Al Jackson: From Lab Coat to Comedy Darling
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because you just read the news again and probably need to laugh.
By Meghan Walsh
When I first see Al Jackson in person, it’s at a show in Oakland. He’s leaning against the wall, surveying the crowd, which has no idea this unassuming man wearing a T-shirt and jeans is the opening act for comic du jour Hannibal Buress. A few moments later, he’s standing at the front of the stage telling the all-white, 20-something audience how it looks like the cast of The Walking Dead. “I’m surrounded by a bunch of privileged, well-adjusted zombies. This is Oakland! Can’t I get a grill up in here?” he says, eyes wild, smile mischievous. The crowd, which just ran the last guy off the stage, adores him.
It’s hard not to. “He’s like the captain of the football team, where you’re like, ‘I want to go to battle with you,’” says fellow comedian Tone Bell. The 38-year-old has an easiness and sincerity that slices through ego like a razor on lace. Skills that have proven quite marketable for this former Miami middle school teacher: He’s a regular writer-guest on everything from truTV’s How To Be A Grown Up to Upload With Shaquille O’Neal, his second full-length special is currently airing on Fuse and he continues to host the BBC series Officially Amazing, which captures Guinness World Record attempts. At first glance, Jackson’s charming disposition appears effortless, but look closer and you’ll see, when he stands blank-faced among the rabble before the show, what he’s really doing is mentally charting his stage script.
Jackson likes to do a skit about his eldest son, a diagnosed genius. “Everyone says that’s so cool. It’s not cool. At 5 years old, I’m out of shit to teach my kid,” he says in a set from two years ago. What he doesn’t mention is that he’s a brainiac too. Talking over Skype from his Los Angeles home, Jackson casually tells me how, after getting his master’s in biomedical sciences, he applied to medical school. When he was wait-listed, the Cleveland native with big brown eyes that never stray decided to kill time by teaching in Florida. That led to an overly intelligent, understimulated and slightly inebriated 27-year-old signing up for a comedy open mic night while hanging out at an Irish pub in Fort Lauderdale. “Two minutes felt like two hours,” he says, and he can still remember the intoxicating rush of getting a laugh out of the crowd, even if he couldn’t get the mic out of the stand. He was hooked.
Before that, Jackson had never thought of himself as particularly funny. Neither did his mom — though he did always have a gap-toothed smile and something wry to say. Year after year, his report cards carried the same feedback, she says: exceptionally smart, but would do a whole lot better if he stopped socializing so much. The son of an organizational therapist and an attorney, Jackson says what he loves about being onstage, which also comes with leading a class, is the challenge of getting an audience to listen to what he has to say. “A lot of comics make you laugh, but you don’t gain anything from it,” Bell says. “Al takes you on a journey.”
That night in the Irish pub rolled into gigs at more bars, Veterans of Foreign Wars clubs and firehouses, all the while grading papers during the day. “I was living this weird double life,” says the man who also boasts about having killed more mice (presumably in the lab) than anyone else you’ll ever meet. But he eventually gave up science, the Florida swamps and health insurance for New York City, after a scout spotted him. He soon started getting appearances on Comedy Central, and those led to cameos on E!, MTV and FXX.
Since Jackson doesn’t write out his jokes word for word, they might have a little fat around the edges. He doesn’t riff specifically on people or current events. Instead, he likes to have a conversation. And no topic is off-limits for the married father of two, whose skits on long-term relationship sex are hilariously raunchy. In single life, he taunts, you can’t express the true freak you are. “If I hooked up with some girl in here, she wouldn’t even leave like, ‘I just hooked up with a comedian.’ She’d leave saying, ‘Did that just make me gay or him gay?’” Actually, his big concern right now is how people attack anyone who says something they don’t want to hear. Take what happened to Trevor Noah back in March, when the media vultures descended upon him for a handful of “offensive” tweets. “We’re going down a weird road where we can’t talk about certain sensitive topics,” he says. Kim Kardashian, for example, is fair game, but Caitlyn Jenner is off-limits.
Back in Oakland, the guy who preceded Jackson was booed off the stage when he started a joke by saying, “This might offend some feminists,” and immediately a woman began to cry foul. “She bullied him into not telling his joke and took away his right to be offensive,” says Jackson, a Black guy raised by a single mom with a sister who suffers from mental illness, who could easily be the target of satire. When people get righteous, Jackson just reminds them of the words of George Carlin: “Don’t act disgusted! Half of you are gonna go home and go down on each other tonight, remember? If you’re willing to swallow cum, let’s not make believe that something I said was disgusting!”