Interview Feature: Reginald D Hunter
Words by James Rampton
The brilliant American comedian Reginald D Hunter admits that the election in November of Donald Trump as US President hit him like a 10-ton truck.
He recalls that, “When it happened, it took me two weeks just to get out of bed. I thought, ‘What’s the point of anything? The law? Sex? Jokes?’ It made me feel so down. Not because I was scared of his economic policies or his out-there views. “No, I was scared by thinking, ‘What does this mean for humanity? At this point, we thought we were pretty smart. But if people can be so easily duped and pitted against each other, are we really any better than cro-magnum man.”
There was another, very personal reason for Reginald to be shocked by Trump’s election. With a wry grin, he reveals that, “My new show was mostly written last autumn. Then Trump got elected, and I had to rewrite it very quickly.” Never more than a minute away from the next joke, Reginald adds, with mock sheepishness, “I’m almost ashamed to do stand-up this year. I spent the whole of 2016 repeatedly telling people that Trump was not going to win. I’m amazed they still let me do comedy!”
Reginald shouldn’t really be amazed. Born in Albany, Georgia, in the Deep South of the USA, but based in this country for the past 15 years, the 47-year-old is one of the most thought-provoking and thrilling stand-ups around. And the really good news is that he is about to be performing at a venue near you. He is currently in the middle of a major nationwide tour of his brand-new, typically dazzling show entitled “Some People v. Reginald D Hunter”. Often provocative, always mesmerising, Reginald spellbinds audiences with his compelling brand of comedy. His potent, piercingly honest material has gained him an enormous fanbase that spans the generations.
You will no doubt be delighted to hear that Reginald is equally magnetic in person. Over two hours in a south London hotel lounge, he treats me to a command performance – to an audience of one. He initially came to the UK at the age of 27 to study drama at RADA. However, Reginald switched to comedy full-time after accepting a dare to do stand-up and taking to it like a duck to water. He hasn’t looked back since. A regular – and regularly hilarious – panellist on BBC1’s perennially popular topical news quiz, Have I Got News For You, Reginald is a performer who can really set the pulses racing.
Reginald will be covering the waterfront in his new show, tackling subjects as varied as families, boyfriends and girlfriends and why the O.J. Simpson case was, “The pivotal moment in race relations in America. It is still sending shock waves through the country today.” But of course, Reginald will also be focusing on the man who is currently, for better or worse, capturing the world’s attention: Donald Trump. Tall, imposing and dressed all in black, the comedian, observes that, “Trump is the elephant in the room, especially if you’re American. You’ve got to say something about him.”
So what will Reginald say about his new President? “I’ll say I love him,” the stand-up jokes. “Not since Martin Luther King have I loved someone so much.”
The comic, who last year made Reginald D Hunter’s Songs of the South, an acclaimed three-part BBC2 series, which followed the comedian on an epic road trip from North Carolina to New Orleans through 150 years of American popular song, goes on to tell us what he really thinks about Trump and his team. “They really don’t know what they’re doing. “At first, you were scared that they had some kind of master plan, like Spectre taking over the world. But no, they are just useless. Once revolutionaries get to power, they don’t know what to do with it. They didn’t realise how hard it would be and how scrutinised they would be.”
Reginald, who last year undertook a very successful tour of Ireland and also performed across Europe, continues that, “You can do what you want when you just talking to your people. “But you can’t when you go outside your circle and say things to the media. You can’t criticise the people who have been running the country for decades – the Department of Defense, the Department of Justice and the CIA. They’re grown people. You can’t talk to grown people like dogs or children.”
So is Reginald worried about what this most volatile of Presidents might do? “No. Trump has already offended so many different agencies in Washington that I get the feeling they will freeze him out. They’ll take his proposals and act like they’re stuck in some committee. “I think they made that decision right after the Inauguration. If the judicial and legislative branches don’t like what you’re doing, they can stop you. Just ask Obama. ‘Oh, your term is over now. But I was just going to do that. Oh man!’”
Reginald, who won the Writers’ Guild Award for Comedy in 2006, will also be talking in the show about how he has been winning arguments against members of the so-called “alt right” on Twitter. He explains that, “I’ve been engaging white American racists in debate on Twitter. “I’ve been challenging their views. It has not been as upsetting for me as it has been for them! All you have to do to win is keep cool and state the facts – they hate that. It’s like holy water to a vampire! I figure if I can really argue my position with someone who despises the fact that I exist, then some of the places I’m visiting on this tour should be a piece of cake!”
Reginald, who is known for his marvellously dry, deadpan TV appearances on shows such as QI and 8 Out Of 10 Cats Does Countdown, does not fancy returning to his homeland any time soon, anyway. He reveals that, “I would have gone back 10 months ago. But then there was an uptick in the number of black people shot by the police. So I stayed in England a bit longer. It’s funny, but it’s not a joke.”
Besides, Reginald is perfectly happy over here, thank you very much. “Let me count the ways I love Britain,” he beams. “One of the things I love is that Brits come up to me and critique me to my face. They say, ‘I’ve seen you on Have I Got News For You, and I’m onto you. You sit there as though you have nothing to say, and then all of a sudden you pounce. I won’t tell anyone, but I know what you’re doing. It’s brilliant.’” The comic continues that, “I also love the not-loudness of the Brits compared to Americans. I like the ease of discourse and the fact that you can disagree without guns. I also love the fact that in Britain, you’re allowed to be openly smart. In fact, you can get laid in Britain for being openly smart. I can’t think of any other country where that’s true!”
Reginald’s humour has sometimes been seen as controversial. So does he deliberately try to provoke people? “No. All you have to do is tell the truth and uptight, middle-class, white people will lose their minds. You don’t have to try and be controversial – just tell the truth. ‘My God, did he say that? That’s horrible!’ But in fact, in terms of controversy, I’m a watered-down lightweight compared to some of my family and friends!”
The stand-up believes that comedy can help to change people’s minds. “Especially at the moment, we need people who can give sustained, articulate disagreement, and comedy is very much part of that. We can learn something from comedians that we can’t learn from our philosophers or politicians or intellectuals or clergy. If you animate a point with a joke, it really does sink in.”
Reginald hopes that audiences emerge from “Some People v. Reginald D Hunter” feeling a little bit brighter about the gloomy news headlines. “I hope people will come away feeling less distressed about our current situation. “I hope they can extract one or two methods to defend themselves against the rampant me-ism that is going around now. I think that the alt right and Trump and Brexit can only come about when there is a philosophy of me-ism, rather than us-ism.”
After a decade and a half performing here, Reginald now has a huge number of loyal fans in this country. The proof of his enduring popularity is the fact that he is now garnering his second or third wave of fans. He laughs that, “I love the fandom here. Now the people who liked me before are annoyed by the neophyte fans coming in – ‘I liked Reg before he went synthesiser!’” But whether they are new fans or old, audiences at “Some People v. Reginald D Hunter” will all leave the show with one thing in common: the feeling of having enjoyed a wonderfully entertaining night of comedy.
“Some People v. Reginald D Hunter” is currently touring the country’s theatres. Tickets are available at http://www.reginalddhunter.com/uk-tour-2017/