KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Will Smith has now released his first public comments about the slap heard round the world, apologizing on video for his behavior against comedian Chris Rock at the Oscars in March. Rock’s response: It still hurts.
“Anyone who says words hurt has never been punched in the face,” Rock said during a stand-up show over the weekend.
It’s been a treacherous year for comics. In July, comedian Craig Robinson’s stand-up show was evacuated when a gunman entered the North Carolina venue and opened fire. No one was injured and the gunman was apprehended, but Robinson’s remaining two shows scheduled for the following evening were canceled. Earlier this year, Dave Chappelle was tackled on stage by an audience member.
While these comedians walked away without serious injury, the incidents have opened the door to conversations on the risks that come along with the profession and what topics are or should be off-limits in comedy.
“Sometimes it is just the dynamic of the room. We are put in situations where we might be out of our element and it could get a little weird,” says Kansas City comedian Janell Banks.
Banks fearlessly talks about everything in her life on stage — race, sexuality, her weight — with nothing off-limits.
Some people might be offended.
“We are in a sensitive time where people are more vocal,” Banks says. “I don’t want to blame it all on canceling culture, but once someone feels like they are offended, that equals the comedian should no longer talk about the subject, and that’s not the case.”
The edginess is why Moneisha Williams of Kansas City became a comic. “Comedy appealed to me because they were able to say a bunch of stuff that society says you can’t talk about,” she says. “People pay to hear your opinion.”
The Star interviewed these two up-and-coming local comics, both black women, who are handling a changing dynamic audience while staying true to who they are.
When Banks was graduating from Missouri Western University in 2009 with a degree in criminal justice, she thought her career would lead her into the courtroom. After a few drinks and a dare at a local open mic night for comics, Banks found her passion.
“First time doing comedy was back in 2010 in this hole in the wall club called GQ. Somebody had bet me some drinks that I wouldn’t get on stage. I had always wanted to try comedy and I won. It was actually a competition and I had to come back to defend my title and kept winning like seven times,” says Banks.
This was the beginning of her rise as one of the most sought-after comics in Kansas City. Now 37, the Kansas City native is a 12-year veteran who has traveled the country doing shows, and just returned from her first tour in New York. Banks has had to learn the ropes on her own, and the journey is not one for the faint of heart. Many people who have enjoyed one of Banks sets would be surprised to know humor is her coping mechanism.
“I have social anxiety, so when I have to be around people I have to be funny. Most people who have met me would say I am super goofy. But people who know me know I am extremely shy, and nobody ever believes it,” she says.
Banks, who worked at a call center when she first began to think of a life on the stage, began by writing down her most random thoughts that she would never discuss in public. It was that courage to get up on stage and open yourself up that Banks wanted to connect with most.
“A lot of it just came from me wanting the freedom of being myself. Just the conversations I had with myself. Being plus sized, being a Black woman, being LGBTQ,” she says.
She would soon find that getting on stage was only half the battle of a stand-up comic. After the early steps of finding open mic nights and building your style, a comic must then begin to travel and build a name in the comedy underground.
“I love the job. I can curse, and drinks are encouraged,” joked Banks. “Life as a comic is unstable. You don’t know at any given moment how the circumstances may change. It is scary but it can also be the most beautiful experiences. You just have to tune everything else out. It is definitely not for everyone. On tour you see people come and go.”
Social media has drastically changed the way that comics starting out are able to get themselves in front of crowds without having to physically travel to a location.
“People are more innovative and creative with how they bring people their stand-up. Comics don’t have to travel like crazy so people can know them, like in the past. They are hosting podcasts and making memes. There are just more opportunities out there now,” says Banks.
Banks has built a comedy brand over the years focusing on jokes that tell her story as a Black lesbian navigating social issues of race, sexuality, and class. She has opened the doors for many aspiring comics looking to try their hands.
Moneisha Williams’ side gig
One such comedian is Moneisha Williams. Like Banks, Williams’ comedy career began at an open mic night where a friend convinced her to get on stage and give stand-up a try.
“I have always been told I was funny. I went to a comedy open mic and just wasn’t very impressed, so I got up there and did it. It was amazing. Went up without any material and killed it,” says Williams.
Williams, who works as a cook and does stand-up on her off time, recalls comedy never being something she thought she would do as a job due to the hyper religious Southern Baptist household she was raised in.
Now Williams, who like Banks is a Black woman who identifies as a lesbian, recognizes that people on stage have the right to say what they like. However that privilege comes with the right time and place.
“When you’re starting out, you have to perform at places like open mics where you have a crowd that might not necessarily have came out to hear some comedy. Sometimes they are in clubs or bars, but in those situations you have to read the room,” says Williams
“I had an old lady come up to me and tell me that she tried to like my comedy, but it was too dirty. I do a lot of clean comedy at gigs because not every show is going to have the audience that wants to hear those jokes,” she says.
Williams believes that once a comic can be a headliner, they get more freedom as people are paying to see your name on a program. Getting on stage and remembering a series of jokes to be told in a certain order and delivered a certain way is hard enough. Doing that when there is a hostile crowd is something completely different. Williams believes that all comics go through a rough act at some point in their career.
“I bombed about two years ago. It was an open mic night downtown at some place and it was the worst set I have ever had. It was this upscale venue, I was still fresh on the scene. I was wearing this whole red outfit. Every joke I threw out it was silence,” says Williams.
“There is a time and a place for everything. If you don’t like what comedians are saying just talk to them after the show.”
Banks, who after years and years of struggle is finally starting to get the acclaim from her peers and make a name in the industry,s a situation in KC last year where she was heckled and the venue did nothing.
“I was doing a gig at Westport, this girl was super drunk and just kept yelling stuff at the stage. After a while I was looking like, are you all going to do something, which they didn’t. She went on for like 20 minutes and started yelling stuff about Black Lives Matter,” Banks says.
Banks sees situations like this as an occupational hazard of a comedian. An unfortunate situation where a comic must have a thicker skin than the audience.
Social media is widening the reach of a local comic through putting short clips up or having a post shared by a bigger name. This technological launchpad has also become a double-edged sword allowing people to gather in the form of a mob with no other purpose but to destroy the name of someone they deem problematic.
“This has been a thing way before these viral moments,” Banks says. “It’s been a very violent game for us. Because I have social anxiety I am all about not making people feel uncomfortable. My gigs vary. I have performed at clubs, bars, women’s opportunities, church shows.
“I am always thinking about the bigger picture. I try to be socially responsible with my shows.”
Upcoming shows for Janell Banks:
Aug. 6: The Bird Comedy Theater, 103 W. 19th St.
Aug. 26-27: Comedy Club of Kansas City, 1130 W. 103rd St.
Aug. 28: Knuckleheads, 2715 Rochester Ave.
Upcoming shows for Moneisha Williams:
Aug. 4: Mill Room at East 40 Brewing, 1201 W. Main St., Blue Springs.
Aug. 5: Grandview Amphitheater “Art After Dark,” 13501 Byars Road, Grandview
Sept. 2: Comedy Club of Kansas City, 1130 W. 103rd St.