Reginald D Hunter on Trump, OJ, Putin and why he loves the UK
- Credit: Kash Seff/Kash Yusaf
Marking 20 years on this side of the pond, the US comedian's laidback stand-up style, and southern drawl have made him comedy favourite and he is bringing his latest show to Norwich.
'Just give me a second to put on some trousers here,' begins the Southern drawl at the other end of the line. 'I don't like talking to dudes I've never spoken to before with no pants on. There is something quite unseemly about that.'
I'm speaking to American comedian Reginald D Hunter, whose laidback stand-up style, often hiding searingly honest, sometimes controversial material, has made him a favourite with UK audiences.
That he mixes the British and American words for leg garments in this somewhat surprising opening to our conversation is fitting of his place as perhaps the best known US comic plying his trade on this side of the pond.
Born in Albany, Georgia, in the Deep South of the USA, but based in this country for the past 20 years, the 47-year-old initially came to the UK at the age of 27 to study drama at RADA. However, Reginald switched to comedy full-time after accepting a dare to do stand-up and taking to it like a duck to water. He hasn't looked back since.
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A regular – and regularly hilarious – panellist on Have I Got News For You, he has gained a big fan base for his brand of piercingly honest comedy. He is currently in the middle of the tour of his latest show — Some People v. Reginald D Hunter, which he brings to Norwich Theatre Royal on June 4.
'I'm almost ashamed to do stand-up this year,' he says sheepishly once more fittingly dressed. 'I spent the whole of 2016 repeatedly telling people that Trump was not going to win. I'm amazed they still let me do comedy!'
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He admits that the election of Donald Trump as US President hit him like a 10-ton truck.
He recalls: 'When it happened, it took me two weeks just to get out of bed. I thought, 'What's the point of anything? The law? Sex? Jokes?' It made me feel so down. Not because I was scared of his economic policies or his out-there views. No, I was scared by thinking, 'What does this mean for humanity? At this point, we thought we were pretty smart. But if people can be so easily duped and pitted against each other, are we really any better than Cro-Magnon man.'
There was another, very personal reason for Reginald to be shocked by Trump's election. He reveals that, 'This show was mostly written last autumn. Then Trump got elected, and I had to rewrite it very quickly.'
The show's title — and the publicity image for the tour — are a play on the recent award-winning OJ Simpson TV drama.
'I think that we can trace the moment of the beginnings of the current racial problems in America to the OJ verdict in the murder trail,' he says. 'I think that had a massive reverberation in race relations. After that case and after OJ left Brentwood [the upscale, mainly white neighbourhood where the disgraced US star lived] the residents tore his house down. Even though Nicola wasn't killed there, they still demolished it. That's how great the antipathy was.'
The OJ Simpson case is his jumping off point into a show that tackles subjects as varied as families, boyfriends and girlfriends and inevitably Trump.
For his three-part BBC2 series Reginald D Hunter's Songs of The South, which documented 150 years of American popular song, Reginald undertook an epic road trip from North Carolina to New Orleans, but admits he still didn't think Trump would win.
'When I was travelling with Songs of the South I had no sense of today's current divisions,' he says. 'What was telling though was when I went home and met my best friend from third and fourth grade he had become president of the local Tea Party. When I went round to visit it was tense. And that is someone who I've known for over 25 years. All of a sudden you are trying to find things to talk about.'
Reginald, who won the Writers' Guild Award for Comedy in 2006, will also be talking in the show about how he has been winning arguments against members of the so-called 'alt right' on Twitter. 'I've been challenging their views. It has not been as upsetting for me as it has been for them! All you have to do to win is keep cool and state the facts – they hate that. It's like holy water to a vampire!'
Surely the outspokenness of Trump is a gift for comedians though? 'It's hard to do good jokes about Trump because he is his own joke,' he says. 'How do you make a joke of a joke? You know, something has got to be a little bit normal for you to make fun of it.
'It is certainly an enjoyable thing on one level. But you tell me how you'd feel if all of a sudden Theresa May became offensively tactless. I still consider myself very much American and now every time I go out on stage I feel like I have to go 'hey, I'm so sorry'.'
He admits it can be trying being expected to speak — and apologise — on behalf of America, but it is something he has become used to after two decades living in the UK.
'I didn't expect to still be here after 20 years but it actually feels more like about 12, so that must mean I've been having fun,' he says looking back. 'If 20 seemed like 40, that wouldn't be fun.'
Being an outsider taken to British hearts has given him a fondness for us Brits. 'I like the genuine stab at fairness that British people like to have a go at,' he says. 'You don't always get it right and you can tie yourself up in knots, but you always give it a go. I also like the open and discursive conservations you can have here. You can be honest and still get laid! In fact there are some places here where you can't get laid unless you're being openly intelligent and that is heartening.'
There are some things that do annoy him about the UK however. 'I find that the 'pedant-a-trons' get on my nerves. You seem to have a huge amount of pedantic people - I call them 'pedant-a-trons'. The sort of people who will mess up a joke by taking it too literally.'
His controversial style, particularly over race issues, has occasionally got Reginald into trouble. In 2013 he hit the headlines after using the N-word during a performance at the annual awards ceremony of the Professional Footballers' Association.
And recently he has been pushing boundaries on a tour of Europe that included Russia. 'I had very mixed results in Moscow,' he laughs. 'I had to have an interpreter; the audience had these special headphones in the seats. Then midway though the gig someone shouted out 'so what do you think of Putin?' I said 'he's great if you like making people disappear' and changed the subject. But he said 'no what do you think of Putin?' So I said 'he looks great in Speedos'.
'This went on for about 10 minutes and finally I said 'look what you trying to do to me man? I don't want to have to make a dash for the US Embassy'. But it turned out for the entire section when I was ribbing Putin the interpreter didn't interpret. It was 10 minutes of dead silence.'
• Some People v Reginald D Hunter, Norwich Theatre Royal, June 4, 8pm, £23-£7, 01603 630000, www.theatreroyalnorwich.co.uk