With summer fast approaching, many are looking forward to going to area amusement parks in search of thrills and excitement. The new Comedy Connection at the Wilbur Theatre aims to provide both this Friday night, when they introduce New England to the comedic rollercoaster ride called Arnez J.
A very physical comedian whose natural athleticism drew interest from the Philadelphia Phillies and Harlem Globetrotters in the past, Arnez J. is a stand-up veteran who has developed a reputation across the country as an act you don’t want to miss. From humble beginnings as a Continental Airlines flight attendant who was encouraged by colleagues and passengers to give comedy a try, Arnez has carved out an impressive career. He has appeared on “Russell Simmons’ Def Comedy Jam,” “Comedy Central Presents” and Showtime’s “Comedy Club Network,” and hosted “BET’s Comic View.” You never know what you are going to see when Arnez performs, but you can be sure that it’s going to be memorable.
The Banner recently caught up with Arnez just as he was getting in to his Atlanta home. One of the first things he talked about was how important it is for him to treat his fans as family.
I know this is your first time coming to Boston, but often, when talking to people in different parts of the county about live stand-up comedy, you’ll hear them say, “Arnez J. is coming to town, I have got to go see his show.”
You have to start building your family, and by that I mean your audience family. And you have to treat them like family, treat them well, and you have to respect them. Because if you don’t respect your fans … you’re nothing. And it will catch up to you. …
Because you have to realize, being in the entertainment business, [that] you were on the other side listening to someone else before you got into it. I was a fan because I was listening to entertainment [and] comedy or [watching] sitcoms … before I got into it. So I had to remember how I felt when I went to see somebody that I wanted to see, as far as being entertained by them. And when I became excited … man, let me tell you something, when I saw Bootsie Collins (laughs) — when I was real, real, real young — But when I saw Bootsie perform, I almost lost my mind.
And that’s the same type of feeling that I want from my fans. I want them to feel like they’ve got to see me. And it’s not being vain. It’s that I appreciate it, and I feed off of that. … Every time you hit that stage, you should never have an excuse. [Even] if you’re having a bad day, if you had a meeting that day that went bad — don’t get up on that stage if you’re not going to give 100 percent of what you got.
You don’t just give 100 percent, you give 150 percent — I don’t think I’ve seen a show or a clip of you where you haven’t ended the show sweating, even in three-minute sets.
Well, I am afraid to fail. And with me sweating and with me being physical, that’s who I am. That’s a part of me. But you know, as we get older, we slow down a little bit. (laughs) We change direction. But [I] still stay true to what [I] do. So if I’m sweating, that’s a good thing to me.
In 2002, you hosted “BET’s Comic View” on rollerskates. How did that come about?
(laughs) It was a challenge. Somebody tried to challenge me that I couldn’t skate. I said, “Are you out of your mind? Dude, I’m number one. Period.” (laughs) I had a ball. We bought some skates and I put them on — didn’t even break them in — and took them on stage. All because somebody did not believe that Arnez J. knew how to skate. …
Are you saying that the rollerskating wasn’t a rehearsed bit? That you actually improvised all that on national TV?
Yep, that was improvisational all the way.
You don’t curse in your set. Not to say that you don’t have adult content in your material, but you don’t use swears in your material. Is that something you made a conscious decision not to do?
Well, no. It came on its own. I’m not a swearer anyway, but every now and then, I’ll put a curse words in there. But not a lot, because it just is not necessary.
Knowing what you know now, which would you have preferred: being a professional athlete or doing comedy?
I would have liked to have probably played about 10 years in Major League Baseball. And one of the reasons is baseball is my favorite sport, and I still love the game. And now I have a son who plays and is a top prospect. So baseball is something that I just love. So at the time, I think I would have taken the baseball route.
The mix of your comedic talent and your athleticism must have made your time with the Harlem Globetrotters a perfect fit for you. How was that experience?
That’s pretty much why I was obtained by them. I had ball-handling skills and I could shoot a little bit, but it was mainly my “clownship” more than anything. I wasn’t the premiere player … but, you know, it was an experience, and a lot of fun for me.
Not only are you an athlete and comedian, but with the national theatrical plays you’ve toured with (“The Maintenance Man” with Billy Dee Williams and “Friends and Lovers with Miguel A. Nunez Jr.), you’re also a thespian.
Yeah, that’s what they say. (laughs) When I did the play “The Maintenance Man” with Darius McCrary, who was Eddie Winslow [on the hit TV show “Family Matters”], and Billy Dee Willams, believe it or not, that was my very first play. And it was a beautiful experience, because it allows you to hone in on your acting chops. And the play did very, very, very well. It sold out almost every place we went.
Watching your act, you remind me of a revved-up Tim Conway.
From “The Carol Burnett Show!” He was actually one of my favorite comedians — him, Flip Wilson, Carol Burnett. I’ve seen old tapes of Red Skelton. I used to love to watch, and I still get the DVDs of, “The Carol Burnett Show.” It was some of the funniest, crafty, clean comedy … that I think I had ever seen in my life.
They were fun. You understand what I’m saying? They were fun. And her presence, her stage presence, was just flawless to me. Because she was a female, but [also] she had — not had, has — talent. She was nice. She is very engaging to the audience. Her audience just loved her. And she was probably one of my favorite comedians.
You talk about some of your favorite comedians — coming up. Did you have comedy mentors? People that you turned to for advice?
Actually, I didn’t have too many [formal] mentors. Of course, there were people who stood by me to say, you know, “It’s going to be all right,” or, “Don’t worry about it.” Those types of people are who I had around. So I didn’t really have the [formal] mentors, but I talked to different people who were in the game. Bernie Mac wasn’t really a [formal] mentor to me, but he offered me good information, which I took heed from, and I’ve even learned things from D.L. Hughley. But I’ve pretty much been a person who flew by the seat of my pants anyway.
Coming to Boston and performing at the all-new Comedy Connection, what are you looking forward to?
Making Boston want to have me come back. That’s what I’m looking forward to. I’m looking forward to them not having enough of me. Because when you don’t have enough of me, then I definitely have not had enough of you.
Arnez J. will be performing two shows on Friday, May 15, 2009, at 7:30 p.m. and 10 p.m., at the Comedy Connection at the Wilbur Theatre, 246 Tremont Street, Boston. For tickets and more information, visit http://www.thewilburtheatre.com.
Corey Manning is a stand-up comedian by night, a super hero by day, and a freelance writer when he has the time. Check him out at http://www.coreymanning.com.