At the release party for comedian Nore Davis’s album Too Woke last week, friends and fans gathered to see sets from Phoebe Robinson, Damien Lemon, and Petey Deabreu at a gallery in a converted warehouse in East Williamsburg, sipping on free sparkling apple cider and taking in the album’s original artwork. “Sorry I couldn’t afford the liquor license,” Davis joked after taking the mic to kick off the night. “Hopefully, by the next album I’ll be able to get you all drunk.”
After being named a New Face at Just for Laughs in 2014, releasing two albums and an Amazon special, and doing his first late-night set on Conan this year in June, Davis celebrated his new album Too Woke with a stand-up and art show featuring creative renditions of his album cover by up-and-coming artists. The artwork was given away in a raffle at the end of the show.
Davis’s album, dropping November 23, is a unique and curated mix of jokes about toxic masculinity (“Just cry, man!”) and hip-hip’s ego problem (“You didn’t steal my girl. I was wack and she left”) as well as life with his transgender brother and more personal topics. Davis’s clever and conscientious jokes are cut by high-pitched shrieks reminiscent of a young Eddie Murphy. After her set, Robinson called Davis, whom she befriended at the Pratt Institute when they were teenagers in an African-American Studies class, “one of the greatest comics of our generation.” Davis also shared that he’s working on an HBO special and Comedy Central half-hour in January.
In an interview for Vulture, Davis opened up about the album’s concept and artwork, how he got started in comedy, and what he’d be doing if he never found his medium (hint: move over, Vin Diesel).
First of all, the album is awesome. There’s a strong theme throughout, and each track stands on its own, but I loved how the Phoebe Robinson interludes pulled it all together. What inspired that was basically the hip-hop albums I grew up on, like 36 Chambers or Wu-Tang Clan, where they’d have a skit or a radio DJ, and I wanted to give Too Woke like its own radio station. Phoebe definitely has a good voice for that. I wanted to bring some of those exciting elements into a stand-up album, something that gives you that warm, welcoming feeling of like, Oh, I’m gonna listen to something that’s like conversational. Cool and inviting. And definitely something different.
The major theme is toxic masculinity, which you don’t approach from a defensive standpoint but rather call out. What made you focus on that? I mean, that’s the focus and the temperature of the country right now. I felt like, instead of hearing a man try to defend it, let’s hear a man try to dissect it and digest it, and also help fix it in the form of laughter. It’s about listening to what women are experiencing and then having that empathy. So, that’s why I had to tackle that topic. I also looked within my own life and realized, Oh, I’ve experienced this, or, I do have a father that’s been doing that. Even I grew up in a toxic-masculinity environment, where the only thing that taught young black men how to be men was R&B and rap, and DMX and R. Kelly are not good fathers, I’ll tell you that.
You also have a unique perspective when talking about your transgender brother, like being comfortable enough to call him an asshole in a joke for flaunting his new facial hair and making fun of yours. What does he think about you including him in your stand-up? Oh, I did stand-up about him in my first album, Home Game, that came out in 2014. He loves it, and I also love to make him laugh about it. It brings us both together, really. And I think it helps him to tell his own story. He’s never the butt of the joke; he’s just part of my experience. And he’s always been supportive. We’re in a time when this topic is so taboo, I think comedians don’t know how to tackle it, or they try to tackle it and they really have no business doing it. I feel like I do, which doesn’t give me the right to say whatever I want, but it just gives me a genuine, authentic perspective because I’m speaking from experience.
Do you feel pressure to do more political or topical comedy, considering the relentless news cycle we’re living in? Actually, I don’t feel pressure at all. I feel like once you try to tackle headlines, they’re gone the next day. If there’s a headline or topic that I see I can personally speak to, then I will. Because that’s when it becomes art for me, and not about just trying to get people to react because it’s trending. That’s all white noise. If there is a story that hits, like the Trump transgender memo, where I think I can lend something to it, I will. And if not, then I just leave it alone. I have to be emotionally attached.
You had the art-show component of the release party, with all the different album covers, and you’ve also been sharing these seven alter-ego characters that you developed to sort of represent being “too woke.” Why was it important to you to have these visual elements go with an audio special? First, I just wanted a very interesting album cover, and then it just started to develop into these characters that reflect a moment, or a voice, in my stand-up that I built a theme on. Whether it’s Norvell, or Nojus, or Nathaniel, Nadeem, Norman, you know, the characters are all me, but I just extracted the feeling or emotion in my joke and said, “What would that character be?” It was inspired a little by Orphan Black, or What Happened to Monday. Then my imagination just developed from there, and I built the characters, gave them names, and imagined how they looked and talked, and wrote out bios for them. Then I got the great Frank Williams Miller Jr. to design them.
So you got this added artistic value that also doubles as a way to promote the album. Yeah, it’s a nice marketing rollout where people can get a little hooked and say, “Hey, what is that?” Because when stand-ups release a stand-up album, they just release it and then it’s over. Like, that’s it. It’s one Instagram post and that’s a wrap. But I wanted to give it much more life. We put so much time into going onstage and bombing and traveling and trying to figure out the tone and the writing. And then when we get it down, we put out an album and it’s over. Right back to the drawing board. So, it’s like, Nah, I want to give this more life, give it more character. Pun intended.
What’s your stand-up origin story? How old were you when you started doing comedy? I started around when I was 24 and I’m 35 now. I did improv for like a year in college, and then just stand-up after that. I was going to the Pratt Institute, and I saw Ben Bailey come perform there. I also watched the UCB tour group, I think that’s when Chris Gethard and Aziz Ansari were in it. They were just having fun. And I was like, “Man, I want to do that.” Like, I always knew I was an artist. I was going to school for graphic design, but I just knew those other kids were so much better. Like I was trash. I knew I wanted to be an artist, but had to find my medium.
So, I went to the Comic Strip Live. They had a class there with D.F. Sweedler. He taught me to stop cursing, or saying the N-word, and actually have a punch line and a point. Then it was just trial and error for the rest of my career, just doing the road, and I got into the college circuit, so I could financially support myself and not have a nine-to-five. I had a job as a graphic designer for like five to six years. And after six years I was able to fully support myself doing stand-up by doing odd jobs, gigs, fundraisers, colleges, and city spots.
What do you think you’d be doing if you never got into stand-up? I know you were a graphic designer, but would you be doing that or something else? I think definitely something in the arts, ‘cause I don’t like control, and I don’t like nine-to-fives. Maybe like opening an art gallery, or producing. Definitely something creative. Oh, you know what? Here’s a better answer: If I wasn’t doing stand-up, I would be street racing. Yup. I would be street racing.
Like, Fast and the Furious style? Yeah, Fast and Furious, all that. I used to do it in high school. I loved the adrenaline rush. Before I went to college, my mom was about to put me in stunt-driving school. I just loved racing and taking my car, or taking her car, and just going out there, hooking it up, and trying to make it faster. She didn’t know. I would lie and be like, “Yeah, Ma, I need money for school books.” And she’s like, “Okay, how much?” I’m like, “Yeah, $200.” And then I’d just go buy an intake or something. It’s a whole subculture. And stand-up, it’s like street racing, just that if you bomb, or you crash, you don’t die. You just get offstage.