BET comedian, Shawn Harris, has been in the comedy game for 18 years. His mentors include: Mike Epps, Dave Chappelle, and Katt Williams. Throughout his career, Shawn has performed on BET’s Comic View five times in a row. In 2000, he toured Europe as the host for De’Angelo’s Untitled Tour, performing in Sweden, Amsterdam, London, Paris, Denmark, and Germany. In 2005, Shawn was invited to Montreal’s Just For Laughs Comedy Festival, and then to Aspen’s Comedy Festival in 2007. In 2009, Shawn won ‘Best Comedic Performance in a Short Film’ at the Boston Comedy Film Festival for his performance in John The Angry Mover. Shawn is forever known as the comic to receive four standing ovations in one set at New York’s famous, Caroline’s Comedy Club on Broadway.
Having caught up with Shawn during BET’s Comic View auditions, in this interview Shawn shares advice on what comedy scouts look for at the BET auditions. He gives his insight into properly preparing for the road. And lastly, Shawn reminisces with funny stories, such as what it was like to have Dave Chappelle critique his jokes.
How did your comedy journey begin?
My journey of comedy started in 1995, in New York City. This one particular night, I was at Uptown Comedy Club in Harlem, New York. I was in the audience with a friend of mine, Flex Alexander—at that time I just liked to go to the shows ‘n laugh.
But the show had a ‘lil contest for anybody new that had a joke ‘n wanted to come up on stage. If the crowd liked you, they would stomp, and you were allowed back the next week. I went up ‘n got a GOOD response. So I was like, “Wow! I did it! I’m a star now!” [laughs] I went back the next week ‘n did the same stuff—and got booed outta the room.
[moment of laughter]
How did you recover from getting booed outta the room?
So the owner of the club, his name was Marteria Ivy—may he rest in peace—he started a work shop which consisted of Dave Chappelle, J.B. Smoove, Mike Epps, Jimmy Martinez, Flex, myself ‘n a buncha other comedians. And our job was to come back every Sunday with a NEW joke. And everybody would critique that joke.
You got comedy lessons from Chappelle?? What was he like when giving critiques?
He’s exactly like he is on stage. Just very calm—very calm person. He’s like, “[Chappelle’s nasally voice] Meh! Neh! I don’t like that joke. Mehhh!”
[moment of laughter]
What other famous comedians have you had the chance to meet?
Man…everyone from Richard Pryor, Cedric (The Entertainer), Martin (Lawrence), worked with the Wayans Brothers—Damon, Shawn Marlon, um…Kevin Hart, Bruce Bruce, Luenell, Katt Williams—man there’s thousands! [laughs] And Katt Williams had a room in Long Beach called The Hop. He would give comics 50 bucks, dinner, and one half priced drink. He did that for 3-4 years. And that was our spot. And then of course, he took off.
How did your BET career begin?
I stayed in New York for about six years—I did Showtime at the Apollo twice. But at that time, I didn’t make Def Jam ‘n was like, “Im goin to L.A. ‘n tryin somethin different.” I went to L.A. in 1999, and the very next year I got on BET Comic View.
Did you audition for it like they do now?
It wasn’t an audition, I just performed at a club and got spotted ‘n got the call to do the show. And every year after that, they just called me—I never really had to audition. Did Comic View five years in a row.
What broke the streak?
I missed one year ‘cause my father was sick. And then they cancelled the show the next year.
Now it’s back, and everyone has to audition. How do you feel about auditions?
The word “audition” scares people. If you just perform on your regular night and there’s people scoutin’ you, you will have a better chance.
What comedic elements does a BET comic look for at these auditions?
I look for timing. I look for hesitation—alotta pauses mean you’re thinking, which means you don’t really have it down. I look for a lot of eye contact with the crowd. Some comedians just look straight at the back wall. Focus on the people, acknowledge everybody in there. But, never let the crowd get you outta your set. If somebody’s talkin shit to you, let ‘em talk shit—just do you. And once you’re seasoned, you can get on that mothafucker. [laughs]
Why did you leave L.A. for Houston?
Cost of living. Friend of mine took me down here to see some property. And I was like, “You mean I can get ALL THAT for THIS??” So I was like, “Forget that, I’m gone!” I had already made a name for myself in L.A. My name carried everywhere I go. As a comedian, if you have a name for yourself, you can work anywhere. You can live anywhere ‘cause you get to travel to different places.
When does the comic know they’re ready to perform on the road?
