Joshua Black surveys the East Nashville landscape from the rooftop dining area of Bolton's Spicy Chicken and Fish. Photo by Lindsey Morgan

The Comedy Manifesto: Joshua Black is supplying laughs with a purpose

Fed up with the “New” East Nashville and need a good laugh? Just check out the video below of a post from comedian Joshua Black’s Twitter feed. In less than two-and-a-half-minutes, Black cheerfully turns the screws on coffee shops, upscale ramen noodle joints, hipster witch hats, well-intentioned but clueless liberals, drunken hijinks at The Cobra, blue-haired hot yoga girls, facial-hair haute couture, capitalism, and the revenge weed dealers take on their customers for gentrifying their grandmama’s house — not to mention a call for the equal veneration of Starlito and Dolly Parton.

This brilliant comedic take on East Side sensibilities was instrumental in the meteoric rise of Black’s career over the last year. But tucked away in Black’s machine-gun delivery of quips is a genuine affection and respect for the people, places, and peccadilloes he punctures. Dive a little further and you’ll find a full spectrum of cultural touchpoints, knowledge of history, and degrees of empathy one might not expect in a young comic.

“My background, my reading, and rap music are all tied into how I now write jokes,” said Black. “I observe, I write down, and then I project. My path has shown me that you need to keep an open mind to everything. Because you never know where it will lead. The only reason I’m doing comedy now is because I wanted to go on a cheap date.”

A cheap date may have been the inflection point, but the road to success began many years earlier. A native of North Nashville, Black grew up in a close-knit, working-class family. “My mom was a nurse, and my family was 90-percent women,” he said. “Me, my grandad, and a cousin were the only men. We all lived in the same area over by Ted Rhodes Golf Course in North Nashville. My grandma lived a street over, and my aunt lived another street over.”

Joshua Black swinging while drinking at Rosemary & Beauty Queen. Photo by Lindsey Morgan

As an only child, Black often relied on his own resources for entertainment. “I hated being an only child until I was about 10 or 11 and then I loved it because I didn’t have to share Christmas gifts with brothers or sisters,” he said with a laugh. “I was lonely sometimes, but it shaped my perspective. I can be alone for quite a long time. Drop me off in the desert with a cellphone and I’ll be completely satisfied.”

The sense of satisfaction didn’t carry over into school, however. “I was so bored I would misbehave,” he admits. “I was a smart kid, I picked up on things quick, but I had no study habits. I went to decent schools, but no teacher ever got me excited about learning anything. I just wanted to pass funny notes to somebody and make them laugh. If the teacher was marking something on the board and the class started laughing, I was the guy that always got kicked out — even if it wasn’t me that time. I was a mess.”

His skill at basketball enabled Black to attend a variety of both public and private schools that led to a scholarship at Milligan College in East Tennessee, but a lack of focus continued dogging him. “I had no idea what I wanted to do,” he said. “My friends were going to nursing school or majoring in business administration or marketing — I had no idea. I took psychology because I like how the human brain works, but I had no end goal, so there was nothing that kept me up at night doing homework. I ended up dropping out and somehow got into MTSU, ended up leaving there and going to Nashville State, and while I was there, I bumped into the book The 48 Laws of Power.”

The best-selling self-help book by Robert Greene has been praised by many hip-hop artists, entrepreneurs, celebrities, and athletes for its frank discussion of the nature of power and the simple “laws” governing the behavior of powerful individuals. It’s also been criticized for its veneration of ruthlessness. For Black, it was the gateway to a new world of knowledge.

“The book changed my life,” said Black. “I read it in a day, and it taught me so much about perspective, the power of confidence, the power of public speaking, how to politic. My mind was blown by it, and it made me think, ‘If this book can teach me this, what can other books teach me?’”

Joshua Black keeps a watchful eye on socials at his favorite cigar shop, Smokers Abbey. Photo by Lindsey Morgan

Reading became Black’s new obsession — self-help books, history, philosophy, and more. “Of course, after dropping out of college, wasting scholarships, and my mom wasting all this money on me, I suddenly had an appreciation for reading,” he said. “I became a huge book nerd. I had started working on becoming a hip-hop musician, and I was able to incorporate what I was learning into my music, making it better.”

