After his Woolly Mammoth debut with The Second City’s Black Side of the Moon in 2016, writer/performer Felonious Munk returns to Woolly with Nothing to Lose (But Our Chains). Woolly Mammoth Literary Fellow Mia Levenson spoke with Munk about how the show evolved from his life story and its relevance inside and outside of the comedy world. As he told us in Black Side of the Moon, “It’s never just about the jokes.”

Protesters gather outside the police department in Ferguson, Mo., on Aug. 14, 2014, amid the first wave of unrest following the fatal police shooting of 18-year-old robbery suspect Michael Brown. The protests galvanized a national conversation on racial justice — and inspired the title of Felonius Munk’s show ‘Nothing to Lose (But Our Chains).’ (Photo: Jamelle Bouie via Wikimedia Commons.)

What made you decide to become a comedian?

I started doing comedy right after the worst of the recession. Prior to that, I was a professional finance director for multiple car dealerships, and the economy hit me hard because I was a high earner. I was in this place where you are free to try stuff because nothing is working anyway. A buddy of mine suggested I try stand-up comedy at an open mic. The first time I did it, it felt like I was free, and I couldn’t stop. Comedy gave me this freedom to be this person who I always thought I was.

That led me to trying to find ways to get better at comedy, to try and get more material out, and I started a web series on YouTube. It was just a place for me to rant, and some of the things were socio-political issues couched in comedy. One video went viral with three-million views in two days.

A news director in New York called me and asked if I wanted to do one of these socio-political rants with comedy on the news. I went, “Nah, not at all.” He said, “But we’ll pay you,” and I said, “That’s what you should’ve opened with.” That transitioned me from doing straight stand-up into focusing more on satire.

Moving to Chicago is how I ended up meeting people from The Second City. A buddy of mine and I had a stand-up show called Blipster Life. It was pretty much a living satire — the idea was that on the North Side of Chicago, which is almost exclusively white, we were allowed to do shows but we didn’t fit in, and then on the South Side, which is almost exclusively Black, we were allowed to do shows, but again we didn’t fit in. Our aesthetic and worldview were kind of our own, instead of us falling into either one of these categories. That’s what got the attention of [The Second City’s] director Billy Bungeroth.

Where did Nothing to Lose come from?

During rehearsals for Black Side of the Moon, I inadvertently blurted out, “Well, I’ve been to prison before, so none of this scares me.” Billy’s head swung on swivel, and he went, “What? When?” We continued to talk about my background, and he said, “I think there’s a show in there somewhere.” I thought that this was as good a time as any for a story about not following the status quo and breaking away from the ideas we’ve been conditioned to.

We started writing it, and I got scared because it meant that I had to expose family and friends to wounds that maybe they don’t want public. Then my mom came to visit, and the first thing she said was “I know you’re doing that show, and it’s supposed to be about your life. You can’t protect me. This has to be your truth, or don’t do the show.” And that’s when the show took its … not final form, but the closest to what it is now: my mom giving me permission to not need her permission.

Nothing to Lose (But Our Chains) is a title with a lot of historical weight behind it. How did you come to choose that title?

I was in Ferguson in 2014 with my then-girlfriend, who is now my wife, and I saw this young lady, Alexis Templeton, yelling out “We have nothing to lose.” The crowd would respond “But our chains.” Every day in front of the Ferguson police department, she would bring her bullhorn, and she would yell these things. One day, the bullhorn was dying, and this tiny person threw the bullhorn and, with hundreds of people surrounding her, yelled out “We have nothing to lose.” All of these people went completely silent and responded “But our chains.” It was extremely powerful to me that we were in this situation — maybe day eight of every night being shot at, tear-gassed, wooden-pelleted and enclosed in this space. This is all happening, and I’m looking at this maybe 24-year old woman staring this all in the face and yelling out “We have nothing to lose but our chains.”

I was aware of that as an Assata Shakur quote, but I had never thought it was still relevant. I realized that she basically said it was about living. It wasn’t about dying or being afraid; it was about “If you’re not willing to risk everything, you can’t possibly lose these chains.” That’s the only thing that matters to lose.

Some of us aren’t just oppressed by the larger society, we’re oppressed by the ideas that we’ve been conditioned with from birth. Living your authentic self, being who you want to be, regardless of how much money it makes you, that’s the only life worth living. This show is my personal journey through understanding that we’re all supposed to be doing the thing that we love.

How do you see comedy’s role in our current political moment?

Comedy makes things cool, and I think we, as comedians, can make progress and humanizing people cool as well. Humanizing people who’ve always been human, but also making it uncomfortable for bigots again.

You can’t just go on stage now and your whole act be punching down. It’s not funny anymore. We’re all looking at you like, “Where’s the joke?” There’s no joke. Stop being shitty, and if you’re funny, find a way to be funny without being shitty. If you can’t do that, then maybe you’re not funny.

It’s about taking consideration for other people who you’re talking to. Understand how you’re uniquely positioned to say the things that you’re saying. For me, I know that one of the things that I have the ability to do differently as a straight Black guy comic is to amplify women’s equality and LGBT issues, because I may make it easier for another straight Black guy to not be shitty. Or I might make him uncomfortable when he’s about to do this joke.

What do you want audiences to take away from Nothing to Lose (But Our Chains)?

I want this show to give people an opportunity to look at themselves and forgive themselves, to look at the people who have harmed them and forgive those people, and maybe move forward. Not just second chances, but humanizing fuck-ups. Because we’ve all done things, and this show is about not overlooking those things, but loving people in spite of their not being perfect.

// Interview by Mia Levenson, Woolly Mammoth Literary Fellow