MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're continuing our series called Make Me Laugh. All summer long we're talking to some of the country's most popular entertainers, who have brought their unique comedy styles to film, television and standup.
Today we have a man who's covered all that ground and then some, Bill Bellamy. He established himself as a big name when he hosted "MTV Jams" in the mid-1990s. Since then he has starred in serious dramas like "Any Given Sunday," has performed on kids' shows like "Cousin Skeeter," and you might have seen him on Showtime this June doing his new one-hour comedy special, "Crazy, Sexy, Dirty."
And even though he got his start on MTV, he does not shy away from making fun of big music stars like Michael Jackson, Lil Wayne and Beyonce and Jay-Z, and their baby.
BILL BELLAMY: They wondered about that baby. They're like, ooh lord, ooh lord, let that baby be on Beyonce's side. Ooh, you don't want your baby to have a (unintelligible) face, you know. That is not the face you want for your little baby. And people get on me because I talk about Jay-Z. I love Jay-Z and Beyonce, but I got to be honest. First of all, we know that that is a money situation.
If his name was just Sean, seriously, if his name was just Sean, he couldn't put one woman in this beautiful theater tonight. Like if he was in here, one of y'all ladies got up go to the bathroom, he'd be like, excuse me, how you are you doing? You'd be like, What? Who was that?
MARTIN: And Bill Bellamy joins us now. We caught up with him in Chicago. Welcome, thank you so much for joining us.
BELLAMY: Thank you for having me. Man, you're just taking me back to that moment when I was doing that joke onstage and looking at everybody's face and feeling that energy, man. That was a really special night.
MARTIN: Were you scared somebody would be offended?
BELLAMY: Nah, nah. You know, it's - I'm a comedian. It's all in fun, you know, and the reality is honesty is everything.
MARTIN: Is there anything you wouldn't joke about?
BELLAMY: Yeah, yeah, there are certain topics that, you know, I'm pretty uncomfortable, you know, talking about. But I try to pick things that are across the board, something that people are aware of or something that we're thinking about. But I just bring it to life like in HD.
MARTIN: Have you ever made a mistake and you thought, oh man, I shouldn't have gone there, shouldn't have done it? Has that ever happened?
BELLAMY: I remember when I was doing the Michael Jackson joke, it was uncomfortable for people, but I figured out by tweaking the joke how to make them understand what I'm talking about. And he died, and it was the biggest day of people grieving, and everything was going on.
So my thing was like, well, wow, if you were just Steve Smith and you died on the day that Michael Jackson died, nobody would even care...
MARTIN: All right, let's go back a little bit. You have a very interesting story about how you first go into standup. At the time - do I have this right - you were at Rutgers University in New Jersey studying economics, and then you joined a male beauty pageant, where you had to show off some sort of talent, and you picked comedy. Tell us a little bit more about that. How'd you pick comedy?
BELLAMY: Well, I was a freshman at Rutgers University and a typical college student struggling, you know, paying for my books and stuff like that. And there was a Delta Sigma Theta male pageant that was huge, like the sorority gave it every year. It was a big deal, and I wanted to be in it.
And it was all-female audience, and all the guys were talking about doing their thing. Some dudes were singing. Some dudes were doing poetry. There was a dude on a unicycle doing some goofy juggling. I was like, man, all I got is a few jokes about how poor I am as a college student.
I didn't know if it was going to work. I'll be honest with you. I did not know if I was going to go up there and get booed. But, you know, I went up there, and I just was honest. Once again, I was honest about what it's like being a college student, and everybody was dying laughing.
And then I end up winning the pageant, and then the crazy buzz around campus was like, yo, you know Bill Bellamy a comedian? Everybody started calling me: Yo, you a comic? And they would ask me to host different events because I was funny. And what they really were doing were giving me an opportunity to practice, because at the time I didn't really know how to be a comedian.
I was kind of just - you know, I knew how to be kind of funny. I didn't know how to produce a joke or write a joke at that time.
MARTIN: Were you always funny? I mean, were you like one of those little kids who was, you know, making the fourth grade teacher, pressing on her nerves? Were you that guy?
BELLAMY: I was that kid that had a little too much to say for Ms. Johnson, that' for sure. Also, too, I was the beast in the cafeteria.
MARTIN: Oh, really? Well, what would you do?
BELLAMY: I would find out something personal about your family, and I'd wait for you to mess with me, and then I'd start talking about your mama and your cousin.
MARTIN: Can we hope that this was a defensive weapon and not an offensive weapon?
BELLAMY: Yeah, I wasn't - I wasn't going out of my way to harm people verbally. I was just a defensive player.
MARTIN: OK. So this is a good time to - well, you were saying that one of things, your gift is kind of observational comedy, right, kind of noticing things and kind of going with that. And obviously one of the things - and I think a lot of people in this country do talk about some is race and how race plays into things.
