As the reigning “black Godfather,” L.A. Comedy Shorts Co-founder and Artistic Director Gary Anthony Williams has friends in high places. Let’s just say, in fact, he’s on the inside track to the worldwide number one impersonator of the Leader of the Free World.
That’s right. Comic legend Weird Al Yankovic was receiving the Commie Award at the 2014 L.A. Comedy Shorts Film Festival and when Gary called upon Reggie Brown to present his prestigious award in character as Barack Obama, Reggie didn’t even bat a presidential eye.
Reggie Brown has been wowing audiences with his unparalleled impression of President Obama since 2008. He’s hosted live events all over the world and appeared on a long list of television shows including “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno,” “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” “Real Time with Bill Maher,” “The Today Show” and many more. Needless to say, watching Reggie slip into his presidential shoes on television is much different than watching him perform his mind-blowing act live. Reggie’s level of detail and authenticity is absolutely staggering and totally captivating.
Gary Anthony Williams simply couldn’t have picked a more spectacular host to helm the fun-filled extravaganza otherwise known as the 2014 L.A. Comedy Shorts Film Festival Awards Gala. Reggie totally engaged the crowd gathered at L.A.’s premiere venue, Exchange L.A., from behind the presidential podium with his hilarious opening speech in which he touched on hot button topics like gun control, Barack Obama’s ethnicity and the Kardashians.
After watching a special screening of Weird Al’s video for his certified platinum, Billboard Top 10 single “White and Nerdy,” Reggie presented the comedy icon his Commie Award. Then he dashed backstage to change clothes and hosted the rest of the event as himself, Reggie Brown, stand-up extraordinaire.
LACS Comedy Shorts winners were named in six categories with “Fool’s Day” Directed by international entrant Cody Blue Snider, snagging the Grand Prize Best of Fest Award. Movie Magic Screenwriting Competition winners were selected in four categories with B. Brisbane winning the Feature Comedy Screenplay category for “Zen and the Art of Karaoke.”
On May 25, I caught up with the very charming Reggie Brown to discuss his work in creating his laughter-invoking version of a very high profile political persona. He also shared his impressions of Weird Al and his recent hosting gig at L.A. Comedy Shorts, where we previously connected at the Kyoto Gardens rooftop party in the following Examiner exclusive Q & A.
E: How did you start doing Barack and how long have you been doing him?
RB: My brother, Lawrence, was the first one to tell me I look like a guy named Barack who played basketball in his gym back in 2001. Later that week, a woman I was waiting on because I was still a server downtown said, you look like my professor, Barack, Google him and I did. And that’s when I first became aware of him. Things quieted down for a while and once he became a senator, I’m not kidding when I say everyone who passed me on the street in Chicago would tell me you look just like Senator Obama. People would see me across the street, come over and say, “Oh my God! You look just like Senator Obama!” and were so happy about it. Everyone always said it in such a positive way that I started thinking, what can I do with this?
I heard about the business that if you could become the best Obama impersonator, the travel, the income and everything that went with it is amazing. I set out to do that and the night the president won, I jumped on my bike, rode down to Grant Park with my megaphone and got up in front of the same sea of people that he delivered his acceptance speech in front of and I was just saying some catch phrases from his campaign like “Yes we can!” and “Change has come” and stuff like that and people were going crazy. That’s when the light bulb went off and I boldly went in this direction and it’s been amazing ever since.
E: Do you study a lot of the president’s speeches to get him down and write your own?
RB: Oh yeah, it’s non-stop. It took me so long to even become comfortable with doing it publicly outside of just saying “Yes we can,” or “Change is coming.” It was just kind of a few lines in the beginning. But developing the whole show, I do mainly my half-hour comedy show, but, sometimes I’m booked up to an hour for corporations and conventions and things all over the world. But, to develop that I wanted to see how he would deliver a joke. My character’s still kind of a little bit different than a full Obama character. You have to find out the little idiosyncrasies about his personality and his speech pattern that you really wanna highlight for the impression. Because, every impression’s kind of tweaking something that’s known about the character you impersonate or the person you’re impersonating.
So, it took a really long time for me to get comfortable and a lot of trial and error because my character literally grew in front of the public eye as far as the makeup development, everything. If you see a video of me back when I first started in 2008 and the makeup now it’s night and day. Even the voice and the impression’s changed quite a bit and matured, so it’s been a lot of work. Still, any time he has a big speech I try to watch it and the Correspondents’ Dinner and things like that. So, it’s kind of still in development.
E: You’ve met President Obama. What was it like?
RB: It was amazing. As an impersonator, to meet the person you impersonate is just on the next level. When I met him, I was thinking, “Oh my God, what’s he gonna say? What’s he gonna do about my impression?” I was expecting him to just open up and say “Oh, Reggie I love you, you’re the best!” and I’d say, “Mr. President, I love you too man! Let’s have a moment!” But, it was kind of stifled by Secret Service. They were everywhere and they tell you just handshakes and stuff before he comes by. So, it was a quick moment that we met, but it definitely was a defining moment for me in my life, to meet the President of the United States. People never get a chance to meet the actual president. But, for what I do, specifically, it was even sweeter. I’ll never forget it.