For the next six years, Black pursued a career in music but made little headway in Nashville’s small but vibrant hip-hop scene. “I did music for six years, thinking it was my passion in life,” he said. “I’d wake up every morning and do the same thing — read, smoke weed, and then write, write, write every day, but the gatekeepers were not letting me in. My mom hated it, and my entire family was like, ‘What the hell are you doing?’ Having a dream of doing something spectacular wasn’t even a reality to them. They just thought I was lazy.”

The doubts and frustrations weren’t just coming from his family. “Even though my family was successful, we were surrounded by poverty. Because of how America is set up, there is poverty around every Black neighborhood. As I was growing up my mom would see people she went to school with and they would be a crackhead or look crazy, but when my mom knew them, they were a regular person. So in the back of my mind, I would think, ‘That could be me.’”

With pressures from within and without, Black was faced with an all-too-common choice for creative people closing in on their thirties. Continue chasing a dream full-time or find a “real job.” When his grandfather suggested he apply for a job with the Metro Fire Department, Black did so and joined the force in 2017.

“It was good pay and benefits, and it’s a noble profession,” said Black. “My family was now proud of me, but in the back of my mind I was thinking, technically, it had nothing to do with me. I didn’t earn it. Four thousand people filled out an application and they pick 30, so I was stable but still felt unfulfilled.”

Creative fulfillment was waiting just around the corner, however, starting in the early months of 2018. “I wanted to go on a cheap date with my girl, and I saw there was a free open mic night at Bobby’s Idle Hour,” said Black. “This one comedian was roasting the hell out of me randomly. I had to kinda laugh so it didn’t seem like I was offended, but it wasn’t really funny. I was thinking, ‘I could do better than that.’ So I signed up that night just to get back at him. I was only partially funny, but because of my music and all the self-help books I’d read, I knew how to project my voice and command a room. After my set people were asking me, ‘How long have you been doing this?’”

The reaction to his impromptu performance made him eager to repeat the experience. After a few more open mic appearances, stand-up was his new obsession. “I dived deep into comedy — studying the history and trying to find my voice. I had favorite comics but never studied it or thought about it. I was always the edge killer in my family. If things got too heavy, I could lighten it a bit by saying something funny. I was also a storyteller; I had several cousins, but I was the one my grandma would always call over to tell a funny story to people. Stand-up is much the same thing — a little harder but much more fun.”

"Shoot Nothing But Picture Leave Nothing But Footprints" Photo by Lindsey Morgan

Black’s confidence on stage and his ability to read a room were essential skills for a stand-up comic. And while hip-hop culture supplied much of his voice, another personal passion provided focus.

“Around the time Trump got elected I also dove deep into politics and history,” said Black. “I pretty much gave up when he got elected. It felt like America didn’t give a fuck about Black people so where was the solution? I started studying the Black Panthers, and that led me to the history of socialism and revolutionary thought and theory. It made me understand that capitalism, and even hip-hop culture because of capitalism, was telling me if you’re working class, you’re kind of a bozo and clearly lazy because you didn’t work hard enough — like the rich guys. Socialism taught me the real hard workers are the working class — that’s the backbone of the country. It gave me a greater respect for my family, my neighborhood, and myself. It also gave me hope for white people, because they’re being manipulated too — capitalism needs racism to survive.”

Even before his comedy conversion moment, Black was becoming more politically active, first with the local chapter of Democratic Socialists of America and then with the Nashville chapter of Communist Party USA, both multi-racial organizations.

“I was trying to work politics into my jokes, but with Trump in office every comedian was talking about politics,” said Black. “So it was what we call ‘hack’ or just easy. You would think Trump would be great for comedians, and he was for the first year, but then there was this wave of political comedians who only talked about Trump. I didn’t want to be lumped in with them.

“I wanted to be an activist, so I decided to be a propagandist. I’ll take what I know, take what the activists are saying, and make it more digestible, and push an agenda to help working-class people. I’m doing something that counts, I’m doing it purposefully, and I’m trying to get funnier.”

With his purpose squarely in place, Black began building his career, but as with his education, Black found his own path through a DIY work ethic. “The traditional route is to get in with your hometown club, be an opener for somebody big, go on tour, become a star yourself, and it’s made. I reached out to Zanies and they’re like, “Who are you?” I had too much pride to play the game and fight to get into the clubs, so I decided to do my own shit, throw my own shows. I found a venue in Germantown, did my first show, and it went great.”

