By Joe Carrel, Buffalo Exchange HQ
We spoke with Anwar Newton, a standup comic based in Phoenix, AZ, about finding your voice, the changing landscape of comedy and creating Literally the Worst Show Ever.
The Path to Becoming Funny
Was comedy something you always wanted to do?
Not at all, really. But people were always telling me I should do standup, so I went and hung out at an open mic – just sat in the back for several months. Eventually I saw one too many comedians that I thought I was funnier than. I thought, “If this guy can do it, anybody can.”
What was your first time on stage like?
A nightmare. It’s a wonder that I’m still doing it. I left feeling like, “This was the worst thing that has ever happened on this stage… at this bar… in this city!” There should have been some beacon of humanity to walk up to me and say, “Go give your day job your all. Get promoted. Invest in your 401k. Have a plan.”
What kept you coming back?
I learned that you don’t really understand how to be funny until you have enough failure under your belt. You think that you’d get better by constantly making people laugh, and the more laughs mean you’re getting funnier. But actually it’s the utter failures, the complete dejection of just crashing and burning – those feelings of despair you take off the stage really start to mold you into a great performer. And not just in comedy. It applies to a lot of performance art. Being at the very bottom helps you pull something genuinely magical out – something truly unique that people can really attach themselves to.
Was there a certain performance where it finally seemed to click?
I had agreed to appear at a friend’s out-of-town amateur standup showcase. I was broke, with rent due soon, and wound up having to turn down multiple good-paying shows so that I could be there. After a couple hours of driving to the venue, I was super frustrated, but there was no place for that frustration to go. I got onstage and grabbed the mic, not knowing which of my jokes – that I was already sick of telling – I was going to begin with. And I just stood there for about ten seconds.
Then I immediately started talking about something that was so controversial and on the top of everybody’s mind. I felt a certain way about it and just laid it out. That raw emotion made it genuinely relatable and funny. Afterwards people were like, “Dude, that is the funniest take on that issue I have ever heard.” It was this eureka moment. We always talk, me and other comedians I’m close to, that you get to the point where you stop telling jokes and you start just being funny.
What led you to create “Literally the Worst Show Ever”?
Local comedy shows are usually the same thing. Standups with a host and that’s it. I wanted to see something bigger. I thought, “What if you could do a live show that was structured like a TV show – and rivals a TV show?” So I got great comedians together to make something that incorporates standup, sketch comedy, live music, pre-recorded video humor – everything and the kitchen sink. We try to tie it all together in a seamless way that, while structured, constantly looks for a new level of ridiculous. It’s called Literally the Worst Show Ever, so that, if you don’t like it, I certainly didn’t lie to you. But it also lowers expectations so that hopefully people will say, “Holy smokes, that actually was not bad!”
Are you currently doing anything else comedy-related?
I do a weekly show with fellow comedian Michael Turner called This Week Sucks, Tonight! It tackles current events and news, but done in a backwards way that people find refreshing. It has a Daily Show/Best Week Ever vibe. I play the host and Michael is at the podium – he plays the world’s nicest, most charming, sexist and bigot. There’s a yin and yang where I’m this black guy trying to keep everything under control, and he’s this monster of a person that’s… just a delight to listen to. It’s a fun, fun show.
Do you think Netflix’s recent focus on standup specials is a response to an increased appetite for comedy?
I think that people now are actually less inclined to be interested in comedy over other sorts of entertainment. People are angry and frustrated with the climate of the world. So comedy has expanded in ways that aren’t purely comedy. Louie is definitely not a typical comedy. Atlanta is the best show of the past year – but definitely not a typical comedy. Those at the top of the comedic world have managed to tie in a dramatic narrative.
I always try to take an angle in comedy that takes things we’re angry about and make them as hilarious as possible. You’re laughing, but your anger is satisfied too. Which is why, when we do This Week Sucks, Tonight!, it’s so much fun because onstage I have, in Michael’s character, this avatar of what everyone is angry about. You have a focal point, an effigy for your frustration. And it’s hilarious.
People may not think they want comedy, but they do.
Who are your standup inspirations?
They’re different than when I first started out. I’d say Rory Scovel, Maria Bamford and Patrice O’Neal, to name a few. Tig Notaro, she’s a really awesome comic. The second time I performed with her, she brought me onstage as the headliner. It was a really special moment.
Have you seen any not-yet-famous comedian perform and thought, “Wow, they are gonna make it big!”?
Definitely. A couple to keep an eye on – both out of L.A. – are Michael Longfellow and Ever Mainard.
How does creating comedy inspire you?
It helps me appreciate and enjoy living in the now. Everybody makes milestones for themselves, points they think they should be at by a certain time. But those almost always take a lot longer than you planned for. So instead, I just chill and say, “What we did tonight was dope – and let’s think of something to do tomorrow.”
Check out daily jokes by Anwar Newton on his Twitter feed, then stay tuned for his next show in Phoenix!