E: How did that come about?
RB: My friend Sarah Uphoff, she was the Director of Surrogates for the Obama campaign, it was a fundraiser. She invited me so I was in the VIP section with all the celebrities. So, I was next to Foo Fighters, Mila Kunis, Don Cheadle and Wolfgang Puck when the president came up and shook all of hands and everything. She had me right up, right after his speech. She’s like, Reggie, get up there. She kind of pushed me to the front of the line because she knew how bad I was trying to meet him over the past few years. And, she actually had me at other fundraisers, where we were next to each other and he came right up and was about to come over to us but the Secret Service kind of ushered him away. There were a few times where it almost happened. But this time she made sure I was front and center when he got off stage.
E: What year did you finally get to meet him?
RB: 2012, February 15.
E: How did you come to get involved with LACS?
RB: I met Gary through my friend Cedric Yarbrough, who’s on “Reno 911” and he does voices with him on "The Boondocks" and then Gary and I, we go to the same neighborhood coffee shop, so we just kind of became friends through running into each other all the time. He called me one day and he said, “You have to do me a favor.” And I said, “Okay, tell me what it is first before I agree.”
But, Gary is like the black Godfather and when he comes around asking for favors, you do them. I said, yeah of course. He said Weird Al was getting the award and they asked Weird Al who he wanted to present the award to him and he was like President Obama, just trying to be funny. So Gary called me up and he asked me. He said, “Would you present Weird Al the award?” and I said, “Are you kidding me? Of course! I love Weird Al. He’s been such an inspiration my entire life. It’ll be an honor to do that.”
He said, “Great, thank you so much. It’s gonna be a great comedy festival.” I knew that he ran it for years but I’ve never gone and I was really happy to. Then he calls me up the next day and said he talked with Jeannie and was like, “Would you mind just hosting the whole show?” I said. “Of course, but I don’t wanna host the whole show as the President. I just wanna be myself because that opens me up to do more comedy.”
That was the first time in my corporate management, me doing the corporate circuit for conventions and meetings. I come out, do a half hour as the president and then go back stage and then come back out as myself and finish emceeing. That was kind of a test run for me and I think it worked out great. The audience loved it. I had a good time up there and it was a lot of fun.
E: You did a fantastic job hosting! How fun was it for you to introduce Weird Al?
RB: It was a lot of fun. I didn’t know what to expect because I didn’t meet him prior to. When he came on stage it was cool to see him in the flesh and he was just as weird and funny as I expected him to be. He gave his speech and he was talking in his voice, “What else is there left to do now that I won the Commie Award?” He was freaking out and then he busted into his little dance. He was definitely entertaining and it was awesome to share the stage with him for a few minutes and to meet him in that way. It would be awesome, obviously, to collaborate with him one way or another because I do parodies and that’s one thing I kept thinking; if Weird Al helped me with one of my parodies or wrote a parody and I was part of it. My mind was going crazy thinking of possibilities to do something with him.
E: Do you have any favorites of his performances?
RB: UHF, his movie, it was really one of my favorite movies as a kid. When I said in my speech that we’d stay up drinking Jolt cola until the morning watching it over, that was serious. The characters he had in that movie, Conan the Librarian that chopped a guy in half after he returned a book two weeks late to the library, just funny characters like that. It’s unbelievable that you never saw anything before his movie. But as far as his music videos, I think “I’m Fat” was, because I’m a huge Michael Jackson fan. “I’m Fat” was awesome but a lot of them are really good.” "Amish Paradise," I don’t know if you ever saw that one. He redid Coolio’s “Gangsta’s Paradise.” “Amish Paradise” and “I’m Fat,” I think are hilarious.
E: Who are your comedic heroes?
RB: I think there’s so many to name. Some of the great stand-ups: Bill Cosby, Richard Pryor, I really like Lewis Black. Mitch Hedberg. People who are a little offbeat are my favorite kind of comedians. Harlan Williams. Guys like that, off-beat personalities that just get up there and make you laugh.
E: What kind of advice would you give to aspiring comedians or impersonators who are trying to break in?
RB: For other Obama impersonators, I’d like to tell them all to quit their jobs. To aspiring talent like we saw, screenwriters, actors, and everyone else just keep on doing it. Keep on creating because I think that the industry is in need of new blood and new talent and it was so refreshing to see a lot of these new concepts and new takes on comedy and things that aren’t doing the same joke like you’ll see on a sitcom. You can change the channel and literally see the same joke on another channel or something that’s just completely overdone and I think that we saw a breath of fresh air at the festival and that was a great platform. I don’t know if you remember the winner Graham that came from the Netherlands but people came from all over the world to be part of this. It’s getting bigger and better and just to keep at it because practice makes perfect. I’m looking forward to seeing what next year brings and I’m even considering submitting next year.
Flint TV Examiner exclusive photos and video footage of Reggie Brown hosting the 2014 L.A. Comedy Shorts are included in the attached slideshow and video.