After experimenting with booking name acts with himself as the opener, Black hit upon the idea of promoting themed shows utilizing a collective of local talent to attract audiences — all black comics, all women, roast battles — with himself as the host. The shows made money, promoted fellow comics, and gave him a chance to sharpen his skills and raise his profile.

“I would look hard for the venues and keep expenses cheap, and the cover charge low,” said Black. “I decided to try the idea in other cities and did a show in Atlanta and 80 people showed up, so I was going to take it on the road. I booked shows in Charlotte, Miami, and Chattanooga, and right when I was about to go to Chattanooga, COVID hit and everything shut down.”

The arrival of a pandemic obviously devastated the live entertainment industry, forcing comics, musicians, and other performance artists to scramble for alternative, virtual venues. While many established artists turned to livestreams as a source for income and connecting with fans, it was far more challenging for up-and-coming artists like Black, just beginning to build a reputation.

Black had effectively used social media to promote his live shows and experimented with a few short comedy videos, but his experience was limited.  In fact, social media had landed him in hot water when a prank phone call clip with the owner of a now nationally notorious local hat store complained to the Fire Department, leading to an eight-day suspension without pay for Black. But any hesitancy Black had about social media comedy changed when a discussion on Twitter about whether Madison qualified as “Out East” [a traditional nickname for East Nashville] sparked the idea for his East Nashville video.

“The video got about 2,000 likes,” said Black. “I tried again with a video about North Nashville, and it did even better. I was hitting on another level because I know all types of people from all types of cultures from going to so many schools.”

The ability to appeal across cultural lines and fearlessness for tipping social and political sacred cows on the right and left are valuable weapons for any comic. When Black delivers it in his rapid-fire manner, it’s a salvo that can inspire both belly laughs and moments of clarity. It’s a beacon of compassion, understanding, and common-sense truths in the scorched-earth landscape of post-Trump America. Think of it as Will Rogers meets free verse hip-hop.

The success of multiple “neighborhood videos” soon led to other topics: Nashville hot chicken and cultural appropriation; the GOP’s fanatical love for guns; the importance of respecting service workers; and even a sit-down interview with former Mayor Megan Barry — perhaps the most insightful and funniest interview with a scandal-tainted politician ever recorded. Black’s stealthy approach to political comedy finds it sharpest expression in his street interview videos.

“It’s probably the most awkward type of comedy I do,” said Black. “My cameraman hates them. Luckily, I’m a tall Black dude, and people are scared of me, so they don’t immediately go to wanting to start a fight. I call it ‘Black Privilege.’ Plus, I’m smiling and try to be disarming by starting with something ridiculous like, ‘I’m with Fox News, you hate Trump, right?’ Plus, a lot of people have something they want to get off their chest, especially on the right. They feel like they’re not heard, so they want to talk to people on the left. A guy in a MAGA hat tapped me on the shoulder and asked me what we were doing. He wanted to talk and tell me how good Trump is. I was like, ‘Perfect!’ Those moments are great.

As the likes, shares, and retweets multiplied with each video, Black quickly found himself becoming an internet celebrity, which led to a monthly headlining show at Nashville’s premiere comedy club, Zanies, as well as gigs at other venues. It also opened the door to a partnership with the Frist Art Museum.

“Art has become intimidating to most people,” said Black. “If you don’t know anything about it you can feel like you’re too dumb to appreciate art. The Frist reached out to me after I did a piece on the Nashville art scene. I wanted it to be funny but also accurate in reflecting the scene, so I reached out to several artists to get their advice.”

Impressed with Black’s informed but funny style, the Frist asked him to do something similar for their recent Picasso exhibit and then allowed him to “take over” the museum for a running commentary of the museum’s “Creating the American West in Art” exhibit.

As for the future, Black is still looking to grow his career, but with the emphasis still on purpose rather than specific goals. “When I first dove into politics, my girl used to say, ‘What are you planning to do with this?’” said Black. “I didn’t know, but now I realize there was a purpose. If the universe calls you toward something, go to it. COVID taught me to be real loose with long-term plans and be open to opportunities. My five-year plan is I want to become great at whatever I’m doing and always be ready to go down a detour that might be my real path.”