Reginald D Hunter on why 'TV is perfect for the talentless', and why he uses the N-word

The comedian, who has taken flak for use of the N-word and other explosive material, is worried about freedom of expression

Reginald D Hunter: “I’m duty-bound to say what I think”

Reginald D Hunter: “I’m duty-bound to say what I think”

 

Three years ago the Professional Footballers’ Association wanted to book a comedian for their annual awards dinner. They were duly told one of the best comics around was Reginald D Hunter. Given that racism in football is still a very real problem, Hunter was apparently asked to avoid all mention of race and stick to “the funnies”.

But a comedian who has had sell-out tours both here and in the UK with show titles such as Pride, Prejudice and Niggers and Trophy Nigga was never not going to talk about race. Hunter stormed on the night, liberally dousing his material with the N-word and got an enthusiastic reception. Many of those present queued up to have a photograph taken with the comedian after the show.

The next day the PFA issued a statement saying its choice of Hunter was “a really gross error of judgment” and apologised for his use of the N-word at the award ceremony. It also asked for its money back.

“I still don’t understand why it turned into such a controversy,” says Hunter. “All I can think is that there was a pre- existing problem. It was just another gig for me. Everyone at the show loved the set, but when the newspapers picked up on the use of the N-word it, that changed.”

People being “offended” by what he says as a comedian only fuels him as a performer. One of the more intelligent voices on the circuit, he has explosive material on gender politics, racism, the political system and the experience of being transplanted from his native Georgia in the US to London 20 years ago to train at Rada.

“It can seem at times that I have now become a platform for people to get offended by,” he says. “I go out of my way, as much as a stand-up comic can, to make clear exactly what I’m trying to say – but people will still misinterpret. What is really interesting here is how so-called ‘liberal’ people will call me names, saying I’m ‘misogynist’ or whatever. People who have been ‘offended’ can be pretty inaccurately offensive themselves.”

Classic comic’s tale

Hunter, who is from Albany, Georgia, has a classic comic’s tale: he was accepted on to the acting course at London’s prestigious Rada, but one night he found himself at a comedy club, did a spot that went so well he was paid £100 and has been a full-time comedian since.

Whereas in the early days he specialised in fairly routine “a man from the Deep South of the US in London” material, he grew into more “urban Noam Chomsky” territory. Being black, male and American may be his initial building blocks but there are philosophical musings also, with many questions remaining unanswered but just put out there for consideration.

“I had my introspective phase as a comic, and then my provocative phase,” he says. “Now, though, I’m worried about basic freedoms and the comedian’s fear of a backlash for saying something considered offensive. We have become more self-regulating than any government agency. You can look for material in the problems that are already out there, or better still, look for humorous solutions to those problems.”

He, perhaps wearily, accepts being a high-profile black comic in the white world of stand-up has come to define him: “It’s always something people will turn to in the conversation. But what I do want to communicate in this new show is that reality and truth are but a matter of perspective.”

The ‘outragists’

He recounts how because of the social-media furore over some of his material, some people come to his shows and sit with their arms folded in the front row as if they are “monitoring” his content for “offence”.

“These are the ‘outragists’ – people looking for something to be outraged by. And the difficulty here is how uninformed and how unintelligent their sense of outrage is. I’m a comic. I’m duty-bound to say what I think. If I say something on stage, then I’ve put some thought into it and I can back it up,” he says.

Although he does TV panel shows to help sell his live shows, he’s not a fan of what the medium does to comedy – or anything artistic. “Television is the perfect medium for the talentless. Regardless of what you are there to speak about, you have to conform to its structures: a soundbite or a quick explanation.”

A recent documentary he fronted – the BBC’s Songs of the South – about the rich musical heritage of the southern states, showed a very different Hunter, not forced into an internal balancing act on his sometimes confrontational stand-up but instead providing a loving narration to a musical journey.

“People did say it was a different version of me on the show. It went down really well and we’re hoping to do another. Any excuse to get back to Georgia is fine by me,” he says.

Because so much of his comedic experience happened in the UK, he finds it odd to do comedy clubs back in Georgia.

“Over the time I’ve been out of the US so many reference points have changed. I missed out on the whole reality TV thing and other topics. Performing over there now is like it was for me when I started in the UK. I’m the guy from outside the area talking about how different the experience is.”

Hunter will spend the first two weeks of June touring Ireland, including performances at this year’s Cat Laughs comedy festival in Kilkenny. Best read on the terms and conditions of his material first. As he puts it himself: “I have more interest in finding the truth than being right. When I talk about myself, there’s a difference between me doing something wrong and me doing something you just don’t like.”

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