Discussing comedy, coffee and Colbert with Rob Cantrell
For a guy who drinks a lot of coffee, Rob Cantrell does not give off a jittery vibe when he talks, either on stage or during an interview.
After grabbing an early afternoon cup of joe, which followed morning cups of joe, and was likely followed by late afternoon cups of joe, the Brooklyn-based stand-up comic and I had a pleasant conversation on Tuesday that touched on topics both serious and silly and several points in between.
I asked Cantrell, whose love of hip-hop is evident on his “Dreams Never Die” album, to pick his favorite rapper of all time, we discussed his experience working on screen with Stephen Colbert and in clubs with living legend Dave Attell and much more.
TC: I ask this because I see it on social media and even in a couple of stand-up shows: Are you telling any Ebola jokes?
RC: I’m not great with the topical humor so I would say no. A lot of coffee jokes. (interviewer laughs)
It scares me, the Ebola. It scares me how scary it is and how scared people are of it. The whole thing is a big clusterfuck.
TC: The paranoia is one thing, but it’s also a very real disease that has killed a lot of people. Some of the jokes in the beginning were kind of funny, but now that it’s become much more of a threat in the U.S. — either real or perceived — I don’t find it that funny.
RC: The stuff dies on the vine really fast. If you’re the first guy out of the gate that can hit it, it’s usually a good move.
I got my flu shot. Will that fight Ebola, the flu shot? I take an Emergen-C every morning. I think my immune system could probably handle it.
TC: Who is your all-time favorite rapper?
RC: Oh! That’s a hard one, man.
TC: You can pick two if you want.
RC: MCA (the late Adam Yauch of the Beastie Boys) and DMC (Darryl McDaniels of Run D.M.C.) because they seem like nice guys and they seem like good dudes. It’s not pure, ego-driven (rhymes), but they also don’t softball it, you know? It’s straight up the gut.
I was thinking about that, like writing about complex stuff. I just like shit that’s straight up the gut. Just hand it off to the fullback and let him run it right up the gut. I’m simple that way.
They’re not the most technically proficient (emcees), but they both had really cool sounding voices, they seem like dudes I’d like to hang out with and, especially MCA, had a lot of next-level thoughts on global affairs and evolving as an artist.
TC: I’m really glad that you went old school and didn’t give the standard Biggie or Tupac answer. Not that those guys aren’t great, but I’m 40 years old. I grew up on Rakim and KRS One and those kind of guys. I just feel like those guys had a little more soul to them. That might be my age bias, but I’ll forever say that Rakim’s my guy.
TC: Was working with Stephen Colbert as cool as it seems?
RC: It was cooler. He’s sharp as hell, funny, in the moment, not kiss ass-y. He’s just a good dude. He was hilarious.
That scene with him, smoking pot out of his shoe from underneath his desk, it was really stressful. One of the producers I used to do stand-up with texted me and said “Can you come up to the studio and do this scene today?”
I called my wife, we got a babysitter and I went up there within like three hours (of getting the text). Some stuff got cut, but there were five lines and they were all hilarious. The key was I had to be under his desk before the segment started so the audience doesn’t see me. You had to do it all in one take. As a comic, you only get that first, fresh audience laugh the first time, you know?
A producer sneaked me in and there’s a trap door and the prop people had a bong attached to his shoe. The prop people are amazing. We had cherry tobacco and (Colbert was) like, “Rob, I want you to toke on this thing hard. The bigger the cloud of smoke, the funnier it’s going to be.” I had to time it. At a certain word, like 30 seconds in (to the bit), I had to start toking on his shoe. Then I had to pop up, blow a big thing of smoke, hit it again and then exchange lines with him. Everything had to go right.
In rehearsal, I flubbed a couple of lines and he was like, “Rob, just read off the monitor.” There are five monitors surrounding me! But I got it.
I’ve learned to shut up when I’m around true masters. I think I may have said one or two things (pre-show to Colbert), but I should have shut up even more. I shouldn’t have said anything and just try to glean as much as I can off the man.
TC: Speaking of masters, a couple of weeks ago you were part of Dave Attell’s Comedy Underground show. How did that go?
RC: I did two nights with Dave and got to ride in a car with him like we were doing road gigs in the 80s.
He is the master of stand-up and on top of that, he is one of the kindest dudes. He’s gruff, but he is sharp, hip and super nice, especially if you’re a comedian. He totally gets the struggle. It was an honor to work with him.
He prides himself on working hard, not at the fame game or candy-ass material or pandering, but really just trying to get to the funny.
TC: Did you get weird looks from people when you were outdoors filming “Universally Speaking” episodes, talking to trees and lamp posts and whatnot?
RC: It was in a total hipster part of Brooklyn so not at all. People pretty much just walked by. It’s all weird. Some dude’s on a unicycle. Some guy’s juggling squirrels. (interviewer laughs) That’s the thing about New York. That type of stuff doesn’t phase people that much.
Thanks for checking out that series. I’m really proud of it. It didn’t go viral and people didn’t get it completely, but it was at a weird time when YouTube was handing out money and I was able to pitch something. My pitch was me just interviewing trees and I would do these weird voices like I was doing a talk show, but I was interviewing trees instead of celebrities. I still love that idea, but it got bounced around and we ended up with “Universally Speaking” and it was really cool to have all those super funny, talented people (Kurt Metzger, Greer Barnes, etc.) on it.
Here it is, The Best Tweet I Can Find In Five Minutes:
No, Dolly Parton & Whitney Houston, it is I who will always love you.
— Cameron Esposito (@cameronesposito) October 22, 2014
Photo by Mindy Tucker