Updated: Jun 20, 2020
Comedy has been around since 6th century BCE, dating back to the Ancient Greek theater, but the profession is a neglected and unappreciated form of art.
For this reason alone, we decided to speak candidly with Sampson McCormick, one of the first openly gay, black comedians, to set the record straight and get the details on his new stand up comedy concert special.
Born in Evergreen, North Carolina and later raised in Washington, D.C., McCormick is a man of many titles within the entertainment industry, including film director, writer, actor and producer. With his short films like A Different Direction and Party-N-Play, McCormick has managed to make a name for himself in all that he chooses to pursue, all while using his platform to speak up about controversial issues that plague the world.
The world is currently undergoing some tumultuous times with the COVID-19 pandemic still among us and the recent unjust murder of 46-year-old George Floyd, an African-American man killed by the hands of David Chauvin, a Minneapolis Police officer who was filmed pressing his knee to Floyd's neck for nearly nine minutes during an arrest.
In his new comedy film, Church Boy, which was taped during a run of sold-out shows in D.C., McCormick touches on topics like mental health, homosexuality within the black community, dating and much more. However, McCormick’ new special is guaranteed to set aside any anxiety that we all may be experiencing and replace it with heartfelt laughter.
While comedy may be his one true love, I wanted to get to know McCormick beyond his work to figure out where he draws his inspiration from. It’s here that McCormick lays out his deepest, darkest secrets on how he managed to make a name for himself in the industry.
Before I get into the nitty gritty, how are you coping with everything going on in the world? Describe your emotions to me in regards to the COVID-19 pandemic and the social climate following the death of George Floyd.
In a rather serious and frustrated tone he replied, “This is something we know we have to live with as black people in this country, so it’s something that we’re not shocked by. No matter how you look at it, it does something to you knowing that we have to live in a world where we have to fight for our humanity because of the color of our skin. There’s so many emotions that we’re going through...along with the fact that we’ve been stuck in the house for these past few months.
We’ve become so desensitized to everything that’s going on and to see an 8 minute and 46 second video where this officer had his knee on the back of this mans neck; that’s a modern day lynching.You see, I’m a comedian, so when people talk to me they be like ‘damn, he be going deep’ but comedians are deep. In order to reflect you have to go down deep.
What we have to do, us black people...it’s time to burn this sh*t up. And not just black people, but the white people who claim they like us, they need to be out on the front line burning sh*t up too.
It took us running around in the streets with some signs for y’all to say we’re gonna defund the police department and put the money back into schools. All of it is a game. They’re not cutting sh*t. Now they’re knocking down all these statues but what does that do? What’s them laws looking like? Where’s our reparations at? We need to start getting nasty and start demanding stuff. Let nothing be good enough because it’s gonna happen again. And it's gonna happen tomorrow. But it may not get the same media attention. We can’t allow ourselves to continue to be manipulated.”
You’re one of the first openly gay black comedians. What shaped you to take on such an important role and what responsibilities do you feel you have to the community being in this position?
“Well first I should tell you that I was one of the first openly gay black comedians to do stand up. I’ve been doing this for almost 20 years. While I don’t brag about it a lot I am a pioneer in this business and that has meant fighting a lot of battles that people shouldn’t have to fight, but in doing so, I’ve created work that got the attention I wasn’t given a chance to get and [created] work that shows there was an audience for LGBTQ content and also black LGBTQ content.”
“I’m not at a point in my career where I do this because I love it, not really because I have anything else to prove. Obviously you do want recognition for your work but we are in a culture now where more of us have platforms, more of us are able to tell our stories, more of us are getting on television and more conversations are being had. I do comedy because I couldn’t live without doing it; I’d be a hot mess without it! It keeps me centered and sane and it’s my life’s purpose. That’s why I do it.”
He goes on describing the relationship between blackness and gayness, stating that storytelling is the root of both cultures, though he mentions comedy is a very unappreciated form of it.
Being that you’re so versatile in the entertainment industry, how does your work in comedy transfer over to film and vice versa?
“The difference is timing. Comedy is all about timing. It’s the same thing you do at home with your friends or at the club when you’re standing around kiki-ing, except you have a performer who has timing. A monologue is all about timing.”
“For film, there’s a storyboard that you would have to follow along with. Also, there isn’t a demand that there is on a stage to keep an audience engaged in a certain way. When you’re on stage for comedy you gotta be funny the whole time. Although, in a film it can be funny in some places and sad in other places or throw in a surprise laugh etc. and you take them on more of a ride.”
With all the havoc going on in the world, it’s certainly risky releasing new projects during this time, as many may say it’s insensitive to do so. I'm curious of your reasoning behind wanting to release this comedy film now. What is your underlying message?
