While growing up in Mount Vernon, N.J., Talent Harris lived up to his name.
In his younger years, he played basketball, football, baseball. He also had a hip-hop group, a dance group and dabbled in graffiti art. But, way back in 1992, he found his true calling: stand-up comedy.
“I always knew I would do comedy as a little boy, as a kid – eight, nine years old,” says Harris, 48, on the phone from his Mount Vernon home. “However, as an eight-, nine-year-old, I didn’t know you could make a living (off of it). I thought it was a hobby.”
He had a job as a warehouse manager, writing jokes for a comic buddy on the side. But his jokes would bomb when it came out of his boy’s mouth. So, he eventually took the plunge, telling his jokes onstage, getting high off the laughs.
“In nine months, I had to make a decision,” he remembers. “I had a few dollars saved up and I quit my job, which was a great job, and chased it. And the first year into it – it was very promising.”
For over a quarter of a century, Harris (who is known as just Talent) has been a well-known figure in the African-American comedy scene. On TV, he’s been on the regular spots: “Def Comedy Jam,” “ComicView,” “Showtime at the Apollo.” He’s known for hitting the stage, immediately advising the audience not to take his material seriously (“It’s just comedy” is a recurring catchphrase of his). He also does comedy with both hands literally full: a mike in one hand, a bottle of beer in the other. Harris admits that the bottle is there to make sure the audience never sees him sweat.
“Comedy is constantly a nervous-energy type of thing,” he says. “So, when you’re up there telling jokes, it comes out of whatever hand is not doing anything. So, you got one hand being taken up by the microphone and, then, there’s that free hand and you see people twitching, they’re going in their pockets – it never sits still. So, you kinda show that you’re nervous, and I never wanted to let the audience see – even if I was nervous, which I always am – I never want it to show.”
Over the years, Harris has maintained a nice living as a touring comic, but he usually doesn’t play the regular comedy clubs whenever he visits a city. He says that black comedians get more bank playing makeshift rooms – bars, restaurants, lounges, nightclubs, banquet halls –in African-American communities.
“If you go mainstream and use a comedy club, for instance, if you’re not a reputable person already, if you don’t have some sort of notoriety to yourself where you’re known, you’re making peanuts, you know,” he says. “You’re gonna go up there for that same show that one of those rooms may give you 150-200 bucks for, and a comedy club may give you 25 dollars for. So, financially, when a person makes up their mind that this is what they wanna do to make a living, it’s almost not feasible in a mainstream comedy club until you become someone, whereas, in a makeshift room, you don’t really have to be anyone in particular – just funny.”
It’s gotten to the point where Harris has created a nice hustle for himself, managing, booking and promoting his own shows, whether it’s in a nearby city like a New York or a faraway locale like Jamaica. Just a couple weeks ago, he was in St. Lucia doing standup.
“About 4-5 times a year, I market, host and perform at these getaway things for people,” he says. “They’ll get together and say, ‘Well, next July, we’re gonna go to Aruba.’ And then, my company jumps in and we plan and itemize their week in Aruba. And, then, at the same time, there’s another company over there that’s hiring me to come in and do Jamaica, and somebody wants me to do a cruise. So, all those things my company jumps in on.”
But his calendar isn’t completely filled with exotic hotspots. This Saturday, he’ll be in Durham, as part of the “Legends of Comedy” show with fellow African-American comedy vets Rodney Perry and Chris Thomas.
What: Legends of Comedy with Talent, Rodney Perry, Chris Thomas, Chubb Rock and Corey Manning
When: 8 p.m. Saturday
Where: Carolina Theatre, 309 W. Morgan St., Durham
Info: 919-560-3030 or carolinatheatre.org