Why is Black Thought, a.k.a. cofounder and leader of The Roots, hosting a comedy night, starting Thursday, at Punch Line Philly?
Tariq "Black Thought" Trotter, who formed The Roots with Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson 30 years ago, is known as a smartly streetwise, socially conscious lyricist. There's a long history of rappers who incorporate humor into their work, but Trotter is not one of them. Twelve albums into his career (not counting EPs and collaborative albums with Betty Wright, John Legend, and Elvis Costello), and with 2017’s End Game due soon, Trotter’s wisely pragmatic words focus on the hard life he has witnessed and the soulless strife that engulfs the world around him.
"I do not seem like a funny guy,” he says.
Then Trotter reminds me of his day job, in the house band for The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon and his occasional role as on-air comic foil to Fallon. “For the last eight years, five days a week, I’ve worked on a comedy sketch show,” Trotter says, "whether it was Jimmy’s Late Show or The Tonight Show."
A new picture emerges. Trotter has honed his comedic chops and worked with Tonight Show writers on bits that “are dry, more serious, and closer to my regular personality, or the other routines where I might be in a blond wig and an apron.”
Trotter says he had a funny family growing up in Germantown (“unknowingly, unintentionally”), but laughed a lot -- more to keep from crying than anything else. “That’s comedy as therapy, an escape from the hard, sad truth around us and the beautiful imperfection of society, a narrative you need to make light of,” he says. That vibe definitely carries into his extended family, The Roots.
The rapper-writer – a huge fan of comedians Dick Gregory, George Carlin, Robin Harris, Richard Pryor, and, of course Eddie Murphy, whose 1983 live stand-up movie, Delirious, gave Black Thought the name of his comedy night – is quick to state that he, Thompson, and the rest of The Roots are “SNL nerds, always have been,” and that “a lot of those same SNL vibes go around, as much of our crew is the SNL crew, writers, and producers.”
Trotter spends his week in Manhattan while working on the Tonight Show, and his entertainment diet has been extended to the city’s many comedy clubs.
“Seeing that made me realize Philly doesn’t have that many outlets for comedy. It’s often been that if you wanted to make it in comedy from Philly, you had to come to New York. Kevin Hart and Big Jay Oakerson had to commute to NYC every night for years to get onstage. Not to take anything away from New York or L.A., but there should be more opportunity for comedy in Philly, for Philly comics to interact with other working comedians," Trotter says. "I hope 'Black Thought Presents ... Delirious' helps to shed some light on Philly comedians who may not yet get the chance to shine. People are thirsty for that chance.”
Trotter handpicked every comedian who will be on the Punch Line stage Thursday, including Seth Herzog, the warm-up comic for The Tonight Show, who also happens to have a Tuesday night residency at the Lower East Side bar the Slipper Room, an evening Trotter frequents.
Trotter will do more music and social commentary than jokes at this week’s "Delirious." Next time, it will probably be the other way around. Just don’t ask Trotter to tell you a joke right now.
“Honestly, I just got out of a dentist’s chair and am in a little bit of pain. There’s nothing that funny about that.”
"Black Thought Presents ... Delirious," 10:15 p.m. Thursday, Punch Line Philly, 33 E. Laurel St. $15, punchlinephilly.com.