I met Sampson McCormick when we were in an All Stars Pride Comedy show in San Francisco last June. I was immediately struck by his warmth, kindness, beauty and most of all, his fabulous comedy. In January we performed together at a casino in Redding, California, which is as terrifying for two queer comics as you might imagine (spoiler alert/bragging alert: we both killed). Sampson has been doing standup for thirteen years and I learned so much from him on our road trip. He taught me about reading the crowd, talking to bookers, tips for trying new material, all kinds of fabulous things that a baby comic like me needs to hear. I sat down with Sampson to talk all things comedy- well, I sat down at my computer while he sat down at his because it’s 2015 and we’re both busy comedians and that’s how you do these things these days.
Tell me about the early days of your standup career.
The first time that I actually did some standup had to have been when I was in the fifth grade. I was at Concord Elementary School in District Heights, Maryland. And I didn’t know that it was standup, but I know that the reaction that I could always get from people was laughter. I didn’t know that it was called “being funny,” though. I just know that I would raise my hand in class, or do a presentation, and it always made the class laugh and my teacher would hold back their laughter too, then escort me out of the room. One day in 5th grade, they just gave me the floor in Mr. Mumford’s class and I stood up there, telling crazy stories about getting in trouble for teachers calling my mom, things I saw at recess and how bad the lunch was. It was funny. I was definitely a grown little boy. I still never knew that I was funny. I liked music and wanted to sing, I used to write songs, and sing at church [reporter’s note: Sampson has PIPES], but people always responded better to my jokes than my singing. So, when I got in about the 11th grade, still a class clown, my teacher pulled me out of class and told me that if I didn’t go get on stage, she would fail me. So, I went and checked out this (now defunct) comedy club in DC called “Teddy’s House of Comedy”. You had to be 18 to get in and I wasn’t 18, but the box office rep, Ms. Kenyetta, MADE SURE that if anybody asked, I knew that my age was 18. It got risky though, because all of my jokes were revealing my age. It pissed the staff off, so the bouncers made me start sneaking in the back door and I had to give them whatever money that I had to get in. On top of that, the audience was VICIOUS. If you weren’t funny, they would throw chicken wings at you, AND, since I was still a kid, I was sneaking out of the house at night when my mom was asleep. I would roll up a sheet and put it under a blanket on the couch to make it look like I was asleep in the living room. My mother just so happened to pull the blanket back one night and saw that I wasn’t there, and went bananas!
Why did you decide to be a comedian?
I still don’t know! LOL! It’s not something that I thought that I would have to do, to survive, but that’s what it’s come to. I’ve tried to quit, but I can’t. If I go too long without being on stage, I get really depressed. I think that I went and did it and found my light and my purpose and that’s why. I feel like once you do something and you feel it in your soul, you stick with it and that’s what happens and its been over a decade now. I have no intention of turning back, I guess it’s just in my blood.
What is the most rewarding part of being a comedian?
The most rewarding part about being a comedian is having such an artistic way to express your joys, pain, concerns, point of views, etc. and being able to get a room full of people to go along with you. It’s a beautiful thing to be able to talk about taboo things, all those things that you shouldn’t talk about in polite company, and be able to laugh and think about it together. It’s just beautiful. Sometimes, words can’t express it.
What is the most frustrating part of being a comedian?
Oh, lord! Where to start? I feel like it’s become more frustrating in recent years. I have to say, the lack of opportunity for those of us who do comedy who aren’t smart-allecky white guys. And of course, me being a black, gay comic, I fall all the way on the opposite end of that spectrum. I definitely get fewer opportunities, although I have to show up and perform twice as better, because there is a double standard and the fact that because you fall outside of that makeup, which is now looked at as “mainstream”, you have to work two or three times as hard, and be extra funny. That goes for you, if you are gay, an ethnic minority, disabled, or a woman. Next, I feel like the business is oversaturated. Yes, there are many good comics, but a lot of people try to use comedy as a stepping stone to other parts of the business. So, you have people doing it, who don’t want to do it for the next 40 years like some of us, but want to get into TV or film. Then you have others who have never had interest in the true craft of comedy, but do it out of ego; and because of this over-saturation, comedy club bookers treat a lot of us like shit, because they know that there are a gazillion people trying to get on stage. And overall, I feel like because comedy has gotten away from being what it once was, that thing that packed comedy clubs and theaters every weekend in the 80’s and 90’s, people in general don’t respect the craft the way that it should be. I feel like comedy and jazz are two of the least respected art genres that there are.
Tell me about your experience navigating the comedy world as an out gay, black activist. Have your experiences with racism and homohobia shaped your views about the standup world and or comedy, and if so, how?
