Tony Woods, who was the first person Dave Chappelle mentioned when he accepted the Mark Twain Prize, has never starred in a movie or headlined his own sitcom or talk show. But few comics today are more naturally funny or have been as influential.
Dave Chappelle accepted his Mark Twain Price on Sunday. The price is comedy’s most prestigious honor. However, with a star cast audience in attendance, which includes Jon Stewart, Tiffany Haddish, and Sarah Silverman among others, he singled out a not so familiar name in comedy circles in his speech. Tony Woods.
Chappelle speaking directly to Woods compared his influence to that of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie on Miles Davis. He said, “I was trying to play like you, you were the first person I ever saw do it absolutely right.”
A Veteran and one of DC’s Finest
Tony Woods may not be as popular as Dave Chappelle, but he is regarded as the dean of Washington comedy. He is one of the finest, most underrated incubators of stand-up talent in the country. Tony may not have starred in a movie or headlined his own sitcom, talk show or released an hour-long special, but there are not many comics today who are as naturally funny or as influential to comedy.
Two days earlier, before Chappelle paid tribute to him at the Kennedy Center, Woods, now in his 50’s, had been on stage in a basement space of the DC Improv across town, taking off his fedora hat, and placing it on the microphone stand. As he talked about a number of things digressing often, he asked a question from the corner of his mouth, “Do you know I can’t go to Jamaica?”
He paused to let his mind wander before leaning back in a way that seemed like he was going to let out the answer. Then he smiled and explained how he got into trouble with the tourism board because of a joke about how much pot people smoked there. Woods said a guy asked him if he wanted to smoke, and he replied that he should let the plane land first, and then he hit the microphone with his hand to indicate a rim shot.
The Master and Student
A carefully listen to Tony Woods reveals some of what Dave Chappelle typifies. The low-key style, the shift from the meditative to the explosive, the conspiratorial glances, the unique and assertive pronunciation of the word “man.” But the most obvious link comes from their style of punctuating a punch line by hitting the microphone. While Chappelle drops it and runs away, Woods taps it, but they produce the same effect all the time.
It is these similarities that make Woods’s comedy special. He is the Rosetta stone for one of stand-up’s most influential comedians in the last few decades. Hampton Yount joked on Twitter in August saying, “Dave Chappelle always does a fake run off the stage after a joke, not because it’s good but because he sees the ghost of Tony Woods career every time.”
However, differences are emerging as they both seek to take on issues differently. Over the years, Chappelle has grown into a far more political and philosophical comic than Woods, known for defiantly violating the norms and a wager of cultural wars.
At the time he started doing stand-ups at 14, Eddie Murphy was America’s most influential comic whose fast-talking profane swagger was widely imitated and amplified when “Def Comedy Jam” (hosted originally by Martin Lawrence, another D.C. product) brought black comedy to the nation on HBO. From interviews at the time, Chappelle worried the show set expectations that ended up pigeonholing black comedians. He told the Washington Post in 1993 that “It’s limiting everyone.”
Woods, who regularly drove Chappelle home after shows, offered a different model. His style was a laid-back, mellow, and meditative brand that Chappelle shared. This conversational approach today, which is far-flung from the tight observational humor or aggressive ranting that was popular in the first comedy boom, is now the common style.
Woods’ Unique Style
In the old divide that separates comics who say funny things and those who say things in a funny way, Woods has been firmly rooted in the second camp. He always toys with language, going often with malaprops and mispronounced words. He also goes into talks about sex or Mister Rogers (sometimes mixing both). Woods specializes in kinky lies, introducing white comics as winners of the N.A.A.C.P awards and describing himself as a 92-year old sharecropper that was born in the Depression.
His comedy showcases silliness that is capable of veering into outright nonsense. He says. “So, we’re down here,” just as he takes the stage at the Improv. Eyes at half-mast, before heaving a sigh, then sputtering into meaningless quips: “Yeah, for real, you know?” Then pointing to the door by the stage saying its not really a door and the D.J right at the back was just a guy pressing buttons. He folds his arms, glancing left and right and level with the audience, “We’re in the pantry.”
Woods was the host of the show. He introduced some of the local talents but taking up a bulk of the stage time. One of the local comics, Rahmein Mostafavi, ribbed him from the stage. Rahmein said, “Tony did a tight 45”. Woods was aware of his job to get the crowd excited and goosed into applause. Instead, he waved his arms in a parody of enthusiasm.
When he asked the audience members where they were from, and someone yelled, “Chicago!” Woods’ response was, “O.K., calm down.”
What Could Have Been
There’s a version of Tony Woods that has been basically tragic. On one of Marc Maron’s podcast, Wanda Sykes, who is also from D.C., seemed displeased about his inability to break through to the mainstream. She said Woods has all the pieces to the puzzle, but struggled to put it all together.
However, watching Woods perform in his hometown makes one wonder about what we success really is. Further, into the night, his delivery started getting quirkier. It began to feature whistles and guffaws. He mimed a Kangaroo, saying, “When God came to Australia, he started playing jokes. He gave them pockets but arms that couldn’t reach them.”
As the show wore on past 12: 30 am, the comic Rodman, who was headlining upstairs, dropped in surprisingly. He took a look at the crowd, and described it as a “hostage situation.” No one really felt that way. Wood seemed more comfortable just lingering, the most relaxed person in the room.
A show ends as soon as the comic walks offstage. But with live stand-up, you always have to be there. And this is more so with Woods. His act does not translate outside the walls of the room. And he has no slick version of him on Netflix or HBO.
And yet, Tony Woods proves one thing. It’s that you can stand the test of time even when not captured on tape. A joke told in the club may be transient. However, they are the kinds that stick longer with people and even inspire some to tell more.