here?” And I said “I’m featuring for you.” “No, what’re you doing here in Florida? You should be in L.A. or New York or something like that.” And I was like “I’d rather be here. I don’t need to be in L.A. or New York. I just post on the Internet. It’s not the 1980’s.” I was just scared to fail. And he goes “How old are you?” And I told him I was 24. And he goes “Man,” but he don’t say man. He says something else. Black dude. (Laughs).
I don’t know if I can type that other word out. I don’t think I have permission to type that.
“Hey Jill, can you come type this world for me??” (Laughs). So he goes “Man, you could stab somebody, get out of jail, and still be younger than me. If you fail you fail. Just try.” And I remember thinking “He’s right.” Because some people just play the safe route. Everyone has their role in life. If you’re a safe person, that’s okay. There’s nothing wrong with that. I think that’s great. Especially when you don’t take the safe route and it doesn’t work out, it’s bad. But when it works out, it’s like “Man, this is working out.” It’s like “Okay, this is going pretty good.” Man, I personally know I’m not a safe person when it comes to taking chances. I love living life. I’ll go sky-diving. I go rock-climbing all the time. I want to go surfing, skiing. I just love life. I want to swim with sharks one day. I like having fun. So I felt like I could go through life knowing I tried and failed, but I can’t go through life knowing I didn’t try. I think I’m funny enough to do it. That means that it’s possible and I’m going to take a chance. And right there, I decided I was going to go.
Preacher Lawson’s debut special, Get To Know Me is streaming on BET+ now.