Derrick Brown on Comedy and Poetry

Derrick Brown on Comedy and Poetry

Thursday, 18 January 2024

There are a number of poets who use humor in their work. Some, like Ogden Nash, strive for it. For others, it just seems to come naturally. Derrick Brown is a naturally funny poet. While many of his best known poems are quite tender, a Derrick Brown show is guaranteed to include more than a handful of laughs. So it is not completely surprising that he has shifted over to comedy, releasing his first comedy album, A Close Shave with Heaven (PGF Records). Recorded live in Boston, A Close Shave captures Brown’s strengths as both poet and comedian, as well as his easy rapport with his audience.

Brown and I had an email chat about the two art forms, where they differ, and where they overlap.

Ground Control vs. Derrick Brown
GC: You recorded a “comedy” album. How did that come about?

DB: In 2009, David Cross saw me perform in Brooklyn. He then asked me to perform at All Tomorrow’s Parties. I met Eugene Mirman, also an incredible comic. I got to open up for him and tour for years. Sub Pop is having Eugene run a label they are distributing called Pretty Good Friends. They choose a half dozen off kilter comics and I was lucky enough to be one of them. They are a total family feel, and I am super proud of how the record turned out.

It just got voted as one of the comedy albums of the year by Paste Magazine.

GC: It has a couple of pieces which are clearly poems. Why did you think they would fit in?

DB: Because it is an album and comedy and poetry! One poem doesn’t have laughs, on purpose, to see how the sausage is made. I chose poems from my newest book [Love Ends in a Tandem Kayak, Write Bloody Press] that had accessibility and some good guffaws.

GC: What, in your opinion, is the difference between comedy and poetry? Is it a sharp line, or is it blurry?

DB: I think it’s blurry. Mitch Hedberg, George Carlin, Steve Martin, Patton Oswald, Maria Bamford, Micheal Che. I’ve seen them all do poetic ideas in their sets. I love surprises in verse, and they all do it so well.

GC: Is there a structural difference? On your album, you reference the issue of “laughs per minute”. Does poetry give you more time to develop a theme?

DB: Poetry gives you time to breathe, a lot of focus on what is removed and not being said, scene setting. Poetry does a good job of teaching you economy of language and surprise word play. Its such a good friend of comedy.

GC: Is there a difference in the delivery?

DB: I try to not deliver my poems like “Jazz Poems.” I think audiences hate it. I hate it. I try and blur the delivery to lure the audience in. [Brown provides an example of a jazz poem on the album.]

GC: How does audience expectation play into it? Do people respond differently if they are told they will be hearing poetry or comedy?

DB: I know that comedy at a poetry show is weird, and poems at a comedy show is feeling more welcome, but the judgment is harsh. At a poetry show, you don’t owe the audience much. The demands at a comedy show are much more challenging.

GC: It seems to me the audience at a comedy show expects one thing — to laugh. People at a poetry show may expect a number of things — thought-provoking ideas, beauty, clever word play, and, maybe, to laugh. If they get any of those, they are happy. You can get all the others at a comedy show too, but the laughs are primary. If you don’t laugh, it’s not a good show.

I’ve been to open mikes where I got more laughs than the announced comedians. I expect you have too. Sometimes calling yourself a comedian is a challenge to the audience, daring them not to laugh.

DB: Yeah. But at a poetry show, there is so much mercy. Someone could do a feature, a few hmmms from the crowd and light applause and the author may feel they did a great job. The audience may feel they got what they expected. But at a comedy show, the demands are higher for laughs and thoughtfulness.

It isn’t always there. Plenty of awkward sets. from me as well. The challenge for a writer or a performer is greater for comedy and I love that challenge,

GC: Are there topics you find more suitable to one or the other?

DB: I treat a comedy set like a poetry show, which is to treat it like a first date. Opening jokes, get to know me. I sort you out, how far I can go, how weird I can get. I seem to be talking about the joys of aging now and it feels like a twist on the common “getting old sucks” theme. I love a tasty twist.

GC: I saw you do a show with Amber Tamblyn which went beyond poetry and comedy to include solid performance art. How did that come about?

DB: We have been touring for around 15 years. We talk about the new work we
wanna do and see if there’s any crossover. We really chunked it by booking super long Moto rides. I was so exhausted whenever we showed up. But a great challenge!

GC: Do you feel more like a poet or a comedian these days? Or just a performer? Does it make a difference? Do you feel different when introduced as one or the other?

DB: I am doing more comedy shows so I feel more like a comedian and a writer. I like surprising people but an intro as a poet helps a lot. Doing a poem mid set, people expect it to be a goof or a beat poem send up if I am just introduced as a comic.

I saw Brown do a show with actress Amber Tamblyn last spring which went beyond poetry and comedy to include physical performance art. The fact that they had been travelling together on Brown’s motorcycle became a part of the act. He said, “We really chunked it by booking super long Moto rides. I was so exhausted whenever we showed up. But a great challenge!”

As I recall, it was billed as a poetry show, but it was certainly more than that. Brown is not just moving from poetry to comedy, he could be expanding the entire concept of spoken word performance. [G. Murray Thomas]


For more info on A Close Shave with Heaven, or to order copies, visit

Comments are closed.