What a Laugh
Baron Vaughn’s career is on fire. The comedian and actor has had several supporting roles in films (most notably Cloverfield and Fairly Legal) and a number of stand-up appearances on talk shows. And now, he's got a regular gig on the hit Netflix series Grace and Frankie, which recently released its second season, with a third already in the works.
Vaughn has also been cast as the voice of Tom Servo in Netflix’s upcoming Mystery Science Theater 3000 reboot, and he has a new comedy album (his second) set for release this fall. With so much going on, we're not sure how he's managing to squeeze this in, but starting August 29, Vaughn is beginning a weeklong residency at Amphibian Stage Productions, offering audiences a look at his creative process as a comedian. First, though, he sat down for a quick chat with us on why he chose Fort Worth as his testing ground, what he's planning next, and why his audience is so crucial to him.
CultureMap: Why did you decide to do a residency in Fort Worth, at Amphibian Stage Productions, as opposed to doing a bunch of shows at places like Caroline’s in New York City?
Baron Vaughn: I found an interesting community of people here. You wouldn’t have thought they were here, but they are. I’m happy they exist. A comedy club has to make business decisions. But a theater like Amphibian Stage — their business is art and theater, which can be all sorts of different things.
Stand-up tends to get shoved into one hole. There are many different kinds of comedy, and at a comedy club, it all gets shoved together. Sometimes that’s not the most conducive way to build a set or audience. A club prioritizes itself over what they put on stage. But this is a situation where I am being featured in a way that allows me to experiment more than a comedy club would allow.
CM: You have a theater background. How does that affect your approach to comedy?
BV: Going onstage has never been difficult for me. Stage fright is something a lot of comedians struggle with. They struggle with feeling comfortable being watched by a group of people or figuring out how they want to present themselves onstage. I had a sense of that before I started doing stand-up.
I also knew how to sustain a performance. The true test of a comedian, in a lot of ways, is if they can do an hour and sustain an audience’s attention. With acting, you have to learn how to do that pretty early.
CM: You recently recorded your second album. So, what are you preparing for in Fort Worth?
BV: I am releasing the new album, Blaxistential Crisis, in October. Now, I am working towards doing an hour-long special next year.
CM: A special for Netflix?
BV: Who knows? It’s ironic, because I’m on a Netflix show. You’d think they’d go, “Oh, a person who’s on our channel. We should do something with that.” But that’s sort of not necessarily how their system works. I don’t know yet. I want to work on the hour and get it strong, so that way I know that I have it by the time I’m filming it. Maybe I can get someone to produce it or say that they want it. I’m starting that process this week in Texas.
CM: You have many jokes about the questions audience members ask after shows. Do you expect more material from an audience who knows you want their feedback?
BV: Laughter itself is the feedback. But I might actually take notes from the audience. It’s always interesting to consider how people have received what I said. If people keep misinterpreting something or if a bunch of people can’t psychologically or emotionally handle certain subjects — that is interesting for me to explore. If I go into material that makes people uncomfortable, I need to explore that discomfort and why it exists. That could lead to another 10 minutes of material.
Stand-up at its core is collaborative with the audience. One of the reasons I wanted to do this is to get that feedback night after night and apply it right away.
CM: You are having lots of success right now and have plenty of upcoming projects. But you've also been doing this a long time. Does it ever get overwhelming?
BV: It always feels really cheesy when people say "I am so blessed and fortunate to be able to do this for a living." But, that being said, I am so blessed and fortunate to be able to do this for a living. There are a lot of people doing things they do not want to do to make it through each month.
I have to remember that this is all an illusion, it’s fake. What’s real is always your family and friends, the people who really know you and you can trust. The people who don’t care what you do or don’t have going on, that know you from back when — it’s important to keep them close, so you are always connected to reality. It’s very easy to get swept away in how talented or successful you think you are. That can also lead to how hard it is to deal with the rejection that this industry has. All your self-worth can get wrapped up in what the next job is going to be.
CM: You have a podcast with Leonard Maltin, and the stars of Grace and Frankie are in their 70s. What's this dynamic with you and people twice your age?
BV: What was interesting about the podcast was that we are so different, from different eras. Part of the fun of it is the tension between Leonard and I. But what we agree on is what I thought was interesting about the podcast. Grace and Frankie is a show starring people in their 70s and in their 30s, mostly written by people in their 50s. There’s three generations of comedy minds coming together to invent something that is funny today.
Again, there is going to be a lot of stuff we don’t agree on. But what we agree on — there’s going to be something to that. That’s where you find the things that are going to be more universal.
CM: What should we expect from the Mystery Science Theater 3000 reboot?
BV: [Creator] Joe Hodgson looks at the show like it’s Star Trek or Doctor Who, you can do a reiteration of it. I think people feel so connected to the show because it feels like you are hanging out with your friends, making fun of a dumb movie. People can expect that again. We’ve got a lot of good jokes. We just recorded a bunch of stuff. I have to say it’s looking really good.
CM: Do you worry about nerds being critical of any changes?
BV: We all know that nerds love change.
But yeah, I wonder. This stuff with Leslie Jones, for instance, is so insane. I do not understand how it is that someone could be so upset. It’s the dregs of humanity. I don’t understand what anybody would hope to achieve. What good could possibly come from tearing down somebody who worked so hard? She hasn’t had anything handed to her.
Baron Vaughn appears at Amphibian Stage Productions at 8 pm, from August 29 through September 3. Purchase tickets here.