“The purpose for releasing it right now was to remind people that we need to laugh. I remember when we put it out, there was a heaviness in the air and I was talking to my producer and he said, ‘I think this was the worst possible time to put it out.’ It felt as if it was released during this war. But later on I had people who wrote to me saying they needed that because they had been inundated with everything that they were seeing on TV: the news, social media, protest etc. The thing about the special is [that] I’m not as political as I have been in some of my previous work, but I do still talk about a lot of social issues such as navigating through a community that’s been gentrified, going to the barbershop as a gay black man and dating.”
“Dating is not what it used to be when I was growing up. When I was nineteen, dating was a lot more fun. People got together and were actual friends before they started dating. There wasn’t such a thing as ‘Netflix and chill’! Now everyone has those apps and will be together and then say ‘I got bored of them’.
People are dealing with all that while in the midst of a pandemic, and so it gave people relief from all the craziness. There’s definitely something special about it and I’ve always put out work that’s special for its own reasons.
Since you have a fair share of experience within the film industry, what is your take on the way the LGBTQ is depicted in films nowadays? How do you think we can display a more authentic version of the community on television?
“I think they are represented properly if we (LGBTQ members) are doing it, but how many tables do we get to sit at in the larger part of the industry? Over my career, I've been so close to getting my own sitcom about 3 or 4 times. They’ll tell you ‘That’s too black and too gay. You have to pick one’ and my response to that is ‘I’m very much both of those.’ They want to dictate to you how that story needs to be told but there’s no way to dictate my life because my life is -- what my life is; these are my experiences and this is the way it needs to translate on paper and then on that screen. It’s important for us to tell the stories because it’s more authentic that way.”
“Another thing I think is important is using artist who are actually gay to represent those characters instead of some of these straight actors playing these gay characters."
"Moonlight was a brilliant film and Tarell McCraney who developed the Moonlight concept is a good friend of mine. I try not to step on his toes too much because he’s an artist and I’m sure he wasn’t responsible for the casting of it but as someone who is gay and knows what we go through in this business, I think it should be the responsibility of those who create these project to get LGBTQ people onboard. It’s going to take our community to support our stuff too. Why isn’t Darryl Stephens in anything? Even though he’s in a little bit of trouble why don’t we see Jussie Smollett on anything? How about Wilson Cruz? It’s going to take our community to support our stuff as well as these gay entertainers being able to sustain and push through the hardships that the industry will throw at them.”
It wasn’t too long ago that we covered a story on McCormick confessing his rather bad experience with Good Times star, Jimmy Walker, alleging that Walker stopped him from opening his show after realizing McCormick was gay.
Being that you’ve now established a much larger platform for yourself since then, would you have handled the situation any different today? What advice would you give to young comedians who may run into a similar experience?.
“If it would’ve been me today I would’ve took his ass to social media!"
"That was about 12 or 13 years ago, and I truly wasn’t expecting that story to blow up the way it did but if it happened today I would’ve called him out a lot sooner. As far as advice to anybody in the business, I’d say really to believe in yourself and when people hear that they think that means always being super confident and never doubting yourself.
Every now and then something is gonna kick in and you start asking yourself, ‘why do I deserve this?’ or ‘am I good enough?’ If you don’t have those thoughts then you don’t belong in the business because that means you don’t care. It’s really about facing those doubts and through it all, choosing to apply positive self thoughts. Other people may not like the stuff that you do but you have to like what you do and you have to make smart business decisions."
Being that you’ve been in the business for so many years, what goes into creating all your comedy skits or projects? Is your style more improv, or do you draw from personal experience?
“The process changes over time. For me there’s a standard of ideas that you have and then how you develop each idea varies. I could sit down on my bedroom floor and develop the whole thing right then and there, or it may take me a year to develop something. It’s just a matter of being aligned with yourself and understanding that as you create you’re going to go through dry periods and that’s okay. You just have to trust yourself enough to know that as long as you don’t quit and stay dedicated to what it is you’re doing, you’ll figure it out.”
As a black man I’m sure you’re well acquainted with the pressures that our parents put on us to go to a good school and get a good job such as a lawyer or doctor, etc. What was your experience like when you expressed to your family that you wanted to go into comedy?
“My mother was totally against it and I’m pretty sure she wanted me to go to the military but I wasn’t going to no military. There were a couple of things I was considering doing but nothing stuck until I discovered comedy. At that point I was 15 or 16 to get into a nightclub that I was too young to get into. Of course my mom didn’t know so I would sneak out. I’d roll up a blanket and sneak it under my comforter so it’d look as if I was still there.
One night I took her wig to the club with me to do a skit. She never really wore this wig, but of course that night she decided she wanted to wear that wig.
