I always love doing interviews in the moment. There’s a lot of prep and transcription work involved, but I love when I actually am doing it. One of the things I love most about it is getting inside someone’s head, and having an honest discussion. I love when interviews can become genuine conversations.
Back in July, I had a particularly great interview with David A. Arnold. He had a newly released Netflix special that is genuinely hilarious. He spends a lot of time talking about the subjects we’ve come to expect from Arnold, such as talking about his family. But after the stand-up portion, there was a mini documentary where you got to see David spend time with his family, go to his old high school, and even visit his dad. It was a touching bookend to the special, to get to meet the people behind the stand-up stories.
Yesterday, I was planning out today’s articles for The Laugh Button, and I was just about to get everything prepped to finally run this piece, after many unforeseen delays. Then, I got the news. David A. Arnold died yesterday afternoon.
We are going through with the plan, and running the interview as a tribute to David A. Arnold. Throughout the interview, you get a sense that he was very happy with how things were going, which at least should lend some comfort to his fans. In the weeks before he passed, he told us he was exactly where he wanted to be, and seemed genuinely joyous with how the special was received. So in honor of the hilarious David A. Arnold, we’re taking a look at a really fun interview we just did less than two months ago.
Note: We chose to leave in some of his comments for things that never came to fruition, such as the theater tour he was slated to start.
Tell me a bit about how it came together. I know you did the previous special in 2020. How did this second special come about?
My first special was in 2020. It was an independently produced special that I did along with Kevin Hart as well. Netflix acquired it and it performed really well. Something to do with the fact that it went up the week that the pandemic happened. So everybody was just locked down at home, so everybody just watched Netflix. They watched everything they could think of and then they finally got down to my special. It was like “Maybe we’ll give this little light skinned dude a try.” And they put my special on, and I think they went “Oh. This is funny.”
My friends in the industry are strong with social media. Kevin Hart reposted it and put it out, and it just blew up. It did really well the first weekend. It broke the top 19 and got the attention of the network.
So later, we went back to them and had another idea to do another special. This time with a little piece of a documentary, which is how my special plays. It’s an hour of stand-up and then an 18 minute documentary piece of footage that just shows my journey in putting the special together and meeting my family – my wife and kids – the people I talk about onstage. We put it together and pitched the idea and Netflix loved it. So we went and recorded it in January. And it just came out two days ago on July 19th. It started streaming. And it’s being perceived really, really well.
Absolutely. It’s a great special. Tell me a bit about going back home. What was that experience like?
Going back home to my hometown of Cleveland, Ohio to record my Netflix special, that’s the second time I’ve done it. The first one was also done in Cleveland at a comedy club. This time we came back and did it in a theater. I’m from Cleveland. I’m proud to be from Cleveland. I did it to show progression. Last time I was at a comedy club. This time I’m in a theater. And I feel like I’ve done my just due of giving my hometown a shine.
I will say it’s always challenging when you’re performing at home, because my mother will be calling me. “Your third cousin from your daddy’s side can’t get in.” And it’s like “Momma, I’m about to walk out onstage and record a TV show. Why are you calling me about uncle Ricky that I haven’t seen since 1981? What the hell are you doing?” That’s the downside of doing a special in your hometown. Everybody has access to you, everybody knows you, everybody wants to talk to you.
During your set, I’m sure.
I shot two shows in Cleveland to make the special that’s out now, It Ain’t for the Weak. And in between shows, my mother will come in my dressing room like “That one joke, I think you could change…” and I’m like “If you don’t get your ass out of here…” That’s the kind of stuff you deal with when you film a special at home. So I can honestly say I think that’s going to be my last one in Cleveland for a minute. I’ve done my just due with being there.
But it was great. It was great. I had a lot of fun. I always love going home. I’m proud to be from Cleveland.
I’m sure. And you can tell how much the crowd loves you!
Oh yeah. It’s great energy. You have fans that drove in from the surrounding area to check out the show, so it was great.
Had you been doing a lot of theaters? Was that something you had been doing a lot more of since your first special came out?
