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Pittsburgh famous: Davon Magwood

Twenty-eight-year-old, Pittsburgh-based comedian Davon Magwood currently has a running bit in his routine called “I Can’t Be Batman.” In it, he talks about growing up in Pittsburgh and playing Justice League with kids on his block. Magwood desperately wants to be Batman in their imaginary adventure, but the neighborhood kids say no.

“What!? I can’t be Batman because I’m black?” he asks, incredulously, as his eight-year-old-self.

“No,” another child responds, “It’s because you’re poor.”

In Magwood’s typical style, the joke not only relies on his personality, storytelling acumen and delivery to make the audience laugh, but also preconceived notions of socioeconomic status and racial tension. It's a balancing act that makes Magwood’s work both inherently compelling and shockingly biting, offering up slices of controversy filtered through his extremely personal, exasperated and bleakly comic worldview.

That formula has made Magwood Pittsburgh’s great hope in alternative comedy. He's gained national attention from his hilarious battle with the Westboro Baptist Church last summer, touring the country, and working sold out gigs alongside the likes of comedians Michael Ian Black, Hannibal Buress and Bill Burr. 

Now, on the eve of recording his debut full-length comedy record, I’d Rather Be Napping at the Rex Theater on August 8, Magwood is at a crossroads in his career. He plans to move to New York City to try to make it in one of the most competitive comedy environments in the world, leaving the love, support and relative safety of Pittsburgh behind.

Before we lose him to the Big Apple, Magwood sat down with us to discuss his conversational performance style, using Twitter as an open mic and what it’s like to be a black comic performing in Pittsburgh.

How have you honed your conversational style? It doesn’t rely on “jokes” in the classic sense.
When I started out I was doing set-up-punch line. But now, I realize my whole stage presence is the thing. When I’m with my friends, I feel comfortable telling crazy stories, and drawing them in, and that’s my style. I have more to say than set-up-punch line will allow me to do, but if I can set it up and keep people’s attention through my personality, then deliver a punch line, which works for me.

With Eddie Murphy and Richard Pryor, you were going to a show to see them. Louis CK says some things that if someone else said them, they wouldn’t be funny. It’s how he delivers the joke. It’s similar to Bill Burr’s comedy which all depends on how he delivers his act.

It’s like Hannibal Buress’ bit-- “I’m flicking pickle juice on my sandwich for flavor.”

You’re following this guy through his mind. When I’m onstage, all I’m doing is giving you an insight into how my mind works. To you guys, it’s humor, so the challenge for me is making how I think on a regular basis funny and relatable.

You aren't a "social message" comic necessarily, but you seem to enjoy taking on controversial, hot button topics in very interesting ways with your work.
I purposely don’t hit people over the head with a social message. When people come up to me after the show and appreciate the violent undertones I had in a joke, or how I sarcastically performed a rape or abortion joke, I’m trying to be controversial like these other white comedians, and pointing out that these entitled white comics are doing these jokes without really thinking about how it affects people.  

But, I can’t open up for certain comics; because I’ll do a joke that I know will piss people off. They don’t want that, especially some dude who’s been on the road for 12 years and hasn’t been on TV since Letterman in 1985; he doesn’t want to compete against me. He’s in a different era of comedy. It’s a completely different scene. You hear the older guys complain on the road that you couldn’t say the things we say now back when they started out.

You have 40,000 followers on Twitter and caused a firestorm that gained national attention over your interactions with Westboro Baptist Church last summer. As a comedian, why is Twitter such an important tool?
In Pittsburgh it’s a bigger deal because of the limits of what you can do here. Twitter is my open mic whenever I want it. I can test material and it’s not just Pittsburghers, everyone can see it and give me feedback. I got press from it—New York Times, Cosmopolitan—from Twitter.

As a guy from Pittsburgh, no one should know I even exist. I didn’t have to change my stripes, I didn’t lie, and I made national news by being myself. But, moving to New York, I don’t want to be the “God Hates Jags” guy.  I don’t want to be The Clarks of comedy. You can get stuck in Pittsburgh. You can get stuck here and get comfortable because it’s home.

What’s it like to be a black comic performing mostly in a city that doesn’t boast a lot of diversity?
As progressive as we like to think we are, we still haven’t gotten anywhere compared to other cities. There’s no black culture in Pittsburgh. There was black culture, but they’re wiping it out. I work in Shady Side [at the Coffee Tree] and people won’t even look at me sometimes.

In Pittsburgh, you can really avoid black people. Bill Peduto is trying his best, but Luke had eight years. Like Google; they run our city now, they are gonna do what they did in San Francisco. It’s not for Pittsburghers, we don’t matter anymore, we may as well move to Millvale.

And I mean, I still haven’t gotten work at The Improv in Pittsburgh, and I can bring 175 people to the room. I can name the two black comedians who get work at The Improv. To me, the scene is dated. Most of these comics in Pittsburgh are telling wife jokes, and fart jokes and then they are like ‘...and black people…’ and I’m like, ‘Okay, let me hear this 1992 dated material now, and I’ll sit back while everyone stares at me so they can figure out if it’s okay to laugh.’

I like to focus on the subtleties of racism in my jokes, because most people who come to my shows aren’t racists, and don’t need to be hit over the head with the fact that racism exists. But it’s my responsibility as a popular black artist that lives in a city with people who don’t appreciate black art to bring black culture up and talk about it.

Is Pittsburgh a good city to be comic in?
Starting out, it’s a great city to be anything here, but as a comic; there aren’t any real opportunities. If I stay here, I won’t get past being a Pittsburgh celebrity and I want to be more than that. The scene here is still young, but I’d rather go to New York and establish myself there, then come back and bring something home. It’s not the city’s fault. I mean, there are artists in the city, but it’s not a city where artists can really thrive. Pittsburgh is like a high school; we support our sports teams, and the furries get front-page news.

Pittsburgh’s home though. There is such a support in Pittsburgh. Even now, after I’ve “made it,” in Pittsburgh, people recognize me, they support me. Most of my support is home grown. That’s something you don’t get in other cities. If people are down with you, they will go to bat for you. No one acts too cool. What I like about the city is I never have to feel like I need to be someone I’m not. I can be myself.
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