When you ready to start eatin! When you get hungry enough, you’re gonna be like, “I gotta get outta here!” [laughs] ‘Cause road work pays more. When you’re not a local comic, they pay you more.
How much material should the comic have before going on the road?
I always say to have at least 20—that you can play with. You don’t wanna cut yourself short and only have 10 minutes. ‘Cause the person goin’ up before you might need more time to get ready. They’ll tell you, “Go up and do 10.” And then you get to 10, and they may be like, “Yeah go on!” And if you don’t have at least 10 more, you assed out! [laughs] Have 10 in your pocket that you could just throw out.
Comedy is like freestyle rap. If you ever watch those freestyle rap battles—some of ‘em can go for hours and hours and hours. ‘Cause they constantly rehearsin’ that shit, constantly practicin’. And once you got that practice, you can throw anything out. You can throw that stuff out from ’95 that people ain’t seen! Know’m sayin? [laughs]
Did you have to work odd jobs during your comedic struggle?
Pshh, I worked at FedEx for eleven years, doin comedy at night time. But here’s the funny thing—when I was workin full time at FedEx for those eleven years, the only thing I could afford was an apartment. I was doin FedEx full time, and comedy part time. When I switched it, and quit FedEx ‘n did comedy full time—I bought a house. It took a while, but I focused on that dream, and ended up buyin a house. [smiles] All those years workin for someone else, I had an apartment.
How long did it take you to become a headliner?
Ah man…after I got on BET—so I’d say about eight years.
[Blame The Comic, who is wearing bright yellow pants comes over to shake Shawns hand]
Shawn: What up Blame?? [they shake hands] I see you wearin them banana Now & Later pants! [laughs]
Blame: [smiles proudly] Yessir!
Shawn: If you sit in this chair [points to a bright yellow patio chair] you’ll blend right in! [laughs] You goin up soon??
Shawn: Oh ok…I’ll be there.
[takes a break to watch Blame and other comics at the BET audition]
After the shows, everybody stays to hang out. How important is it to do that?
It’s about face value. You’re only relevant if you’re seen. I may stay away for like, six months, and people wonderin what I’m doin—but I’m workin on the road. As long as you come back to the spot—the nucleus. You gotta do it every so often so that people know you still in the game. ‘Cause when they don’t see you, they automatically assume that your career’s over.
So when you moved to L.A., did people in New York think you were done?
See, when I got to L.A., I got on TV. So they saw that.
And what did people in L.A. think when you left for Houston?
Well people in L.A. might think that I’m done, so what do I do? I go to L.A. three times a year ‘n pop in ‘n do that ‘lil mingle thing. I get on stage ‘n do the runs—I don’t look for money there, just the stage time, show my face, ‘n show ‘em I’m still workin.
Comedy is cut throat. Can you make true friends in this game?
You can have buddies, but no real friends. One of my closest friends made it to the top—he don’t call me no more. And we were TIGHT. Maybe every so often I’ll get a Facebook ‘Like’ from him or somethin, but it is what it is. It’s every man for himself. There’s no loyalty in this game. You can go into a club with your friend, and if there’s an opportunity for him to get on (stage) and for you NOT to get on, he gonna get on. He don’t give a shit if you get on or not. And that’s the sad part about it.
But I’m a comic’s comic, and I think everybody has the opportunity to make it—not just a select few. But alotta comics are like that. They’ll talk dirty behind your back—but tell you to your face, “Oh yeah, you had a GREAT set!” Soon as you turn around, “Man I CAN’T STAND that mothafucker.”
Words of wisdom to the younger comics:
Is this in your heart? Is this something that you REALLY wanna do? ‘Cause if it’s in your heart, NOBODY can stop what’s meant for you. It’s God’s plan. God gave you a talent—you saw the talent, and you found the talent. You gotta work at that craft, but no matter what happens, if it’s meant for you, it’s gonna happen. Period. Nobody can take that from you. Know’m sayin?
And just don’t give up. You’ll have ups ‘n downs. Know your seasons. Comedy is seasonal. From about September to about April, comedy is big time. Come summer time, everybody wanna be outside, so it slows down. Which means, that’s when you should be at home writing. Like storing nuts for when hybernation comes, so you got stuff to eat. And if you wanna eat, you gotta make it work.
Very interesting, Shawn, ‘preciate it! Thanks for everything!
Cool man, wish you all the luck, you a good dude.
Interviewed & Written by: David Gavri