Sampson, the comedian, likes to go by one name “like Madonna!” He tells the story in the opening of A Tough Act To Follow, his documentary about what it’s like being a queer black male in stand-up comedy. Through point-of-view and talking-head interviews from several famous POC comedians, Sampson gives us a look at the struggles he’s had to face his entire career. From the poignant “rejection voicemail” montage to intimate footage of a Drag King’s beauty regimen, A Tough Act To Follow is a call for action, self-reflection and unity.
I sat down with Sampson recently to talk about the documentary.
Roni Canieso: What inspired you to start documenting this particular point in your career?
Sampson: One of my biggest inspirations is my love for the craft. Now, if you look at comedy, I think the craft is suffering compared to 15, 16 years ago when I started. It was in a completely different place. There were opportunities for different comics. I’m one of the first Black comics in the sector. I was doing it at a time where there was no LGBT people of color in the space. It required me to create that space, where people weren’t very receptive at first. You hear male comics debate about whether or not women comics are funny and it’s like “why don’t you worry about how funny you’re gonna be!?” Comedy is supposed to be this liberal and very open-minded thing … but a lot of [bookers] won’t book gay comics because they don’t think it’s marketable, like they won’t book women comics. If you do so happen to get hired, you won’t get paid as much as a straight white, male comics. I feel deeply about this because we work just as hard as anyone else.
RC: How was the filming process?
S: It was reflective. We made the film when I was coming back from a low point in my life. Some of the emotion was a little bit raw. Any time I had to deal with serious things, in particular, [I think about] how do I recover from it? The way that [this film] would have a happy ending was if I continue to move forward.
RC: It’s always funny that documentaries about comedies are tonally very dark.
S: Oh my God, that’s and understatement! It can come from a very turbulent, tumultuous place.
RC: The montage of the “rejection voicemails” is my favorite part of the documentary. Is it difficult for you and your staff to book shows? I would also imagine, during the shows you do book, that you and your manager have to go through some crazy ordeals.
S: I had a manager … in a really sweet way [who] had to back out. We did have people from the KKK show up to the show. But it was 7 degrees outside, and I was joking with them, saying “if you guys wanna put on your outfits, I wouldn’t be mad at ya! I’d probably ask to borrow one!” [The part of the country I was in] had a large population of hate groups. My manager at the time was [talking with security] and telling us that we had protesters, but not your average protesters. They were part of some “Ultra-Christian” fundamentalist groups — they wanted to come inside. So I asked, “do they have money?” Told them to charge them double at the door” — and this was a $30 show — “that [extra] portion of the money, donate it.” The people thought I was crazy. I said “Welcome to the show, you’re gonna have a great time, you may not agree with me, but we’re gonna have a great time.” [After] I walked out into the lobby and gave each one of them a hug.
RC: What was the process like to get such a collection of talented comics: Luenell, Sinbad, and so many others to appear in the doc?
S: That part was actually pretty easy! Those people are really close friends of mine. We often have conversations. In the back of your mind you’re like, “maybe I’m the only one going through this,” but as a Black, gay, comic, I have those conversations with a lady comic, or a [differently abled] comic and then [the conversation] is like “I actually deal with the same thing only it’s like this…” I thought, what if I create a project that features [more comics like this]? Most of them really liked the idea, but said, “I don’t have time to do a project like this, but if you do, I’ll be on it!”
RC: You mention not considering yourself “PC.” Do stereotypes bother you? How do you write jokes that don’t perpetuate that negativity?
S: Like I always say, I’m not politically correct, but I’m not an asshole. This may be a simple way to put it, but I’m a decent human being. There is a lot of good in the world, and the impact that the negative has on us cuts so deeply that we give it more attention. I believe we should focus more on the good things. We live in a fucked-up world, and there’s a lot of fucked-up people out there, but as we keep coming together, we can make it work out. And as long as we talk about those things — put your hand directly on those thing s– sexism, homophobia, racism, you have to call those ugly little things out. In order to do that, you can’t be politically correct.
[On stage] I’m notorious for taking really serious, [somewhat] depressing topics — I don’t even wanna say depressing — but it is for, like, 30 seconds. But I swear to God, when we get through those 30 seconds, you will get the biggest belly laugh you’ve ever had in your life.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.