Barry Brewer: Chicago comedian keeps us laughing
Blog 5 of 8: Actor/comedian gives tips on humorous public speaking for Toastmasters
As a member and the (former) Vice President of Education of Unity Toastmasters (a community club in Toastmasters International), I chose one of eleven Pathways — “Presentations Mastery” — as a public speaking goal. This is the blog series of eight posts I wrote in one month to complete Level 4.*
No matter what mood you’re in before you arrive at Unity Toastmasters, chances are pretty high that a smile will cross your face. We’re politically edgy. We love topics about everything from business to culture to relationships. But we also love to laugh, hence the reason this club consistently makes sure there is a Jokemaster to start each meeting (right after the short openers from the president and the Invocation message).
That’s yet another reason to be excited about the 11th new path, the Engaging Humor Path, in Toastmasters. We want to be inspired, and we also want to be entertained.
There are no hard and fast rules for what the Jokemaster can say. They read the room and tell whatever anecdote or short, punchy joke comes to mind.
But where do these funny people, specifically funny public speakers, go to find inspiration to boost their own moods? Chances are pretty high that if you’re into humor writing and public speaking, you gravitate toward other funny people. This includes professional comedians.
In honor of that, this Q&A interview was completed with one of Chicago’s own: stand-up comedian Barry Brewer whose first comedy special “Chicago I’m Home” released on Feb. 19. (He is also starring in BET’s “Games People Play,” alongside actors Lauren London, Sarunas J. Jackson and Jackie Long.)
Shamontiel L. Vaughn: Thank you for speaking with me today. Let’s start with the basics. When did you first get into comedy?
Barry Brewer: I was 19 when I first got into comedy. I love to laugh. I played the drums and piano for this community choir, and everybody thought I was funny. One guy asked me to do some jokes for this upcoming concert. I put a skit together that I thought was funny. I got a standing ovation in the church after my performance. After seeing the reaction to that show, I realized I found something I didn’t know I was looking for and thought, “This is it!”
SLV: There are two ways of looking at you, as a musician. You either hid behind your instrument and wanted to zone out and play. Or, you were the musician who wanted to be seen. Which were you?
BB: I wanted to be accompaniment. I didn’t want to hide behind it, but I didn’t want to be upfront. I actually learned how to play an instrument because I didn’t want to sing in the choir. I can sing well. I was just hesitant to do so at that time. I sing onstage often now though. I bring my piano onstage. It’s not in my special though because the songs I would’ve wanted to sing are copywritten. But I do sing in my stand-up routines.
SLV: So it’s safe to say you’re not shy?
BB: I’m not shy. No.
SLV: You didn’t have the kind of stage fright that some people have?
BB: I grew out of it. At 19, I was shy. There’s a difference between everyday life with your people and then an actual performance. You feel comfortable around your friends. But stepping in front of strangers, from comedy to public speaking, it’s just a different element. Sometimes you run into people who are very outgoing. But when it comes to public speaking, they are just not the same people.
SLV: How did you learn how to connect with the latter group?
BB: I tried to bring who I was everyday on the stage. Repetition made me more comfortable.
SLV: There’s an added challenge with stand-up and humor, in general, where you might go in front of one crowd and they fall over laughing. They think you’re the best thing ever. And then you get in front of another crowd, and you get the [in unenthusiastic voice] “Ha, ha, ha.” How do you deal with those two crowds?
BB: [Laughs] Great question! I started out on the South Side of Chicago. Coming from church to inner-city clubs to more mainstream — or white — clubs, I was apprehensive about how I spoke. I felt like I didn’t articulate like everybody so maybe they wouldn’t get me. It’s actually easier to be funny to a mainstream crowd once you’ve made black people laugh. White people [generally] come with the expectation that if you came to the stage, you must be funny. Black people, we’re different. You have to prove yourself to us. You could light yourself on fire, and we’ll go, “Meh, you didn’t burn up all the way.”
SLV: [Laughs] You’re describing me. If I paid my money, you better make me laugh.
BB: Exactly! Because I came up in those kinds of crowds, I developed my stand-up so now I can go against a crowd that doesn’t care. I started in that atmosphere and learned to adapt. Now it’s easy for me to be sensitive and feel the atmosphere in the room.
SLV: You said something earlier that also caught my attention. Toastmasters has more than 357,000 members in approximately 16,600 clubs in 143 countries. Once a year, we have an International Speaking Competition where people come from around the world after competing in their local clubs. The 2018 International Speaking Competition was in Chicago. And if the competition is in the United States, there may be some people competing whose first language isn’t English. Your comment about being articulate in front of a mainstream crowd may connect with some members.
BB: That competition sounds amazing. I’m also grateful for having the opportunity to expand to an international audience. I got a chance to perform in Dubai, which feels like Las Vegas for the Middle East. I was able to overcome my initial insecurities by learning that people are people, regardless of language and race. There are topics that everybody can relate to. People can relate to being a sibling or parent or mother or father. And if they can’t relate to it, they know people who can. My skill set as a storyteller helps me bring them in my world. I can paint the picture for you so you can enjoy the journey. Maybe you don’t know anything about the South Side of Chicago, but you will by the time you hear and see me.
I also talk about my own experiences and misconceptions. The United States has a complex relationship with the Middle East. I went to Dubai where I’m seeing people wearing hijab everywhere. That was culture shock for me. I talked about that to them when I performed. I went to a mall in Dubai, and you see families. You see a father yelling at his child in another language. As a father, I can relate to that. You see everything that you’d see at home, but just in a different place. The lesson I learned from international travel is that you’re not so different than everybody else. Just because you speak a different language or are from humble beginnings or even if you grew up elite, there are lots of topics that can relate to all. If you’re able to dial it in as a storyteller, public speaker or a comedian, you can be effective.
SLV: Storytelling is one of the focus areas in our Toastmasters “Advanced Communication” series. Why do you feel storytelling is so important in comedy?
BB: I think for comedy, it has more to do with the storyteller than the story. You can have a great story, but maybe you can’t convey it the best. I recently met public speaker Les Brown, and speakers like him are interesting because of the way they present these situations. If you’re not a natural at public speaking, or humor, study the greats. Study people who have been successful at it. Then, find ways to make it your own. Don’t mimic them exactly. Find a happy medium, and understand that it comes in time.
SLV: That’s great advice! Last question before you go. Everybody’s humor is different, and some people prefer more vulgar comedy as opposed to clean comedy. Toastmasters who give humorous speeches, including in our annual Humorous speaking competition, are all over the place. Some members play it safe. Others are comfortable being edgy. As a clean comic, do you find your niche harder?
BB: No, I don’t find it hard at all, mainly because this is me regardless. People ask me what I think they should do: be raw or do clean comedy. I think comedy is about self-expression. It’s an artistry in which I like to project myself onstage the way I view myself offstage. For any great stand-up comedian that you love and appreciate, they were honestly themselves. My brand of comedy is no knock to Bernie Mac, Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy or anyone else. My comedy is who I am. What I like and prefer is inspirational, positive stuff.
To order Barry Brewer’s upcoming special “Chicago I’m Home,” click here. A portion of the proceeds will be donated to Walter H. Dyett High School for the Arts and Chicago International Charter School via Children’s First Fund.
Additional posts from Shamontiel’s eight-part Toastmasters blog series:
This post was originally published on February 10, 2019 on Chicago Now’s “Message from Montie” blog.