Well actually when my first special came out, I didn’t really get a chance to feel how it was affected because of COVID. My special came out literally the same week we got locked down for COVID. So I didn’t start really touring until I got ready to do this new special. So to answer your question, I did comedy clubs to prepare the last 8 months for It Ain’t for the Weak. And now, we are going to theaters.
We’re starting in theaters in September, October, November, through the end of the year. I know we’re doing the Wilbur Theater. I know we’re doing the Filmore Theater and Paramount, we’re doing Carnegie Music Hall in Pittsburgh. I think in Detroit we’re doing a theater. So you have these select cities where we’re going to do theaters. That’s becoming a mix of what’s to come on my tour schedule. We’re announcing a brand new tour, actually, here in a couple of days.
How are you feeling going into that? Your first big theater tour?
You know how I feel? I feel like that’s where I belong. That’s how I feel. It feels like “Oh finally! I’m catching up to where I should be.” I’ve been doing this for 28 years. And when you’ve been doing something for 28 years, you’ve been working. Like “When is it my turn?”.
When I filmed the Netflix special in Cleveland and I was in the theater recording that, I literally was thinking “This is what it should be every night. This is where I belong.” So it feels good, you know what 8 mean? I’m very excited about it.
One of the things about watching someone transition from clubs to theaters is that they sometimes don’t take full advantage of the stage right away. In your special, you’re taking full advantage of that stage. You’d never be able to tell.
What’s crazy is, I’ve done theaters. It’s not the first time. I did the Shaq All Star Comedy Tour like 8 years ago, which was a big tour. So I’ve done theaters before. But to have it be my own setting and my own thing is definitely different. Theaters feel like the right size for me. It feels comfortable. It feels intimate. But don’t get me wrong, I love a good comedy club, too. But it definitely is exciting to be taking it to the next level.
Normally I’d ask in these post-COVID interviews about what it’s like getting back on the road after COVID. But I don’t even have to ask that. You put that all on front street in the special.
Oh my god. They could’ve offered me to perform at a meat packing plant, I would’ve been like “Hell yeah. I’m on my way. I’ve got to get the hell out of this house.” Like I was ready. I was so ready. I had been in that house that long. Ain’t nobody supposed to be in the house for 18 months with your wife and kids everyday. Nah.
When I tell you I was ready to go, I was so excited. And I’m sure my wife was ready for me to get out. Because after a while, she started going “Don’t you have some gigs? Don’t you have some place to be? Don’t nobody want to book you?”. So we both agreed that I needed to go. So no. It was right on time.
Are you generating thoughts of what the next special could be?
It’s so funny you ask that. The night that I recorded It Ain’t For The Weak, which was January 29th, I have not done any of that material since that night. Like the next week, I was in Columbia, South Carolina at a comedy club performing and I did a whole brand new hour and 15 minutes. And I’ve been doing that hour and 15 minutes since then. So everybody who’s seen me February on from this year, they have not seen It Ain’t For The Weak. And those who are seeing It Ain’t For The Weak right now on Netflix, when I come to their hometown here on this next tour, it’s all brand new material. I’m not repeating anything.
I think that’s the advantage of having done stand-up for 28 years like I have and never having a national stage until right now. A lot of this material I’ve just been compiling for years. And now it feels good to have a real platform to use it.
Are there things in the special that you’ve always wanted to do?
Doing my grandfather. I do a thing where I do my grandfather, and I’ve been working on that bit for 10 years. And what’s so funny is I found the button for that bit while I was on tour working the bit out. All the stories about my family – I cover about how I was raised, I cover drug addiction and me being sober and all that – all of that stuff is from years of me working and working my craft. So I felt like “Yeah, this is the right time. I’m a better storyteller to even be able to tell those stories.”
And I’ve got to ask about that portion where you were your grandfather. That was so fascinating to me. I would watch an entire one man show. I’d watch you do that for an hour and half. It’s so cool that you were able to hoan in on what you were trying to say with the theatrics of it. I really enjoyed it. So I can only imagine what it must have been like when you got it onstage and got to do it after 10 years.
