Why comic Reginald D is ‘facing the beast’

Brexit, Donald Trump, racism, the class system, relationships, gender politics - American comic Reginald D Hunter, who hails from Albany, Georgia and relocated to London 20 years ago - finds the funny in a freewheeling range of subjects, delivering his witty, droll, deadpan and sometimes racy observations in a thick-as-molasses deep southern drawl.

Much of this charismatic provocateur’s comedy focuses on the cultural differences between US and British social mores, mapping the Transatlantic disconnect between American uber optimism - chasing the American dream, finding life sweet as cherry pie, all hail the Star Spangled Banner, the slogan heavy jargon that predominates - ‘let’s make America great again!’ - and our local penchant for slagging everyone off, sarcasm, existential gloom and lack of bombast - the “Irish do white people without the entitlement” quips Reginald rather astutely.

He’s a pro at sending up white people trashing whole black economies, the incipient racism sadly inherent in a lot of Anglo-American culture - “I consider it a good day if nobody tries to shoot me!’ - and has a lot to say about female craziness, the absurdity so much of life entails and the rather stupid attitudinal biases we take for granted.

The critics have given the magnetic Mr Hunter high praise with The Times describing him as a “comedian going for broke flying in the face of received opinion in a way that is simply exhilarating”, while The Telegraph calls him comedy’s “coolest customer”.

Reginald, 50, who is a regular on TV panel shows like 8 Out of 10 Cats, Have I Got News For You, QI and Nevermind The Buzzcocks, says nothing beats the buzz of standup, since it’s often the “only time of the day that everyone I’m talking to is smiling. It’s the only time of day that people are very happy to see me - I can’t even count on that from my own family!

“What I live for is those moments where something comes out of my mouth or an audience member’s mouth that completely surprises all of us. You can’t orchestrate that. That’s when you laugh till there are tears in your eyes.”

His new show, Facing the Beast, takes him on a 40-date tour of the UK and Ireland which sees him perform at Belfast’s Ulster Hall on June 29.

So what’s it all about?

“Well, ma’am,” says Hunter. “It’s really about...you know when people don’t know what they did - or claim not to. Like when my momma would tell me to go and get the belt and not pretend like I didn’t know what I did wrong. Our society is like littered with people who don’t know what they did. Brexit, Trump -- all these people acting like they don’t know what they did,” he chuckles, a deep, throaty, filthy laugh like a dude who knows just where it’s at.

“Trump can’t get us in the arena of facts and morality, so he’s moved it to a circus where all the laws of gravity are suspended and context doesn’t mean anything. All that matters are feelings, and perspective is greater than reality.”

He laments the rise of right wing parties across Europe, something he’s been tracking for a number of years now. “You know the truth is that Germany was defeated but Nazism wasn’t really defeated - it still exists in other forms. It’s back in some senses. White people who are supremacists are the real problem. With racists it’s slightly different - you can buy them a drink and by the end of the night they’re like I don’t care what I thought about black people.

Reginald grew up in a big family in Georgia, one of nine children, and started to display his showbiz inclinations when he completed an acting internship in Jackson, Mississippi, at age 20. At 27 he had won a scholarship at the very prestigious RADA, moving to London and qualifying as an actor.

“Several years later I was living in Birmingham and I’d just got sacked from this terrible pantomime I was doing, I was playing Long John Silver. The man who ran the company, he had this funny thing he liked to do from time to time like, ah, not pay us, and I had a few words with him about that and that was me out.

“I had like £200 to my name and I didn’t even have quite enough to fly home. What I decided first was that I was going to get drunk. I was talking to some of the dudes in this pub. There was a sign on the wall that said there was comedy every Tuesday night...so I thought, yeah, maybe...

“It was about five minutes before I was introduced on stage that I realised I didn’t have any material, all I had was an attitude and an accent. From the time it took me to get up from my seat and walk to the microphone I had my first joke and it went really well.

“I wasn’t in love with standup yet, so if that hadn’t gone well I probably wouldn’t have tried it again. I got some big laughs for stuff that I just came up with on the fly and then I was hooked. What hasn’t changed in the 20 years I’ve been here is that there’s nothing like the feeling you get when people laugh at a new joke you’ve just come up with. It’s awesome. When you do that it makes Trump better, it makes food better, it makes sex better.”

But the life of a comic can present its challenges. “There was a time when I wasn’t laughing a lot personally and then it is hard to get up there and be funny when you’re not in the mood.

“It’s easy to be wonderful when you’re your best self. The hard bit is when you have to get up to go to work and you don’t feel like it. Do standup for 20 years and you don’t want to be doing it every night!”

Part of Reginald’s forthcoming show is a need to point out that sometimes ‘something is right and something is plainly wrong and in this day and age I think we’re often slightly afraid to say right is right and wrong is wrong. Yes or no. Everything has become too grey and too much a matter of perspective.”

Citing some of his biggest comedy influences Reginald names Tom Rhodes, who is supporting him on his current tour. “He’s been doing this for 30 years and has perfect comic timing so I have an animal as my lead officer. I’ve a masterclass going on before me every night and it really helps me raise my game. I think hang on let me go and get my best shoes and let’s go!

“Growing up I loved Richard Pryor and I think 70s television messed me up a bit. I had so much unsupervised TV time. My Dad was off arguing, or chasing booze, or my Mom was working jobs. But I remember very vividly catching Dave Allen on screen when I was about eight or nine. The amazing thing about that was I didn’t know anything about Ireland or the UK, I was in the third grade, but he was such a great storyteller that I still got the humour and the brilliance of it. I understood. And I thought I wanna be like that and sit in a chair with a glass of vodka and tell a lot of damn good stories and make people laugh til it hurts.”

So what does he hope that audiences will take away from “Facing the Beast”? “I hope that sprinkled in with the jokes and the absurdities is a reminder that we do have solutions like civility and being able to admit you’re wrong when you clearly are wrong.”

But ultimately, “There’s nothing new under the sun. The only new things in the world are mobile phones and the internet. Everything else is based, as it always has been, on money, power, land and sex.

“The people who read Shakespeare will recognise that!”

l Reginald D Hunter, Facing the Beast, Ulster Hall, Belfast, June 29. Visit www.ulsterhall.co.uk or call 02890 334455.