Let me just play another clip from your comedy special, "Crazy, Sexy, Dirty." Here you are talking about dogs. And you're imitating a white mom who has gotten a new dog and an imitation of a black guy who has gotten a new dog. And here it is.
(SOUNDBITE OF SHOWTIME COMEDY SPECIAL, "CRAZY, SEXY, DIRTY")
BELLAMY: Now I'm going to go to the doc, you know, we're going to get you your shots. I'm coming right back. I'm your new mom.
Stay right there. Hi, doc. How are you? Now, I know he needs his shots so whatever it is, throw it on a card.
Now I am going to get my nails done. I'll be back. I need a favor, though. Can he get a shampoo because he smells like dog? I don't like it.
Black family a little different, right?
Now I got to go to the doc. God, that's - I be right back, man. Hey doc, can I talk...
Where I get the dog from? Man, this crackhead came in the barbershop.
Yeah, he had a box of puppies rattling around. I'm getting my haircut.
So out of curiosity man, because I know nothing about no dog, how many shots do a $5 dog need?
Six shots? How much them shots a piece? One hundred a piece? One hundred a piece. You want to spend $600 on a $5 dog?
All right. Which one he really need?
MARTIN: Did you hear this, really? Serious, though, so what was this based on? Did this really happen? Did you see somebody at a barbershop or you just saw something? What got that going?
BELLAMY: What it - what it...
BELLAMY: What it is, is like I get a joke right, a premise. The joke I got from being in California and people in my neighborhood, there are so many families that have dogs. And what I noticed is like my white friends treat the dog like a person. Like we're going on vacation and we're going to take Cody. And he doesn't like hotel rooms that are small. He gets upset about that and we can tell. And if we don't take Cody(ph) we're going to leave them at the doggie hotel. So I was like doggie hotel? This is some next level animal love. So I wrote the premise from that perspective of people who really, really treat the dog like it's a family member, as opposed to black families who, the dog just lives with them.
MARTIN: Do people ever get offended at your jokes? You know one other thing I was just curious about, like I'm thinking about like I don't know if you like metal at all. But, you know, metal, heavy metal, there's a band called Fishbone. It's an African-American band but their audience is mainly white. And I asked them, they say some things, you know, in the course of their songs. And I always wondered is it funny for them to have a white audience listening to their music and does that ever feel tricky?
BELLAMY: To me it can be. To be honest with you, you know, when you're dealing with truth and you're dealing with jokes trying to get a view point across, yeah, it can be tricky. One thing about my jokes is like you don't feel any type of anger or like malice in my voice, you know, I'm just giving you my perspective, you know.
MARTIN: But why do you think comedy still seems so segregated, though? Do you know what I mean? If you go and see African-American comics you'll see some white people there. But in similarly with white comics, you'll see some black people there. But do you share my observation about this?
BELLAMY: It depends on the comedian. My audience is diverse so I don't know if people are getting on my train, you know, from MTV or was it "Fast Lane" or "Any Given Sunday," or "How To Be A Player." I mean there's a lot of things that I've done that I've gained momentum. But what's cool about "Crazy, Sexy, Dirty" is all those fans are seeing me as a grown man and what my perspective is right now.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're continuing our Make Me Laugh summer series with comedian Bill Bellamy. His latest show was just on Showtime. It's called "Crazy, Sexy, Dirty." And I think one of the kind of the classic subjects for comedians is the differences between the sexes, right? And this is certainly something that you talk about in "Crazy, Sexy, Dirty." And here's one example.
(SOUNDBITE OF SHOWTIME COMEDY SPECIAL, "CRAZY, SEXY, DIRTY")
BELLAMY: Right when the best play in football happens, that's how the man and woman time is different. You ever notice that? You're downstairs watching the best touchdown pass ever. You like, ooh. She like, come upstairs. We got a problem.
You walk in the bedroom but the bathroom door closed. You like, oh my god. The bathroom bottom of the door, all you see is like fog. You don't know what it is. You like, oh my god. That's gas.
She gone set me on fire.
Hey, baby, I'm out here. I want to know, is everything cool? I was just watching the game. Open the door.
All you see is steam and candles everywhere. You're like, I can't see.
Surprise. I wanted you to come upstairs so that's why I made it seem like it's a problem. But it's not a problem. All I wanted to do is to give you bath. So, take off your clothes and get in the tub. Now, you a man. You ain't never had no bath. You trying to fight it. You know, you trying to be like, look man, I'm cool on the bath. Saying, I just want to watch the game.
MARTIN: You know, a lot of people like to poke fun at couples. And I'm wondering, when you're thinking about, when you talk about this are you thinking about well, if I say this the man is going to be mad? If I say this the woman is going to be mad? I'm wondering how do you navigate?
