William Stephenson is a New York City comedian with a Motown pedigree. Born at the University of Michigan Hospital in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and raised in Detroit, he caught the entertainment bug early. After high school, William’s journey into show business was one of winding paths that all led to the stage. A brief stay in Washington D. C. performing at local comedy clubs prepped him for the Big Apple. Imprinted by Motor City culture and wrapped in soul music William Stephenson arrived in NYC in the 1980s, ready to make people laugh.
Best known on the NYC comedy circuit, he serves as host for the hottest NYC comedy clubs and warms up audiences for a variety of shows. His television appearances include: Def Comedy Jam, The Chris Rock Show, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, and Louie. His film appearances include mainstream films, such as Pootie Tang, independent films like In Service to the Dream, and documentaries Jerry Seinfeld Comedian, and I Am Comic.
Comedian Marilyn Sands said of William who introduced her the first time she performed in 1984, “He was funny whether he was Opening the Show at 8 or Closing it at 2!”
He is still funny
Enjoy William’s humor in his biweekly column, Funkcomedy: The Back of the Stage on fromacloud (fac). The following is an interview between William Stephenson (WS) and fac.
Most Fondest and Painful Memories Growing Up
How did growing up in Detroit shape your perspective of the world?
Growing up in the middle of all that music including Motown and the Parliament/Funkadelic thang, I knew Detroit was producing more than cars.
What is your fondest memory of growing up in Detroit?
Leading the Northwestern High School marching band doing The Freeze down West Grand Boulevard before the homcoming [sic] game.
What’s “The Freeze?”
The band would get in a 2 line formation, and with the drummers drumming, I would signal the band with 4 whistles. On the following beat, the band would stop or freeze with one foot in the air. The band would hold that position until the crowd went wild, then I’d signal the band with 2 whistles to get them going again.
What is your most painful memory of growing up in Detroit?
My parents divorcing in 1968.
What’s your favorite type of music, and why?
Old school funk because it moves and grooves me.
Who are some of your favorite old school funk movers and groovers?
George Clinton and his funk mob, George Duke, Stanley Clarke, Ohio Players, Kool & The Gang, James Brown, Tower Of Power, Earth Wind & Fire, Brothers Johnson, Sly & the Family Stone.
What movie comes to mind as one of your favorites, and why?
The Wizard Of Oz. The special effects were amazing for a movie that came out in 1939. I believe it was the first movie we watched on our new color TV in 1964.
Beyond The Wizard of Oz special effects was there anything about the story that resonated with you?
Believing in yourself against all odds.
Inspiration Over Time
Who were some of the comedians that inspired you and why?
George Carlin, Richard Pryor, Bill Cosby, Flip Wilson. Watching them on the Ed Sullivan show when I was a kid. They made me laugh real hard, to the point of crying.
From where do you draw inspiration to write comedic material?
Much of my stuff comes from something that bothers me, like people who are inconsiderate of others.
Live Comedy’s Relevance
With all the electronic devices today to distract and occupy people, why do you think live comedy is still relevant?
Because there is nothing like human interaction. And the more technology finds ways for us to ignore each other in person, the more people will need that live buzz.
Laughin’ All the Time
Often comedians who are funny on stage are very serious off stage? Are you funny or serious off stage?
I’m funny with periods of seriousness offstage.
Who was the first funny person you saw that made you think, “I want to do that, too?” What qualities did he or she have that made you laugh?
Probably George Carlin. I was just a kid watching the Ed Sullivan show and remember laughing out loud at his silliness.
Today Who Makes William Laugh
Which comedians make you laugh?
Louie CK, Hannibal Buress, Owen Smith.
What qualities does a comedian demonstrate who makes you laugh?
It starts with the material, original thoughts. I like to watch a comic that on stage doing jokes, not trying to work a persona or attitude. Then the delivery should be smooth and articulate. If I can’t understand the words, how do I know if they are funny?
Are many of your friends comedians? If so, are you competition with each other?
I do have many comedian friends, but I never think of them as competitors, even though they may sometimes be.
You have done stand-up, TV and movies. Is there a medium you like more than another? What’s the difference between stand-up, TV and movies for a comedian?
Standup, no question. The immediate feedback. Movie comics have to wait a good year before the work gets rewarded.
How did you gravitate towards emceeing comedy shows?
The first comedy club I ever performed at gave me the opportunity of hosting weeknight shows after a couple of months of doing the open mic. I enjoyed hosting and was good at it.
How many shows do you think you have emceed over the years?
(I didn’t know math would be involved) Using an average of 4 shows per week for almost 30 years comes out to about 6, 240.
Take a guess about how many comedy hours you have performed over your career?
9,250 (wild guess).
. . . continue to part 2 . . .