Naughty or nice?

Mike E. Winfield’s checklist includes the Late Show With David Letterman, The Office and now his own TV show. He’s made it big by being Mr. Nice Guy … but wonders if he should ride dirty all the way to the top.

Check out Mike E. Winfield video clips at For more information on his new show Off Beat, visit
Catch Mike E. Winfield at 8 p.m. on Thursday, October 4, at the Punch Line Comedy Club, 2100 Arden Way. Tickets are $15; see for more information.

It’s 8:30 on a recent Friday night when the kid grabs the mic at the Punch Line Comedy Club on Arden Way. Dressed in loose pants, a slouchy cardigan and T-shirt, he’s fresh-faced, boyishly skinny and compact—save a huge, toothy grin and a halo of tightly coiled black hair.

But Mike E. Winfield, married 10 years and father to four sons, is no kid—and his routine reflects that. Rather, the 30-something comic’s set is built upon a foundation of relationship narratives.

There’s the bit, for example, about going to the grocery store and buying a different brand-name product than his wife wrote on the shopping list.

“I guess these will do,” Winfield says. Then his voice pitches a shade higher, his lips purse in domestic indignation and body contorts into wifely outrage to get the point across: The missus is pissed.

“’Can’t you at least get this one thing right?’”

On paper, they’re everyman jokes, relatable and mildly funny. But as delivered by Winfield—lanky frame pulling and snapping across the space with elastic energy—they come alive, peppered with a mix of pathos, studied observations and sophisticated bite; the kind of jokes that pit men against women in broad comical farce, yet are also nuanced with precision-cut details and commentary.

Arguably, Winfield just might be the funniest comic in Sacramento. Certainly, he’s one of the city’s smartest. And now, after a decade on the scene, he’s also one of its most successful: This week, on Friday, September 14, Winfield’s new cable show Off Beat, a music comedy-clip program in the vein of Tosh.0, debuts on the Fuse network.

Still, Winfield can’t help but to wonder if he’s doing this whole comic thing right. His jokes are family friendly—a detail that pits him in stark relief against other comics. Americans, after all, like their raunch—jokes that push at the decency envelope: Louis C.K. riffing on masturbation, Sarah Silverman deadpanning about rape, Chris Rock dropping more F-bombs than one would think is humanly possible.

Where, exactly, does Mike E. Winfield fit in?

At the Punch Line show, for example, he’s sandwiched between a guy who tells cringe-inducing stories about strippers and date-rape drugs, and seasoned comedienne Danielle Stewart, whose act includes so many bits about sex, that she feels compelled to check in with the audience before launching into a tirade on blow jobs.

Maybe he should rough it up a bit, he wonders. You know, throw in some swearing—an oral-sex joke or two.

Then again, playing it clean’s worked out pretty well so far. The TV show, after all, is just a recent uptick of big moments, including a semifinalist slot on Last Comic Standing, a stand-up appearance on Late Show With David Letterman and a notable bit part as a warehouse worker on The Office.

And, by all accounts, it all couldn’t have happened to a nicer, harder-working guy.

On this night, some of Winfield’s jokes fly, a few fall flat. Later, he’ll get down to the real business of being funny, combing through material and parsing crowd reactions.

It’s this attention to detail, his dogged work ethic and near-compulsory need to write and rewrite that sets him apart.

Abe Taleb, Punch Line’s general manager, has seen the comedian fine-tune his craft over the last seven years, watching him mature from an open-mic novice into a seasoned headliner.

“He’s grown leaps and bounds,” says Taleb. “He’s matured into doing more grown-up comedy. In the beginning, it was easy stuff—comics start by doing whatever they think is relevant.”

Now, Taleb says, Winfield’s work is built on complex narratives.

“Now, it’s just not about his observations,” Taleb says. “He writes real stories.”

Of Mentos and mercy laughs

Mike E. Winfield—“Mike E.” to his friends—was born and raised in inner-city Baltimore, where he lived with younger brother Drew and their mother who worked in the medical field.