Very exciting. Like I said, I’ve been doing it for so long and trying to get it there. I would always do it once in a while, but it’s very exciting to be able to do something like that because that is my grandfather. The challenge for me was being comfortable sitting in it and doing it. Because comedians – especially comedy today – they’re so used to it being rapid fire. I think it’s people like Dave Chappelle, who has taught us as comedians that it’s okay to slow down and just let things marinate and come to us in the moment. And I respect that kind of storytelling.
Hasan Minhaj, I saw him do a special Homecoming King I think it is called. I remember I was on the road and I watched the special on my laptop. And what I took from that was I felt a lump in my throat at one moment and I got a tear in my eye watching a stand-up special. And I went “Oh, I want to do this to people.”
So when I hear all the feedback that I’m getting now – because it’s up on special media and it just came out two days ago and my phone is absolutely exploding – everybody says the same thing. “I laughed so much that I had tears. And then I cried because it was emotional the way you took us through certain stories and you painted this whole picture.” So for me, it let me know that “Oh this is what I saw, I said I wanted to do that, and I did it.” That’s the part that I love about this special.
I love it! And as a storyteller, you really do such a great job at painting that picture. Now let’s talk about the documentary aspect where it’s like “These are the people. I want you to meet everybody I talk about.” I thought that was such a cool thing to do. Tell me the genesis of that idea.
I started doing social media about two and a half years ago. Strong. With purpose, I should say. I had always been on social media. But I decided about two and a half years ago to use social media as a platform to raise awareness of my stand-up. So with that, all of my family – I do stuff with my wife and my kids and my dad -, I just started putting everything in my life on social media in a comedic way.
So when I did the stand-up special, I realized how popular my family dynamics had become and people will really gravitate towards that. So when we started talking about this special, I think I said “It’d be dope to not only see the stand-up, but see the people that I’m talking about so they know that it’s real.” And that was how we came up with the idea to introduce my family, my dad, my step-dad, and my wife and kids. And it turned out to be a dope thing. We count down 6 months before with me getting ready for the special.
And that was so cool. It showed people the process of getting ready for the special.
Yes. We had different comedy clubs around the country, performing. It showed all of the things. All of the work that it takes. And one of the sound bites that I’ve gotten from people is “This special is special. It’s not just you telling jokes for an hour. It has a purpose, it’s funny, it’s heartwarming.” It’s a lot of different things. I’ve got to be honest with you. I’m very proud of it. I think it’s a good piece of work. It’ll hold up for a long time, without a doubt.
Oh absolutely. There’s two specific points I want to point to in the documentary. First of all, tell me about going back to your high school.
Going back to my high school was a trip, because I was not popular in high school. I was popular as a f*ck-up. That’s what I did. I was a f*ck-up, I didn’t do what I was supposed to do, I didn’t care about school. I was just being trouble.
I graduated from high school at the bottom of my class. I was not an academic person. I didn’t care about any of that. So to leave that school as a f*ck-up, and then come back to be showcased the way that they did and going on the wall of fame that they’re putting up there – the wall of success is what they call it – it’s a real win for me. It feels good to go “This is the guy that was always inside. I just didn’t know how to get to him when I was 15 or 16 years old.”
And what I like is the idea that in the special you say at the end “There’s people that think it’s an overnight success.” Especially because you came out of social media. You didn’t come out of social media, you worked so many years before. But that helped raise your awareness.
Exactly. Most people found me – and a lot of my fanbase will go “I found you during the pandemic.” Because like I said, they were at home, they weren’t doing nothing, and I just leaned into my social media because I knew that people were just going to sit on their phones and watch TV.
And so I knew that if I could get them to watch for a second, I would have them. Because I know that I’m funny. And I knew that I’m doing stuff that’s relatable. I expected that to happen. And that’s exactly what happened.
Absolutely. And so I’m sure it’s interesting then when people are like “What must it be like to be here?” And you’re like “I’ve been working towards it my whole life.”
