Talking Standup and ‘Hood Adjacent’ with James Davis

james-davisJune is shaping up to be a big month for LA comedian James Davis. This Sunday at 11/10c he’ll be doing is first TV half hour as the featured comic on Kevin Hart Presents: The Next Level on Comedy Central. Following that, his new Comedy Central series Hood Adjacent premieres next Wednesday at 9:00/8:00c. Hood Adjacent is Davis’ move to bridge the gap between urban and mainstream comedy by exploring topics through his point of view, a point of view that has always straddled the fence between the two worlds. The show arrived in four stages. First, as an idea he came up with while writing for The Late Late Show with James Corden. That idea never got picked up, so Davis decided to turn it into a live standup show in LA. The success of that show led to a Snapchat series on Comedy Central’s Discover channel, which performed so well that the network decided to adapt it to a regular series. I talked to Davis about the perks of a Kevin Hart endorsement, his early viral success as Baracka Flacka Flames, and the real meaning behind the term hood adjacent.

Do you have a personal relationship with Kevin? Did you know him from way back?

Yeah, I played his assistant on Real Husbands of Hollywood. I’ve acted alongside him and written for him on the BET Awards. We’ve hung out. We’re cool. It was kind of ideal to have my half hour presented by him instead of just a normal, standard half hour.

Clearly the half hour is a big deal for a lot of comics, but over the last few years I’ve had several people who have done it tell me that it’s not what it used to be. Every year 13 or 14 more people do them. One person told me that they felt like the only people who watched their half hour were other comics. But what’s cool about this is it’s brand new, the season is short, and it’s got Kevin Hart’s name attached to it. I think it has a chance to stand out a little more.

I totally agree. I actually didn’t want to do a regular half hour because I felt like it wouldn’t help me stand out as much as I would like to for all the reasons you just explained. The Next Level is enticing. It allows me to align myself with somebody else who is successful and has his own audience of people who come to whatever he puts his name on. It’s a fresh take on the half hour.

You blew up in 2010 when your Baracka Flacka Flames video went viral. I just checked it and you’re over 13 million views. Was that the most exposure you’d had in your career at that point?

Yeah, definitely. Baracka Flacka Flames is where I learned how viral videos work and how quickly something can be spread around the internet. But it was like, my work got out there and my sense of humor got out there, but I was in full makeup. A lot of people don’t know that I am Baracka Flacka. It’s kind of a character on its own with its own following. Now, with interviews like this people can put together that I am that person.

You continued the internet success with Swagasaurus on Comedy Central’s Snapchat channel, which led to you getting Hood Adjacent on Comedy Central. If somebody had said five years ago, “I’m going to get a TV show because of my Snapchat,” people would have thought you were fucking nuts.

I definitely didn’t understand how Snapchat could be a platform that could lead to a television series when I first started. I did the series more to strengthen my relationship with the network and expand my reach in comedy. When I heard about the numbers the show was getting it was inspiring and surprising. It motivated me in the development process for the new show because I knew I had this audience of people I had already won over on Snapchat. I wanted to bring the energy of the Snapchat show over to the TV show. I wanted to take the youthful, vibrant feel of the Snapchat show and find a way to translate it into a 22-minute show for Comedy Central.

I watched the pilot and it was really funny. The bits and field pieces have an organic humor. It’s a lot looser than sketch. Can you tell me about your writing process?

The head writer and EP Shawna Wexler and I sat down and discussed topics that we thought were interesting. There were certain topics that spoke to my heart — topics that needed to be explained from my hood adjacent point of view so that both the mainstream and urban world can have their experience manifested on TV. Once we had the topics that I felt highlighted my point of view, we came up with field pieces under each topic. We tried to find fact-based information on anything that has to do with the topic and then pitched investigative, exploratory type of segments where we attach sketch-ish comedic tropes…we don’t want to do sketches. We want to attach comedy to the reality of the situation. We’re creating social experiments and funny situations based on the reality of the hood experience, or of my experience of sometimes being the only black guy in a mostly white environment. As long as we have the statistics and the true element we can build the comedy and let it progress from that point.

To draw a comparison to other Comedy Central shows, it has the field piece style of The Daily Show with the energetic humor Chappelle’s Show. The interaction between you and the other people on the show seems very natural.

The friend element is definitely a part of the show. One of the points of the show is that we are all adjacent to one another’s experience. I can be friendly with somebody from the suburbs and bring them into the hood. I can bring somebody from the hood into an environment that would be a fish out of water experience for them. As long as I’m there, I’m the bridge. No one is really a fish out of water because they have me to kind of guide them. But also, I’m never a 100% expert in every environment that I’m in, so I’m part fish out of water and part expert. I’m bonding with both sides in any given situation.

Let’s discuss where that dichotomy came from. Can you elaborate on the title Hood Adjacent and what it means to you?

“Hood adjacent” is physically where I grew up. I grew up in South Central LA right by where the neighborhood starts to get rougher. I grew up a block away from where it gets rough. A block in the other direction it gets nicer. I grew up hood adjacent. Then instead of going to my local Crenshaw High School or Audubon Middle School I went to Crossroads private school in Santa Monica. Then I went on to Pomona College in Claremont, which at the time was one of the top five liberal arts schools in the nation. So my point of view is that of somebody who grew up in the hood, but is slightly different because of all of the no-hood things I’ve been exposed to. I know gang members, liquor stores, and barber shops – and also went to bar mitzvahs and played golf competitively. That back and forth between the two worlds shaped how I see the world.

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