Winfield remembers it as a tough time—a constant struggle to get by on very little. For a few years, even, they lived with an aunt and a gaggle of cousins; the three of them crammed into one upstairs bedroom with a broken window.

“There were always people outside—it was loud,” he says, digging into a plate of garlic noodles a few hours before the start of the Punch Line set. “[One] New Year’s Eve, people had guns [outside], so we slept on the floor just to play it safe.”

Throughout, Winfield kept busy. He liked school well enough but loved basketball; in the sixth and seventh grades he and friends spent every afternoon playing hoops, even during Baltimore’s frigid winters, donning gloves, mufflers and earmuffs to stave off the icy cold.

Back then, he says, he hadn’t figured out what he wanted to do, but he was pretty sure about what he didn’t want.

“I wasn’t even thinking about comedy, but I didn’t think Baltimore was my place to succeed,” he says. “It felt constricted.”

After high school, Winfield moved to Sacramento to live with his dad and study English at Sacramento State University. He also got a job bagging groceries at a local grocery store, bought his aunt’s car—a 1984 bronze BMW rocking a tape deck—and spent his weekends partying. A lot.

It was all fun and games until Winfield enrolled in an undergraduate speech class.

“I was very serious about this class,” he says. “I wanted to get a good grade, but every time I got up there, the whole [class] cracked up laughing.”

“So, this one time …”

Ha-ha ha!

“I went to the zoo …”

Ha-ha ha-ha ha!

Distressed, Winfield went to his professor.

“It’s not my fault,” he told him. “They just keep laughing.”

“I know, I understand,” the professor said. “But have you ever considered doing stand-up?”

Winfield hadn’t. But, intrigued, decided to give it a shot.

He can still see that first gig at Laughs Unlimited clear as day: The lights shining bright and hot in his face, the audience stone-faced, just waiting for this kid to make them laugh—even once.

“All the stuff I’d planned on saying—nothing, no laughs,” he says. “It was horrific.”

Somehow, Winfield endured the entire excruciating five-minute set, getting back in return, exactly one pitiful mercy laugh.

Mike E. Winfield, onstage at the Punch Line Comedy Club, says he’s influenced by rappers and NBA stars, but his set centers on the things about which he’s most passionate: his wife, kids and life at home.

Photo By Justin Short

“I had this one joke that I’d [planned] on doing if it wasn’t going well—I’d pull out a roll of Mentos like they do in the commercial, and it’d save the day, and the crowd would explode,” he says.

That’s not how it actually went down.

Winfield pulled the Mentos out of his pocket only to have a mint fall from the pack.

The candy dropped, landing with a tink that echoed throughout the church-quiet club and started rolling.

Someone, somewhere, laughed. A quiet nervous little laugh—but a laugh, nonetheless.

And then, again, silence.

“We all just stood there watching it roll across the floor in slow motion,” he says. “That Mentos upstaged me.”

Still, after the set, Winfield says he got a bit of encouragement from another comic who told him to keep at it.

“You have to stick with it,” the guy told him. “You’ve got the look.”

So, he honed his set, distilling it down to punchy stories centered on life with his wife and sons, as well as bits that poked fun at his look—a routine that riffed on his big, toothy grin and trademark Afro:

“Today, this lady reached and tried to grab my Afro. I had to hair block on her. I understand, who doesn’t want to touch on that. It’s so mysterious!”


“It’s hard to be a thug when you got big-ass teeth. People are like, ’Mike, you so positive about life. Is that the reason you always smiling?’ No, I close my mouth, it’s uncomfortable. It hurts.”

Mostly, however, Winfield’s set revolves around relationship foibles.

“When she tells you she’s pregnant, she doesn’t tell you the day she found out. She’s known about this for weeks, she’s had discussions with her friends—’Who do you like more? Ray or Steve?’ ’Ah, Steve.’ ’Cause when a woman feels the dad is incapable, she’s going to find a father. A dad will supply sperm, a father will supply the mortgage.”

