The Prince of Bronzeville is royalty Chicago-style. He won’t smile remotely or speed by you in a carriage and make you strain for a glimpse. Not at all. The Prince of Bronzeville, a/k/a Brian Babylon, tells the unvarnished truth, makes it one-hundred percent funny and greets fans warmly when they recognize him on the street.
The royal title may be self-proclaimed, but everything about Brian is real and grounded in Chicago. He grew up in the suburbs and moved to Bronzeville as a young adult. He started out as a corporate guy, but made the switch to radio and later, full-time comedy. His career as a performer is a roster of cool gigs: host of The Moth, morning radio host and producer at WBEZ’s Vocalo, writer for Hannibal Buress on Comedy Central, regular panelist on NPR’s Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me!, and guest host on ABC’s Windy City Live. He credits Mary Lindsey and her legendary club Jokes and Notes for launching him as a comedian.
Although he now lives in Los Angeles, he says “I always want to keep my Chicago connection strong.” He returns to Chicago at least once every month or two, and that’s when you can often see him on Windy City Live. Speaking of that, I have a major viewer alert! Watch for Brian on Windy City Live next week. It will be must-see, but that’s all I can reveal!
Today marks another career milestone. It’s release day for Brian’s first album, Babylon Ball Z, which he’ll celebrate with a Chicago release party and other special appearances. The album is true stories from his life. “Storytelling,” he says, “is what makes comedy more real. For me, the storytelling element really resonates.”
As a storyteller, Brian instantly connects with the audience, even in a minefield. His combination of honesty and daring make listeners want to hang onto every word and then hear it again. Babylon Ball Z takes on shopping, being single and hitting your own personal rock bottom, and ingeniously segues into potentially explosive topics like religion, racist booby traps, Hitler, and a child’s interpretation of the word “retarded.” Also, there’s sound advice about preserving your personal space in the airport. It takes a rare comedic agility to weave all this together and make it all so funny and profoundly relatable.
Brian kindly spoke with me by phone about overcoming early career struggles, Chicago comedy, his new album and what’s next.
Teme: When did you know you wanted to be a comedian?
Brian: When I was little, my dad asked me, "Who are your heroes?" I told him Captain Kirk and Steve Martin. He said, "Why Steve Martin, Brian?" I said, "Because I think I want to be a comedian."
My dad had a lot of comedy vinyl. I remember listening to his Richard Pryor albums, his Bill Cosby albums, his Flip Wilson albums.
We went to L.A. when I was thirteen. We went to Venice Beach and saw a comedian doing a show on the beach to strangers and getting tips. My dad said, "You think you can do that?" My dad was in banking, so he added up a rough amount. "Well, this guy's making maybe $150, $200 an hour. Man, that's pretty good just to talk. Do you think you can make money from people by talking?" I was like, "Yeah, maybe."
He brings it up to me now and says, "Well, you said you wanted to be a comic and you've done it!" So I always had that bug in me, but never once all the way because I thought, "Ah, well, what the world doesn't need is another black clown. I'm going to be serious." My dad came from corporate America so I thought I was going to be a corporate guy. But Jokes and Notes plopped right across the street from my house. I met Mary Lindsey who opened that club. She helped me be who I am.
Deon Cole was the host of the open mic. Lil Rel [Howery], who now has a show on Fox on Sundays, was one of the hosts of the open mic and a good friend. So I happened to come into Chicago comedy at a perfect time. Let’s be real. Chicago is hyper segregated. It's black comedy on the South Side, white comedy on the North Side. I kind of found my way in the middle.
That's where I first met Hannibal, who is one of my best friends. Cameron Esposito was there. Everyone was funny. It was competitive. But everyone had their own voice and I really enjoyed it.
Teme: What is your favorite memory of Jokes and Notes?
Brian: The Wednesday night open mic at Jokes and Notes was the best open mic in America, in my opinion. I'm legit saying, I went to open mics in L.A. I've been to open mics in New York. I've been to open mics in other cities, but Jokes and Notes’ open mic was amazing. You had people hosting it who were going to be superstars, so it had that cachet. People knew Deon Cole was going to be a star. People knew Lil Rel was going to be a star. Damon Williams. Leon Rogers would host sometimes.
Mary gave us five minutes. If you went over your time, she would turn the music up on you. So there was sort of a Mr. Miyagi-type of discipline to it where you had to be funny. A lot of open mics are just filled with other comics and people who come into the bar. This was a showroom where she charged people $5 to get in, and it was a two-drink minimum. So it would be packed with real paying customers. There was always that row of black ladies who got their hair done who were in the front row and you had to make them laugh.