When she couldn’t find it she came to ask me if I had seen her wig. This was back in the day to where you had cell phones but had to buy minutes to put on the phone. It wasn’t until 9 o’clock that the minutes would be free. So around that time that I was leaving the comedy club, and she started blowing my phone up.
When I got home she had about 8 police officers in front of the house and much to the officers surprise, they were surprised to see how old I was because the way my mother made it sound they thought I was 2 or 3! That night she told me I couldn’t go to anymore comedy clubs and put me on punishment for about 6 months.
Nonetheless, I still kept sneaking out and I had never questioned her authority up until this point, but when she saw it was something I really wanted and would stand for, she allowed me to do it. She wasn’t too crazy about it, as well as the fact that I was gay, but she decided to come to this show; one of the first shows she had ever come out too. Of course she was uncomfortable because there was a bunch of gay people, but it was a sold out theater...and when she saw how happy I was...and how much money I had made from that one night, and after I handed her 40 bucks, she supported it.”
Who was the most influential person that kept you so consistent while chasing your dreams?
“Even though my mom and I had a lot of problems it would definitely be her. We still aren’t as close as we need to be and as she gets older that’s something that I’m working on but we don’t choose our parents. Even though she did a lot of things that made me hate her a little bit, she is one of the toughest people I know, and I grew up looking at that. She demanded the best for herself and she instilled that in me. Everything I did had to be the best, and so I still have that. No matter what happens between us, I’m grateful for that. Outside of family, my second grade teacher, Ms. Walters. When I was younger I did terrible in school and the only thing I would get an A in was art because I was always so artistic.
I got a lot of beatings and stayed on punishment most of my childhood, not to mention I was on plenty of medications growing up.
Ms. Walters was the teacher who said, ‘you don’t need medication, you need an outlet.’ So every Wednesday she’d give me 5 minutes to stand in front of the class and do whatever I wanted to do; singing, dance, tell a story, etc., and that's when I first started doing comedy. With that, I was able to build my performance...and I started doing my work because she was like my fan. After that my grades started going up.
She’d walk me to my mother's car everyday after school and speak to my mother about my behavior in which she expressed that she wanted to work with me. One day she told me, 'I know your mother gives you medicine in the morning so don’t take the medicine'. So every morning my mother would give me the medicine, and I’d hide it under my tongue and walk to school.
Ms. Walters would make me spit it in her hand, put it into a zip-lock bag and then put it into her desk. Maybe she could’ve got into trouble for that, but she was willing to take that risk and that is something that has affected me even today. By the time the third semester came around my grades shot up, and I was 1 point away from making the honor roll, something I had never even come close to. That fourth quarter, I made the honor roll and that taught me I could do anything if I created the right circumstance.”
If comedy was a person that you took out on a date, what would you say?
He chuckled and replied, “It wouldn’t be no talking; we would be having some hot sweaty passionate sex all day! I’ve been in a couple of long term relationships but comedy is the closest to a marriage that I've been in, and I’ve been damn near engaged a couple times.
I’m a great lover, and I know that because any dude I’ve dealt with has tried to come back! I am an experience and I know that.
People think about marriage and they think it's always a honeymoon and it’s not. Sometimes people are lucky enough to find someone that’s like being with their best friend but imagine how awkward that can get after a while. It’s almost like being with your brother or sister. On the flip side you can get into a relationship with someone where you come into it together with your differences but you learn to compromise to make the relationship work and then you grow. Comedy has challenged me in that way. It hasn’t always been perfect, but I understand what commitment is, and commitment means that even when things aren’t going so well you have to weather that storm and figure it out.
It’s been a very challenging partner that has been with me for 20 years but it’s an investment that I’m very grateful that I made and it’s made me better as a person; I wouldn’t have a life without it.
Where do you see yourself in the next 5 years?
He answers with no hesitation, “I am currently working on promoting Church Boy and I’m gonna be working on some things on Netflix soon. Be prepared to see me on some series and some recurring roles. Aside from that I’m also producing 2 brand new films. One of them will be a major motion picture that’ll be in the same field as Moonlight or something like that. That one’s gonna involve a story that’s been in our community for a long time; over 25 years. We’re finally taking that story to the screen and it’ll be an adaptation from a very well known book in our community.
I’ll also be producing another independent film that should be in theaters as well or at least Hulu etc. I look forward to getting back on the road whenever the time is right for that and really growing as an artist. I plan on doing more television, motion pictures and touring, as well as using [my] platform to make people laugh, but also learning, coming together and giving people an experience.”
If you haven’t seen it yet, make it your business check out Sampson McCormick’s new comedy film Church Boy, which can be watched on several streaming services! If you’re looking to be the first to know of McCormick's new projects be sure to follow him on Instagram: @sampsonmccormick. Until then we’ll keep you in the loop of all things Sampson from here on out!