Joking for dollars

Joking for dollars

His dad was a pimp, his stepdad was a Jehovah’s Witness, he was raised on East 14th Street, and he graduated from Fremont High School.  Now Don Reed makes a living by telling jokes off of these things. Reed focuses on his childhood and high school days in Oakland in a one-man show called “East 14th Street” and on his years at UCLA in “The Kipling Hotel.” His full-time job, however, is telling jokes to audiences as the warm-up comedian for “The Tonight Show” on NBC. He is the first African American to have that job in the show’s 60 years on air.

His most recent Bay Area appearance was on Dec. 2 when he performed “East 14th Street” at Yoshi’s Jazz Club in San Francisco. It was a benefit for 510akland, which raises money for music and arts in the Oakland schools.
Earlier, Reed spoke to a group of Fremont High School students who attended his Oct. 19 performance of “The Kipling Hotel” at Laney College and then later followed up with answers to questions sent to him by one of those students.
Here are the questions and answers:

Q: When did you become a comedian?
A: I started catching BART over to San Francisco to watch comedians at The Punchline. Then I started doing humorous speeches for forenics competition in junior college. Thereafter, after I was recruited to UCLA for Speech & Debate — I won the National Championship in Humorous Speaking, and everybody said, “You need to be a comedian!”  And, so, I actually became one for real in 1982.

Q: How does it feel to change the life you had as a man who went to college on a “partial scholarship” to a man who is now making more than he ever imagined?
A: I am very, very grateful and stop to give thanks on a waaaay regular basis. I was at Fremont, wondering if I could reach higher ground one day, wondering if education mattered at all. It did. Big time. Education changes your financial game. A lot is said about, “You’re supposed to go to school. You’re supposed to get a job.” But, little is said about the fact that it is highly unlikely that you will go beyond simply having a job to excelling and making a great living by locking into school. But if you do, you can.

Q: What will the proceeds from your [Dec. 2] benefit for Oakland schools go to? Are they going to be sent to Fremont so we can have art?
A:  It’s called 51Oakland — and the organization’s goal is to help keep music and the arts alive in Oakland schools.  At the first meeting [with 510akland officials], I stated, “Are we going to do something for Fremont?”  We agreed yes. So as time moves forward, Fremont will be in our plans to bring some shine to Oakland youth. Remember, as I say in the show,  “Nothing is too wonderful to be true.” You could not have told me that while I was sitting on the bench at Fremont back in 1976, with my afro and platforms that today I would be performing on a set where on any given day Denzel Washington, J-Lo, Jay Z, Kanye West, Oprah, Justin Timberlake, Tom Cruise and, yes, even President Obama would be — any day — every day — any of those people and more. But … it’s real you guys. It’s real Fremont Tigers! Be about your education and be about aiming for the top!  Don’t allow gangs, life’s setbacks, drugs or alcohol to slow your roll. Roll forward and roll upward. Do the best possible.

Q: When will be the next time you come to Oakland?
A: I’m hoping to do stand-up there perhaps back at Yoshi’s Oakland by March April 2013. I’ll likely do some smaller nights at Oakland comedy venues leading up to that though — and perhaps back to Laney by end of 2013 with an all new show. I’m developing two. So it will either be about my adventures with big celebrities or about my Oakland past — elementary school years — before my father ran off to the streets, which led to his living an unsavory life as an Oakland pimp, but which also led him to push me to go to UCLA — which led to voiceover for Spiderman, Flintstones, writing for television and now working as the first African American opening act for “The Tonight Show” in its 60 year history. The new show will likely be a prequel to “East 14th” — my first show.

Q: Did everyone you tell support your decision?
A:  Not even! A girlfriend I had been with for years said, “You’re not that funny.  You’re sitting around with friends being funny — but you’re not “laugh out loud, do it for a living” funny.  After I was performing on HBO, Showtime and “The Cosby Show,” she finally said, “I just didn’t want you to move away, so I said you weren’t funny. But, obviously, you knew you were.” Family members were on the fence too. But when they came out and saw me, they changed their opinion fast, then fully supported me.