So many times comics from the North Side would say, "God, I would love to do that room." I first met T.J. Miller at Jokes and Notes, and he killed it. He just went for it and was funny every time. I would bring my North Side friends to Jokes and Notes and the ones who were ready, delivered. The ones who were not ready didn't deliver.
That open mic really prepared me to get my stage presence to a certain level. They would smell fear on you in a heartbeat. And if you were scared, you were going to bomb.
Teme: How did you become the Prince of Bronzeville?
Brian: When I was in college my dad bought this building on 45th and King. That was before the whole real estate boom. It was still kind of rough. It still had the historic Bronzeville name and I called it first. That's how it happens in Game of Thrones. You get to some area and you make yourself a royal until someone tries to contest you. No one contested me and I just held onto it.
I love my neighborhood. I still live there when I go home. We still have the building. My dad lives there. That's the Harlem of Chicago.
Teme: What are your favorite things about the neighborhood?
Brian: Location, location, location. I like to brag. People are like, "Oh, you live on the South Side?" I say, "Well, technically, I'm closer to downtown than someone who lives in Rogers Park or Lake View." I'm four stops away on the Green Line from Millennium Park. And I like that I can park wherever I want to.
It’s just a good place. I like the people there. I've been there for so long I see the same people. That's a neighborhood to me. Still has its challenges sometimes, but most of the city does.
And you can get fried fish. Jesus Christ. In L.A. they don't have fried fish.
Teme: Where’s the best place?
Brian: You can get anything fried in Chicago. In Los Angeles I said, "Hey, where do you guys get fried fish?", and they looked at me like I was speaking Klingon. They were like, "What do you mean fried fish?" I'm like, "Okay, you know what fried chicken is, right?" They were like, "Yeah." "Okay. Same concept, but a fish." "Oh, wow." They just couldn't understand what I was talking about.
JJ Fish on 43rd Street is always great. They actually have a JJ Fish in San Francisco that I accidentally bumped into. It's one of the guys who owned the JJ Fish in Chicago. His cousin owns the one in San Francisco. I said, "I want a side and all the desserts.” It looked just like the one from the South Side. Felt like Chicago.
Windy City Live
Teme: I always look forward to seeing you on Windy City Live. What is it like to guest host?
Brian: Val and Ryan and Matt, who is exec producer, are legit my co-workers and my friends. We get along so well. We text a lot even when I'm not in Chicago. I'm always surprised at how our chemistry is so strong. We're on the same page and just really cool with each other.
That's the only time people recognize me in Bronzeville. I'll do Windy City Live and I'll get on the Green Line to go home and then I’ll get off at 47th Street and as I’m walking home, people are like, "Wait a minute. Didn't I just see you on TV?" And I forget. I’m like, "What are you talking about?” Then, "Oh, shit. Yeah. Yeah, that was me like 20 minutes ago."
It freaks people out, but it's always fun. [Windy City Live] is like the Oprah show just for Chicago. It really has filled a void with its quality and how it brings people together.
Teme: Of course I want to ask you about your album, Babylon Ball Z! What made this the right time to record it?
Brian: It was time because my career's at the point where I need to take it to the next level. A lot of people think I have an agent or manager. I don't. I’ve been managing myself and I’ve been my own agent. I'm just trying to use word of mouth and the small fan base that I have with Wait Wait and in Chicago.
I keep Chicago in my heart and I really need [Chicago fans] to support me. I have never turned my back on the Chi. I always work Chicago so hard. Together we can get a little bit more spotlight on what I do. I'm an older comic. The industry doesn't look too fondly on the old or newer comic. Even though I've been doing this almost 14 years, technically, I've only been full-time four years because I was working at WBEZ. If you have another job when you do this, you're not all the way in the game.
Teme: Do you have a favorite track on the album?
Brian: The last track is my favorite. It sums up the album title and it's a true story. It also touches on PC culture. All the jokes I do, people come up to me after the show - white, black, old, young - and say, "Dude, that shit is so funny.” [The last track] sounds like it's going to be offensive. It says the word “retarded” so many times, but people who actually have a person with special needs say, "Dude, that's the best shit I've ever heard about this subject because it came off so genuine." I say, "Well, it's a true story and it's from the perspective of a child." It reflects the child in all of us. I don't care how old you are, you still have some element that just never grew up.
Teme: That is so true.
The secret to connecting with your audience
Teme: You have a way of welcoming the audience into your story. It feels like there are no barriers between you and the audience. You’ve said you can make a crack dealer laugh or a rocket scientist. What is the key?