Oh, let me tell you, they have! For the first couple of years that I did comedy, I did it from the closet, so I did really awful “pussy jokes” and all the stuff that “guy comics” are supposed to talk about, and it seemed pretty cool. I stayed booked on little showcases and got high fives and all that, and then, I come out, and a lot definitely changed. A lot of bookers who put me on showcases, etc., stopped booking me, and I lost a lot of little gigs. In turn, I developed a stronger voice as a comic, because I was finally authentic. A lot of bookers now, call me and give me the, “Oh, man. You’re funny, but we don’t know how well you would play to our demographic.” And it’s not like I get on stage and talk about dick and balls, I just talk about things that everyone else talks about, from my perspective as a black, gay man. The last time that I checked, funny is funny. But, it’s not JUST about that anymore. All of this has made me strive to be funnier and work closer with other minority comics so that we can have more opportunities that lay outside of “Chocolate Tuesday” (black comedy night), or “Rainbow Saturdays” (LGBT Comedy night) or “Estrogen Fridays” (Women’s comedy night), which include us, creating our own work. It’s really sad, I’ve been in this business for 13 years and I can count on one hand how much work I’ve gotten from comedy clubs. Most of the work that I’ve done has been self-made, or from working with other comics who have the same experiences that I have.
As a lesbian, I’ve experienced lots of hostility and disdain for my pussy-loving kind from gay men I’ve encountered. Not all of them, of course, but it’s a thing. You proudly wear an I <3 Lesbians shirt onstage sometimes. Can you please tell me about your love of lesbians and send me a photo of you in that awesome shirt?
I ABSOLUTELY LOVE LESBIANS!!! How can anybody not LOVE lesbians?!! Who else is gonna fix the car if it breaks down??? Oh my goodness!!!! My first best friend when I was little was a “tomboy”, who in college came out as a lesbian. But, growing up, people try to ignore that possibility (of LGBT kids) and she was the best, I traded her my Big Wheel for her EZ Bake Oven. She was the best! And we don’t get to talk much these days, but she still is amazing. Gorgeous butch woman, married to her partner and they have kids. I don’t know why some gay men throw such shade to lesbians and our trans brothers and sisters. Many women who identify that way have endured so much trauma and abuse, and are very strong women. Lesbians have always been a strong staple of the LGBT community, dating back to the AIDS plague of the 80′, when gay men were dying and afflicted, there were A LOT of lesbians who were at the hospitals, with flowers and love. Besides, lesbians have always supported me from basically the very beginning. I don’t know why, but even now, lesbians are who are mostly in the audience at my shows. They love me and I love them. I would have it no other way. So, I love lesbians the way that women love gay men, who are called “fag hags,” so what am I?? I guess that makes me a “stud muffin”, or something, LOL!
What does Wear Your Voice mean to you?
“Wear Your Voice” means to never be afraid to let your voice be heard, in fact, who you are and your voice, who you are should be so clear, that you wear it, people see it and shouldn’t have to guess.
What advice do you have for new/young comics, especially new/young comics/; queer comics; comics of colors; female comics?
Easy: Be IN LOVE with the craft. You need to LOVE this craft to survive the bullshit that you more than likely will experience from other comics, bookers, sometimes audiences, your family (we know how they can be), be fearless (wear your voice!), and never quit. Focus on finding your voice and developing it with no restraint. Don’t be afraid to create your own work, because if we wait for bookers and all this other nonsense, we’ll be waiting for a long time.
Want to add any funny/depressing/inspiring/
I feel like as long as you’re focused and keep the faith, everything will work out. This journey has taken me all the way to the brink and back. But everything always works out. So, I feel like having faith always plays a part in the experience. One of my best experiences? Going to a show, to do an unpaid showcase a few years ago, when I was in college, and not having a dime in my pocket. I didn’t have food or anything, I used to buy a loaf of bread and a stick of butter and eat butter sandwiches the entire week. I went to go do this show and didn’t know how I’d get back home. Although I was only about 20 miles away, it was on city transit. I did the show, made no mention of being broke, just got up and did this ten minute set. After the show, this guy came up to me as I was leaving, shook my hand, and put a piece of paper in it. He told me how much he enjoyed my set, I thanked him, and left. I got around the corner, looked in my hand, it was two balled up fifty dollar bills that he’d given me. And that’s not the only time that that has happened. Things always work out, and I need to always remember that. I think we all need to be reminded sometimes.
Read more about Sampson and his upcoming gigs at www.sampsoncomedy.com
Follow him on Twitter: @OfficialSampson
Follow him on Instagram: MisterSampson
Download his comedy album, “That Bitch Better Be Funny: Live at Howard Theater” here