WASHINGTON — On Sunday, when Dave Chappelle accepted the Mark Twain Prize, essentially the most prestigious honor in comedy, the primary individual within the star-packed viewers (Jon Stewart, Tiffany Haddish, Sarah Silverman) he singled out in his speech was Tony Woods, a stand-up whom few outdoors comedy circles had heard of.
Comparing his affect to that of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie on Miles Davis, Chappelle spoke on to Woods: “I was trying to play like you,” he stated. “You were the first person I ever saw do it absolutely right.”
Tony Woods, the dean of Washington comedy, one of many most interesting, most underrated incubators of stand-up expertise within the nation, has by no means starred in a film or headlined his personal sitcom or speak present. He hasn’t even launched an hourlong particular. But few comics immediately are extra naturally humorous or have been as influential.
Two days earlier than Chappelle paid tribute to him on the Kennedy Center, Woods, who’s in his 50s, ambled onstage throughout city on the basement house of the DC Improv, took his fedora off and positioned it delicately on the microphone stand. In the center of one in every of his many digressions, Woods requested a query from the facet of his mouth. “Do you know I can’t go to Jamaica?”
He paused to let imaginations wander, then he leaned again, as if he had modified his thoughts about letting us know the reply. But he smiled and defined how he received into hassle with the tourism board there for a joke about how a lot pot folks smoke. Woods stated: “The guy said: ‘You want to smoke?’ And I said, ‘Land the plane first.’” Then he hit the microphone along with his hand, his model of a rim shot.
Listen carefully to Tony Woods and you may hear echoes of Dave Chappelle. There’s the low-key type, the conspiratorial glances, the shift from meditative mosey into explosive punch line, the peculiar and emphatic pronunciation of the phrase “man.” But the obvious hyperlink is likely to be the best way they punctuate a punch line by hitting the microphone. Chappelle drops it on his leg and runs away, whereas Woods faucets it, however the impact is similar.
The similarities imbue Woods with a sure mystique in comedy; he’s the Rosetta stone for one of the crucial important stand-up careers of the previous couple a long time. In August, the standup Hampton Yount joked on Twitter: “Dave Chappelle always does a fake run off the stage after a joke, not because it’s good but because he sees the ghost of Tony Woods career every time.”
But there’s a difference between the sincerest form of flattery and the anxiety of influence. Over the years, Chappelle has become a far more political and philosophical comic than Woods, a defiant violator of norms and wager of cultural wars. When he started doing standup at 14, the most influential comic in America was Eddie Murphy, whose fast-talking profane swagger was widely imitated and amplified when “Def Comedy Jam” (originally hosted by Martin Lawrence, another D.C. product) brought black club comedy to a national audience on HBO. In interviews, Chappelle worried that the expectations set by this show pigeonholed black comedians. “It’s limiting everyone,” he told The Washington Post in 1993.
Woods, who would often drive Chappelle home from shows, offered an alternative model. He had a laid-back, meditative style, a mellow brand of cool that Chappelle shared. Today, this conversational approach, so different from the tight observational humor or aggressive ranting popular in the first comedy boom, has become more common.
In the old divide between comics who say funny things and those who say things funny, Woods has always belonged firmly in the second camp. He toys with language, favoring malaprops and mispronounced words (he has a ball with “ferret”). He also spins yarns about sex or Mister Rogers (even mixing the two a bit), and specializes in benign lies, introducing white comics as N.A.A.C.P. award winners and describing himself as a 92-year-old sharecropper born during the Depression.
His comedy has a silliness that veers close to pure nonsense. “So, we’re down here,” he said, soon after taking the stage at the Improv, eyes at half-mast, downshifting into a sigh, before sputtering into nonsense: “Yeah, for real, you know?” Then he pointed out that the door by the stage was not really a door and the D.J. in the back was actually just a guy pressing buttons. Folding his arms, he glanced left and right and leveled with us: “We’re in the pantry.”
Woods was hosting the show, introducing a handful of local comics, but taking the most stage time. One local comic, Rahmein Mostafavi, ribbed him from the stage: “Tony did a tight 45.” Woods said he knew he was supposed to hype up the crowd and goose them into applause, but he waved his arms in a parody of enthusiasm.
When he asked where audience members were from and someone yelled, “Chicago!” Woods responded, “O.K., calm down.”
There’s one version of the career of Tony Woods that sees him as essentially tragic. On an episode of Marc Maron’s podcast, Wanda Sykes, who is also from D.C., seemed exasperated that he hadn’t broken through to the mainstream. “You have all the pieces to the puzzle,” she said. “Just put it together.”
But watching Woods perform in his hometown made me wonder about our definitions of success. As the night wore on, his oddball delivery became quirkier, as he added whistles and guffaws and mimed a kangaroo. “When God came to Australia, he started playing jokes,” he said. “He gave them pockets but arms that couldn’t reach them.”
As his show stretched past 12:30 a.m., the comic Rod Man, who was headlining upstairs, made a surprise drop-in, looked at the crowd and described it as a “hostage situation.” No one else seemed to feel that way. Woods certainly looked comfortable just lingering, the most relaxed man in the room.
When a comic walks offstage, the show is over. In live stand-up, you have to be there. But this is even truer with Woods, since his act doesn’t really translate fully outside the room, and you can’t find a slick version of him on HBO or Netflix.
And yet, if Tony Woods proves one thing, it’s that you don’t need to be captured on tape to stand the test of time. A joke told in a club may be an ephemeral thing, but it can stick with people for a long time and even inspire some to tell more.