Brian: That's because of Jokes and Notes and doing comedy in Chicago. I’m not saying that crack dealers live on the South Side, and rocket scientists on the North Side. Just that you have to find a way to make everyone laugh. Like I can go and do a Wait Wait show and then turn right around and go to 75th and Indiana to a bar and make people laugh.
It took me a long time to get there. For the longest, I would sometimes struggle in front of black crowds. The day it all turned for me was with Deon Cole who was my mentor and one of my good friends.
We were doing a show at Outriggers, a seafood restaurant out around 159th. I had a rough show. I was frustrated. He asked, "What's wrong, B?" I was like, "Just fuck them, man. Don't know what to do.” He said, "You just got to be who you are. You funny as hell. Be who you are. I don't change the way I do jokes. I don't change how I talk in front of white people. I don't start talking white."
We were talking real. I was like, "Wow. I got it."
From then on I never looked back. I had been trying to conform to something I thought they wanted me to be. I put all that aside. I just was myself. You know, hey, I'm that bougie black cousin that you might have who lives in the suburbs, but I'm still black. Or if I'm on the North Side, I'm who I am. Not going to start talking different. I'm going to have confidence. I swear to you, Chicago is the only city where I could have learned that.
Thinking quick and Wait Wait!
Teme: How do you learn to be witty and quick on your feet like for Wait Wait ... Don't Tell Me! Do you have to be born with that ability or is there a way to learn it?
Brian: Some people are born with wit or raised in an environment where they had to be quick. But a lot of times people are just shy. It's fear that holds them back. Then some people just aren't smart enough to come up with clever things to say.
Some people might have two things to say that are so fucking funny they don't have to be rapid-fire. On Wait Wait... Don't Tell Me!, Paula [Poundstone] and myself, we just yip yap the whole time. We say whatever is crazy off the top of our heads because we know they can edit it. But somebody like Roy Blount, he'll say six funny-ass things, as funny as the funniest things that Paula and I have ever said, because he's sort of a slow roller sniper type. He's processing everything, but he's going to say it at his pace when it's time.
If you’re starting out …
Teme: What is your advice for new comedians?
Brian: I remember going to open mics when I had a corporate day job. The list would have like 50 people's name on it. I would be something like number 42. You have to wax on, wax off. You have to go through that process. Eventually you're going to get good or you're not going to get good. Maybe you’re more of a producer or more of a writer. You may not be good on stage, but you might have funny concepts and stories that you can turn into scripts. Maybe your stage presence isn’t good for stand-up, but you can do a web series which you can produce on your phone now. Stand-up is not the only game in comedy. Find your niche and just do it.
Sweet home Chicago
Teme: What do you look forward to most when you're home?
Brian: Seeing my dad. Seeing my friends. Working on my jokes. I can really relax and think out the box on new projects. Then I can go back to California or New York and try to execute. And I relax and have fun. It’s like a working vacation.
Teme: What are you working on next?
Brian: I host a game show called Gimme Truth! where filmmakers create a two minute mini-documentary. You don’t know if it’s real or fake. A panel of judges gets to question the filmmaker to figure out if it’s true or false. I'm doing Gimme Truth! at a film festival in Los Angeles this week. We did another one-off at Sundance this year and I'm developing it into a TV show, so that's the producer side of me coming out. I'm writing material to submit to Netflix with a friend of mine out of Chicago.
I just got off the tour with Hannibal. We did seven days and we were selling out shows in Texas, Oklahoma and Arkansas. Well, he was. I was just hanging out opening for him. But the audiences were so receptive to my comedy and to his comedy. It was a blast. You know, Fox will spin [the country’s divisions]. Then MSNBC will spin it their way. But boots on the ground, they were some of the nicest people that you'd ever meet. So supportive. They were like, "Hey, what's your name, dude? When's your album coming out?" I kept it real and I made a lot of new friends and fans.
Last, but definitely not least
Teme: Absolutely anything else you would like people to know?
Brian: Keep supporting local arts. Keep supporting me. Keep supporting Vocalo. And check out the album. I love to hear what people think.
Details of Brian's upcoming appearances in Chicago to be announced soon. I'll post here and in the weekly Spotlight.
Watch for Brian on ABC's Windy City Live the week of October 1. Windy City Live airs at 1:00 p.m. on channel 7 and is rebroadcast at midnight.
You can also see Brian at Wait Wait ... Don't Tell Me! at the Chicago Theatre on October 25.
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