To say marriage and family are important to Winfield is a bit of an understatement—“I don’t have enough kids … I love kids”—but it helps, at least, to put the fundamentals of his act into perspective.

It also explains, perhaps, why he tends to keep it clean. How he once even toured as a “Christian” comic along with an atheist, Muslim and others in The Coexist? Comedy Tour troupe.

Although Winfield eventually quit Coexist because he didn’t want to be known as the comic who only talks about God (“I’m still spiritual,” he says), he’s nonetheless known for largely keeping his jokes safe for audiences of all ages. There are no explicit sex jokes, very little politics, nothing to embarrass you in front of Mom or Grandma.

And it’s not an act.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen him upset or pissed off. If he ever is, he hides it really well,” says Key Lewis, a Sacramento comedian and longtime friend of Winfield’s.

And that’s at least part of the reason he’s been so successful, he adds.

“He’s clever, and he’s precise, [but] a lot of [what makes him] funny comes from his appearance and his likeability. That’s what got him on Letterman,” Lewis says. “I don’t know any other local comics who’ve done that.”

The dark side

Maybe, Winfield thinks, it’s time to change things up a bit. Go for the racier jokes and sharpen the edge.

Sure, people like the family-guy persona, he says. But they’d learn to love the more adult version of Mike E. Winfield, too.

“If you sell anything with passion, I think people would jump on board,” he says. “It’s trial and error. It’s fun to experiment—maybe I’ll reach for that dark side at some point.”

And, rest assured, there is one.

In his early days of stand-up, Winfield regularly dropped sex jokes and swearing throughout his set. “That’s the polar opposite of who I am now,” he says.

And while Winfield put the brakes on the raunch because “there’s nothing wrong with being the guy [that] families bring their children to see,” that evolution was also rooted in ambition.

“When I started, I was told that the cleaner you are, the more jobs you’ll get,” he says. “Now, I’m this clean-cut guy who smiles a lot.

“[But] there’s that inside part of me that wants to give them contrast; I’m just choosing not to let it come out.”

Taleb, the Punch Line manager, doesn’t think Winfield needs to go that route.

“Working clean … definitely sets Mike apart—especially since he’s an African-American [comedian],” Taleb says. “He’s not just another urban comic; all demographics can enjoy him.”

Winfield’s wife, Kisha, also wishes he’d keep the jokes PG rated.

“I can do without the cussing,” she says. “It’s the easy way out.”

Her husband’s talent, she adds, lies in his cleverness—the carefully crafted story, the just-so punch line.

“His writing is so different than other comedians; his way of thinking is completely different.”

Still, even clean doesn’t come without some messy complications.

In the beginning, Kisha admits, she didn’t particularly like seeing her marriage played out in her husband’s act.

“It was hurtful. I’d go to a show and see [our relationship] onstage,” she says. “I asked, ’How come every time you write a joke [about our marriage] it has to be negative?’”

The punch line almost writes itself.

Photo By Justin Short

Indeed, the next time Kisha caught his act, she found out Winfield had listened to her concerns—and dealt with it accordingly.

“You’re absolutely right,” her husband said, repeating the complaint onstage. “You have to change.”

Ba dum ching.

Today, Kisha just laughs it off.

“I know [our relationship] will end up onstage, and I’m fine with that,” she says.

Offstage, the Winfields’ marriage is no joke. Not only does she run the household, she’s also a major part of his career, stepping in to offer advice and give strong direction.

“We’re a team, we’re best friends, we’re co-workers in the business of me,” he says.

As such, Winfield says he’s fairly happy with his current station in life. He’s fine—really—being that guy who does the funny jokes about married life and kids.

It’s not, he stresses, that he doesn’t like his own comedy persona.

“I [do jokes] about the things I’m passionate about—relationships, experiences in the home,” he says.

He pauses and thinks about the topic for a moment.

“Generally, I’m just nice,” he says a little woefully. “But I don’t think nice sells.”

