News Column

Comedian Gary Owen finds comedy across cultures

August 23, 2013


Aug. 23--Gary Owen has followed a recognizable path for a rising comedian and actor: comedy-club gigs, spots on Wayans brothers and Tyler Perry sitcoms, roles in the hit 2012 ensemble film comedy "Think Like a Man" and forthcoming Ice Cube-Kevin Hart comedy "Ride Along."

Most emerging comedians on this path, though, are African American. Owen often is the only white actor in a movie's main cast, or the lone white comedian on a multi-act club bill.

African American audiences have embraced Owen, 38, who hosted and performed standup on BET's "Comic View" series. In 2011, Ebony magazine deemed him "black America's favorite white comedian."

Martin, performing tonight, Saturday and Sunday at Sacramento's Punch Line comedy club, derives some of his culturally themed act from his Cincinnati, Ohio, home life. His wife of 10 years, a travel agent named Kenya, is African American. The couple have three children.

In his 2012 stand-up special "Gary Owen: True Story," made for Showtime and now streaming on Netflix, Owen jokes about telling his biracial son that he only gets to celebrate Black History Month for half of February. Owen also underscores the differences between buttoned-up worshippers at white churches and their more participatory African American counterparts.

Owen pokes fun at everybody, most often at himself, saying he once intended to be "the Eminem of comedy" but ended up its Vanilla Ice.

Born and raised in Cincinnati, Owen started doing standup while in the Navy and stationed in San Diego. He performs often for service members, and had just returned from a tour of bases in Japan and Guam when we reached him last week at his home.

Ebony called you "black America's favorite white comedian." How did you go about achieving that title?

Well, I always say, in comedy, you don't choose your audience, they choose you. And it's just happens that a lot of stuff in my act, it's not so much racially based as culturally based. I am married to a black lady, and obviously there's going to be differences. ... I host the Shaq tour (Shaquille O'Neal's All Star Comedy Jam), and I have been in two sitcoms, (Perry's ) "House of Payne" and "The Wayans Bros," geared toward an African American audience.

How did your connection to African American audiences first develop? Was it tied to talking about your wife and children onstage?

Even before I met her, I used to talk onstage about how I thought black girls were pretty. ... I would say, "So where's this Tootie girl from 'Facts of Life?'" (laughs) ... On another note, when I started doing stand-up, I was living in San Diego, and if I was gonna stick to the mainstream rooms, I would be lucky to get up (onstage) once a week. Whereas I could go to the quote-unquote 'hood or urban spots and get up three or four times a week.

You could get up onstage, but were audiences always receptive? Was there skepticism?

No, and you know what? A lot of black comics have told me this once they've gotten to know me: When I first was there, they said, "Oh, is it one of these guys who is just going to pander and say something stupid in quote-unquote black lingo to get people to laugh?" But once they got to know me, and really know my act, it's not that at all. I am saying what the differences are between race or cultures, but I am delivering it as Gary -- I am the same guy onstage I am offstage.

Getting married and having children provides a bounty of material for many comedians. Did it do that for you?

I think with any comedian ... the older you get, the better you should get because you have more life experience. Now I have my kids to draw from, and their friends, and everything else.

What was your job in the Navy?

I was a cop. I was a terrible cop. It was too much paperwork. I was like, "I am cool with all the field stuff," but when I realized you had to do all this paperwork, I was like, "I don't think I'll be arresting this guy. 'Hey, go 'head, man. This is a warning.'"



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