Joking through the realness
Comedy Spot alumnus Kiry Shabazz wins an NBC comedy competition
Kiry Shabazz gets onstage at the Comedy Spot for a nearly packed show on the last Friday of 2017. Brian Crall, the Comedy Spot owner, had given Shabazz an enthusiastic introduction, telling the crowd about his recent win at the StandUp NBC competition.
“As in the NBC,” Crall says.
Shabazz is a handsome man in his late 20s, tall, friendly, confident and even-tempered in his delivery.
“I’m following my dreams,” he tells the crowd, letting the words hang in the air for a moment. “I don’t recommend it.”
The joke gets a roar from the crowd, though few—if any—are aware of how serious his statement actually is. In 2015, Shabazz had quit his job, dropped out of school, sacrificed almost everything to pursue his dream of becoming a comedian. That meant sleeping on couches—just devoting himself 100 percent to comedy.
“That was a real-ass sacrifice, it gives you a certain type of hunger,” Shabazz tells me. “It was the most rough time I ever had. It was mind-breaking. There’s no way to explain it. You feel insane.”
Eventually, his hard work started producing dividends. In 2016, he won the Sacramento Stand-Up Competition. By 2017, he was getting better-paying gigs and making his way into the college circuit, which can be lucrative for entertainers. But the icing on the cake was the StandUp NBC competition.
His win was not only a serious achievement—he competed against roughly 1,250 other comics—but it has launched major careers. Other StandUp NBC alumni include Daily Show correspondent Hasan Minhaj, CNN’s United Shades of America host W. Kamau Bell and Black-ish actor Deon Cole. Sacramento talent has fared well in the 14-year-old competition. Last year’s winner was local JR de Guzman, and even Minhaj is a Sacramentan. Now it’s Shabazz’s turn.
“Kiry is the real deal. He crushes it every time he hits the stage,” Crall tells me. “His success is the product of talent and an unrelenting desire to improve. He deserves all of his success and more.”
Originally from Cleveland, the comedian started doing improv comedy almost a decade ago in Sacramento at the Comedy Spot, then moved to stand-up on a dare a few years later, which gelled better with his personality. Last April, he relocated to Los Angeles, but he says he sneaks up to Sacramento all the time.
His set at the Comedy Spot is his first post-StandUp NBC gig at the venue. He does a five minute “clean” set—he’s taping it to get better gigs.
“You want to show bookers that you can be on TV,” Shabazz explains.
His material kills. It’s raw, clever and offbeat. He tells a story about mispronouncing the word “geese” to a stranger at a duck pond, which offends them. He’s treated like he used a racial slur.
After recording his five minutes of clean material, he switches gears and says, “Fuck it. This isn’t me.” He pokes fun at the mostly white audience for responding so well to his clean set. He singles out one older white woman and says she probably wants to adopt him—her facial expression said: “What a respectable, young black man.”
This rant gets him his biggest laugh of the night, even from the woman he singles out.
It’s no wonder he aches for the thrill of the stage. Shabazz developed his comedy voice playing every room in the Sacramento region that would let him in front of a mic. He had the goal of figuring out how to make a crowd laugh: White liberal Midtown crowds at Luna’s Cafe & Juice Bar. Black rooms like A Toucha Class. Conservative crowds in Roseville. Even hip-hop open-mics like The Most Open Mic in the City.
“You know the disheveled detective that can’t leave a cold case alone? Like they have to crack it. That’s how I feel about a room,” Shabazz says. “It’s like, ’I’m going to get you guys to laugh. I’m going to find the common thread between my humor and your humor without compromising myself.’”
Early in his career, he fumbled at A Toucha Class, accidentally saying “fuck church” while onstage, which earned boos from the crowd.
“Fuck church? That’s something you never say to an all-black room,” Shabazz says.
Rather than avoid that space, he went back and faced the disapproving crowd. His stubborn persistence earned sincere laughter from them. They grew to love him.
Before he got started in stand-up, Shabazz learned some valuable lessons from improv after he joined the Comedy Spot when he was 17. He’d walk home every day past the Comedy Spot and was intrigued by the warmup exercises.
“These are adults doing silly ass—standing up on chairs and doing windmills. It looked like an insane asylum,” Shabazz says. “I was like… I need to be a part of whatever the fuck this is.”
He says Crall taught him to develop material and build off of it, rather than springing for easy, low-hanging fruit, a skill that’s apparent in his stand-up today.
One critical moment for Shabazz was at an Atlanta comedy competition in 2015. He’d just recently quit work and school, and didn’t have much money to fly across the country, but he went to Atlanta anyway. He lost. This was a real turning point for him.
“I think a lot of comedians will go to a competition, and they will lose, and instead of looking inside themselves and seeing what they can improve, they blame it, it was rigged,” Shabazz says. “I did have that day. I said the most evil, hateful things I wanted to say, but I knew I would have to change and improve myself. What can you do differently?”
He realized he needed to embrace himself and be honest about his perspective.
“What some black comedians do: ’This was the hood, and this was bad,’” Shabazz says. “I’m not ashamed of where I came from. I’m a mix of this intellectual—my grandparents and my father had me read, I was raised by educators. But also being a kid who grew up in the streets.”
Though he’s grown as a comedian, he didn’t expect to win StandUp NBC: Unlike most of the finalists, he didn’t get an industry invite. He was a walk-in. That meant that he had to camp out in front of Cobb’s Comedy Club in San Francisco overnight, get only about 30 minutes of sleep and perform comedy at 8 a.m. the next day just to be eligible to compete with the comedians who got industry invites—and a full night’s sleep.
His plan? “I’ll make it to the semifinals this year, and next year I can audition again and make it to the finals,” he says.
But he came out on top. As the winner of the 14th annual StandUp NBC competition, he snagged a talent-holding deal with NBCUniversal and an opportunity to perform for talent bookers at the National Association for Campus Activities. NBC is developing his skills with free classes on writing, acting, whatever he needs. He dreams of working behind and in front of the camera.
“I have more stability,” he says.
His colleagues say they’re certain that Shabazz will achieve incredible success. Local comedian Mike E. Winfield says, “Kiry’s one of those dudes that knows he has the potential for greatness, but would never tell you himself.”
I definitely got the sense that Shabazz knows he’s talented, but I wonder if he fully realizes that all of his sacrifices have paid off, and that greatness is just around the corner.