100 Creatives 2013: Billy D. Washington, Comedian
Courtesy Billy D. Washington
Comedian Billy D. Washington says that one of his most memorable Houston moments was playing to a crowd of 52,000 in the Astrodome. "A country act was supposed to open for Hank Williams, Jr. and Lynyrd Skynyrd on Friday and I was supposed to open for Gladys Knight and the Pips on Saturday. My agency got the dates mixed up," Washington said. "I got there expecting 52,000 black people, but it was actually 52,000 rednecks."
Washington explained that the show was during the OJ Simpson trial in 1995. "My first line out of the box was, 'I think OJ did it too.' After that there was a roar in that Astrodome that I've never heard in my entire career."
Houston born-and-raised, Washington was a cop for five years but has made a big splash in the comedy world over the past few decades. He appeared on HBO's Def Comedy Jam in the late '90s, performed at HBO's Aspen Comedy Festival, and continues to tour to comedy clubs all across the country. Lately, though, he's been branching out into new genres as a writer and director of gospel plays such as his currently touring production, "Finding First Lady," that focuses on a preacher who is a participant in a reality show to find a wife.
What he does: "For years, I would say I was a comedian. If they asked me now, it ranges," Washington explained. New writing projects like plays and reality TV shows have expanded his horizons, and Washington even writes his own music. "The short answer would be entertainer."
Why he likes it: "There is No. 1 and a 1(a). No. 1 is what I do on stage, and 1(a) is the writing aspect. My style onstage as a standup is different than what people would expect from an African-American comedian. I'm very serious onstage: people have described me as 'seriously funny.' I can get inspiration from a lot of different sources. I can hear a line on TV or read a book and do a bit around it. I've been influenced by everyone from Mark Twain to Michael Dyson, anything from Russian military strategy to Jay-Z. I weave these random references into what I do on stage."
What inspires him: "With my material and my storytelling, I'm inspired by who's going to see it. I imagine an audience in my head and I say, I think that this audience will appreciate this piece of material or this story. Knowledge also inspires me. I've never proclaimed to be a smart guy on stage, but every time somebody recognizes me as such, it's even more of a compliment than hearing that I'm funny. My father always told me if I couldn't be funny, be interesting. I think I am far more interesting than I am funny."
"In terms of the subject matter my thought process is so random. I write one-liners on napkins, keep notes in my phone. Sometimes I'll be getting to a joke and not have an end to it. I just put it on stage and see how people gravitate to the concept."
If not this, then what: "Mental health really interests me. Just in terms of the way people think, what makes people happy, what makes people sad, angry, what makes them emotional. I don't know whether I'd be an analyst or a psychiatrist, or a psychologist, but I think it would be there. I'm always interested in what makes people tick, or the anatomy of different audience and how they take what I say on stage."
Courtesy Billy D. Washington
"These jokes aren't for everybody. I always include a line at the beginning of my show urging people that I need them to be able to think in my head in order to appreciate what I do. It's always interesting how people react to what I do based off who they are. The more I know about the audience the more interesting they are to me...why they enjoyed me, why they picked their favorite bit."
If not here, then where: "It wouldn't be LA or New York. If I did either of those to me it would be conforming. I've done the LA, New York thing. I would probably live in the Cayman Islands. I could run a comedy club there, perform for tourists. It would be a different audience every week from all across the world. There I could pitch my wares internationally. I've performed there before and it's always interesting to see how my American, Houston humor translates to an international audience."
What's next: "I'm doing a lot of writing," says Washington. In addition to his plays, Washington also has a few TV pilots circulating, both reality shows and fictional comedies. But Washington says that it's what he does on stage that really defines his identity as a comedian. "TV stuff is cool but it's only maybe 30 percent representation of what I do. My live shows are more me: more underground, more sarcastic, kind of rude. There are things that I talk about that I can't talk about on TV." Washington tours around the country headlining at comedy clubs. He says to look out for him at Improv Houston where he regularly gets on stage.
Washington says there will also be more performances of his one-man show, "Hue-mor," in the future. "The show is reflective of my journey as a black person in stand-up comedy. Includes racial observations that come from a black person that's a little bit more conservative than liberal," Washington says.
In the end, Washington says he never loses sight of his Houston roots. "I am one of the comedians that gets offended when mainstream comedians discount the South as less eloquent than everyone else. Everywhere I go I take my Texas pride with me."
More Creatives for 2013 (In order of most recently published; click here for the full page). Michele Brangwen, choreographer and dancer Kristin Warren, actress and choreographer Kelly Sears, animator and film maker Colton Berry, Bayou City Theatrics' artistic director jhon r. stronks,dance-maker Joe Grisaffi, actor, director, writer, cinematographer Jordan "Monster Mac" McMahon, artist, designer
Get the Theater and Arts Newsletter
Exclusive discounts and announcements to Houston theater shows and art events