BELLAMY: I don't care. You can't write jokes worrying about what people are going to think. You got to write jokes that are funny. And I believe that honesty is the best thing. It's the essential tool because I basically tell you a joke about a guy who swears that he's not going to do something. But the thing about a woman, a woman, if she wants you to do something you're going to do it, especially if you live in the same house and you guys are together. It's going to happen. And that's the beauty of the dynamic of the male versus female relationship is the give and take.
MARTIN: You're a husband and a father. Do you draw on your own life?
BELLAMY: Oh yeah, of course, I do. You crazy?
BELLAMY: My life is hilarious. I'm not even just saying it, like my life is bugged out.
MARTIN: But seriously though, but as a dad though, you know, there's a lot of talk about, you know, balancing, you know, work and family, your schedule is pretty busy. I mean you travel a lot - that's kind of the nature of your work - and then you're doing all these other projects. How do you make it work?
BELLAMY: When the work is working you got to go for it and do what you got to do, and then you just take time off to do what you have to do at home because that is more important, actually. When I'm home I'm full throttle, you know, daddy, husband, friend, camp counselor, assistant coach, coach, car pool captain, you know...
BELLAMY: I'm like, everybody in the car. We got two minutes to roll. The bus is leaving.
MARTIN: Do people enjoy you at PTA meetings?
BELLAMY: You know what's so funny now like because a lot of the moms at the school have seen "Crazy, Sexy, Dirty," and they got that "50 Shades of Grey" face when they see me. Mm-hmm. Mr. Bellamy, you are something else.
MARTIN: So speaking of which, you know, a lot of people may not remember, is we started our conversation talking about the fact that you were studying economics at Rutgers. You do have a degree in economics from Rutgers and I ever wonder if that, does that come in handy?
BELLAMY: Yeah. I mean actually, you know, my major was economics and my minor is in marketing. And how I feel like I utilize my degree is just understanding, you know, the supply and demand and what it is that the fans or the people need. You know, my name, Bill Bellamy, my persona is a brand and, you know, what is it about Bill Bellamy that I want people to feel? I want them to laugh. I want them to smile. I want them to feel really good. Like when you hear my name, oh yeah, that's my boy Bill. He's so crazy. So what I do is, you know, 19 years in the game is just to be consistent. Make sure that I stay funny and be charming and be relatable. And that has afforded me a great life and has afforded me an opportunity to travel the world and meet two presidents and it's just been amazing. Being funny has really been the go-to for me.
MARTIN: You're also at a point where you mentor younger comics - not just African-Americans. In fact, I have to notice that at the beginning of the DVD for your comedy hour you're promoting a couple of - a full slate of other comics of different backgrounds. Why is that important for you to do?
BELLAMY: Well, I just know how so many people helped me get to where I am. And I feel like a lot of our big stars don't give back as much as we should. And I just wanted to be an example on not being afraid to share your light with other people, which in my opinion, makes your light even brighter and there's a lot of talented people that need an opportunity to just get some shine, you know? So I said I'm a start logging the people that I met that I know are strong and I'm going to find a way to get them on television and I've been doing that.
MARTIN: And you have written some very moving pieces for some, you know, magazines about some serious things. I'm thinking about this one piece in "Ebony," for example, called "Real Men Have Feelings." You're not joking at all. You're talking about the need for men to own their feelings, to be in touch with their feelings. And I know I'm sounding very woo-woo about it, but it's a very nicely written piece, a very beautifully written piece and very profound. And I'm interested in what makes you want to do that. Is there every now and again you feel like you just have something to say? You want to be sure people hear it whether you're joking or not?
BELLAMY: Obviously, I love to make people laugh but, you know, in order to be able to make people laugh you got to know what sadness is. You got to know what disappointment is. You got to know what all the emotions are, because those things there is gems in all those mistakes and disappointments and things. And then I felt like men have a lot of hats to wear right now. If you're not in jail, if you're not unemployed and you're trying to do something positive, you are, you got a lot going on and you have to be able to communicate. Men now are made to feel in a lot of ways like we can't, you know, there's no strength in, you know, being sensitive or just have feelings. You know, like I have children, you know, I have to be a teacher and I have to be kind and understand where they're coming from and talk to them at a point where they can understand yet, firm to let them know where the boundaries are, you know. So you bounce around a lot. And that's all that I wanted to address was like guys feel, you know, we just haven't gotten comfortable enough to talk to our friends and really fellowship like we should.
MARTIN: Bill Bellamy is a comedian and actor and a husband and a father, as he just told you. And we caught up with him in Chicago, Illinois.
Bill Bellamy, thank you so much for speaking with us.
BELLAMY: Thank you very much. And enjoy your weekend. Man. Yeah.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. And remember, to tell us more, please go to NPR.org and find us under the Programs tab. You can find our Podcast there. You can also follow us on Facebook and Twitter @TELL ME MORE/NPR. I'm Michel Martin and you've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News and African-American Public Radio Consortium. Let's talk more tomorrow.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.