Yes. People who know me know how long I’ve been doing stand-up. I’ve been doing it for 28 years. I’ve done a lot of television appearances. I always did stuff when it was over. For instance, doing a late night talk show. There’s no Carson anymore. There’s no Letterman anymore. We have the new regime of late night.
We don’t even have Conan anymore!
We don’t have Conan anymore. Exactly! But what’s crazy is I remember when doing a set on those late night talk shows would literally blow your career through the roof. It doesn’t mean anything anymore. You could do it all the time now. Nobody’s going to see that, unless you put it on social media. You record it there, and then you put it on social media and it’s so funny that people share it.
So I always did a lot of stuff the day after it was over. It’s like it’s the hot thing to do, and then the next day, it’s not the hot thing to do, and then I would do it. That was the track of my whole career. Def Jam, Comic View, late night talk show appearances. I’ve done all of those things the day after it was no longer cool to do it.
So when social media came around, it was like “Oh. I need to take advantage of this sh*t.” And I jumped on social media. All my friends are like “You’re the oldest dude I know to go viral every week.” Because I’m very good at figuring out what this platform responds to, and I know how to get in there. And it is a job! I give people who do social media full time credit because it’s a muscle. It’s a beast you can never stop feeding. Because the moment you do it goes away. So I did that enough to raise aware, sell tickets, get people to come see me when I’m touring, and I knew my stand-up would take it from there. And that’s what’s happened.
Absolutely. I’m so glad that’s happened. I have one last question. We’ve talked about what your mom had to say between shows. Going off of that, is that a common theme with your family? How does your family respond to the material itself? Do they go “Oh, that’s not me. You’ve got that entirely wrong.”
No. Well my daughter would. My daughter Anna Grace would. She saw this special and I talk about volleyball on it. She’s like “That’s not how it happened!” And I’m like “That’s how it happened for what I’m doing. I gave the bullet points.”
Some of the stuff is embellished, but they know the stuff that I’m telling is real. They know the stuff that I’m telling is true. It’s been received by them very well. I should say that. Very well. My daughters, my wife, my mother. All of them. They all participated in it and have seen the benefits of it. It has definitely changed everybody’s life. So yeah, I try to keep it authentic with a little bit of embellishment for comedic purposes. But nah. What you see is pretty much me. This is me. I’m pretty much the same and I’ve been the same from the beginning.
I love that. I really do. I’ve definitely talked to comics who are like “Yeah, my family is embarrassed by everything I say.”
No they’re not embarrassed. Because everything that I tell is always through my point of view about stuff. “I have the right to tell my point of view and you just happen to be apart of it because you’re the person that’s in my life.” Everybody always asks me “How does your wife feel about this material that you’re doing??”. And I’m like “My wife was there. She knows the sh*t I’m saying is true.” She always says “I wanna tell my side.” And I say “Then get you a microphone and get you an audience and go up there and tell your side of the story if that’s what you want to do!”.
I got lucky. I don’t have a wife who’s like “I don’t like that joke. I don’t like that.” We don’t have none of that. We’ve never had that kind of relationship. She knows what I do is an embellishment of reality for comedic purposes. She does know that. My wife has been in the business herself. My wife was the third African American woman to dance on line as a New York Radio City Rockette. She’s a huge former Broadway star. She danced with Jimmy Buffet and toured with his band for many years. My wife has been in this business for a long time. So she knows what it’s like to do what I’m doing. We good over here.
Now I do have fans that get upset. “You shouldn’t talk about your wife like that!”. Even when I’m performing onstage, I will reference my wife as “bitch” sometimes. But I’ll be like “She’ll be coming in here and I’ll say ‘Bitch, can you…’” I never call my wife a bitch, ever in life. I don’t do that. But it’s like girlfriends. Like “Oh bitch, you look good!”. It’s that. And I love when people get upset about the things that I say about my family. And I’m like “You do understand that my family is okay! We’re good over here! Why’re you so upset over there at the house watching us be who we are?” That’s the part that always makes me laugh.
So yeah, we don’t have any of that in my house. Nobody’s going like “Why are you talking about that???”. Because the mortgage is due. That’s why I’m talking about your ass. That’s the reason why.