The nice-guy hustle

Winfield’s done his time as a struggling comedian, taking the show on the road, touring college campuses and clubs across the nation. He’s also appeared on numerous cable-TV specials. And, in the true hallmark for an aspiring comedian, finally got that Letterman gig in 2010:

“Man, at the grocery store, I saw a guy steal a pregnancy test. That’s gangster. I don’t know the potential mother, but I know she’s not getting child support.”

Last year, Winfield also appeared on two episodes of The Office. It was just a small part as a would-be warehouse worker, one in which he logged only a few lines, but it got him noticed by casting agents, which, in turn, netted auditions for movies, such as the Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis flick The Campaign, and, finally, last February, the chance to try out for Off Beat.

Winfield headed to that audition fully prepared.

All he had to do, really, was show up, stand in front of the green screen and read jokes producers had already written. Instead, Winfield wrote his own lines, too, and peppered them throughout his tryout. He left the producers laughing.

“I think they were laughing because they were hearing new material,” Winfield says. “They told me after, ’We knew it was you the moment you left.’”

It only reinforced Winfield’s approach to comedy, and to life in general:

“Always go all out. Never flatline. Never play it safe.”

Now that he’s finished recording Off Beat’s first season (12 episodes in all), he’s back to touring and writing. A lot of writing, actually: new jokes, rewriting old jokes, tackling new projects and ideas.

“Mike writes more than any comedian I know,” Lewis says. “He’s always been really focused. Every time I see him, he’s trying out something new.”

It’s all part of the hustle. Right now, future projects include two sitcoms. One is a family show centered on life with Winfield’s 18-year-old stepson and another one he can’t discuss except to say he’s in the process of negotiating a deal to sell it.

He wants to do it all: TV, comedy specials, movies.

“I am armed with ideas,” he explains. “That’s what successful people have done. They have well-equipped themselves with routes and avenues, so when you get in a room with someone, you can say, ’Oh, you don’t like that? Well, take a look at this.’”

Although he grew up watching old Eddie Murphy comedy specials on VHS tapes, Winfield says he’s most influenced by rappers—all that energy is motivating—as well as some of basketball’s biggest names.

“I love watching LeBron [James] and Kobe [Bryant],” he says. “I like Kobe’s personality.”

Winfield pauses for a split second.

“I don’t like him in interviews,” he says by way of clarification. “But on the court—that showmanship, the arrogance—I’m attracted to that. I’m drawn to cocky people.”

But Mike E. Winfield is anything but cocky or arrogant. Mike E. Winfield is a really nice guy.

“It’s weird that I admire that,” he admits. “I think there’s this part of me—I’ve never been an arrogant person, but maybe that’s why I like those guys—all those stories I hear about Michael Jordan talking crap. I love that; it fires me up. The rappers, too—all that bravado.”

Of course, Winfield doesn’t really possess that bravado, that capacity to talk shit.

And so far, that’s working out just fine for him.

“It’s probably why doors are opening: People like me,” he says. “It’s like, ’Don’t just turn into a dick because you want to be a dick.’”

Back at the Punch Line, however, Winfield seems to have a change of heart. His time, almost up, caps a joke and then hesitates.

“I’m tired of this nice, wholesome image,” Winfield tells the audience with a sly smile. “I’m going to say a bad word.”

A dramatic pause, a laugh from somewhere deep in the audience, and then Winfield brings the mic to his mouth and says the word so softly it’s almost a whisper.


It’s just two syllables, but Winfield can’t even keep a straight face in the second it takes to utter them—he’s laughing even before the audience breaks out into a twitter of giggles and chuckles.

Later, he’ll laugh again, with a note of boyish triumph, explaining that Danielle Stewart, the raunchy comedian armed with blow-job jokes, egged him on.

“She bet me that I couldn’t do it,” he says after the show as a handful of fans swarm, clamoring for photos and autographs. “I did—but I was cracking up.”

Maybe being a nice guy’s not so bad after all.