If you’re lucky enough to be comedian Chris Riggins’ Facebook friend, you might have gotten a laugh or two off of some of his posts. Take this one, on the problem with the popular social media site: “people hate to see other people doing the same annoying sh*t they do on a daily basis and Facebook is the place where they have to face the fact that they aren’t the only assholes on earth. It’s like when a dog sees itself in the mirror and starts barking at himself.”
Riggins’ material exists in that space somewhere in-between wry observation and social commentary, with the occasional shock value comment thrown in for good measure, like this recent musing on his existential philosophy: “life is too short to say ‘what I ain’t gonna do’ and not long enough to do all the things I want to do…thank God for porn and drugs.”
Occasionally, he’ll say something cryptic: “I keep my haters eating cold potatoes!!!”
What makes Riggins work as a comedian isn’t a shtick or gimmick; he’s more of a comic who happens to be black than a ‘black comic’ — meaning someone whose material mostly consists of racially-tinged jokes. He balances outlandish remarks (“do aliens have porn?”) with reality-based statements (“times are hard but no times are harder than time spent being a Raider fan…so when you see a Raider fan on Sunday… hug them”) and has a knack for saying things we might have been thinking, but didn’t say (“I think my new holiday tradition will be to go to as many office holiday parties as I can and see how many secret Santa gifts I can get before they realize I don’t work at the office!.”)
He’s not a big punchline guy or one overly enamored of elaborate set-ups. Rather, he adopts a conversational tone which engages audiences and gets into a flow which might contain dozens of small jokes that build steadily, rather than one big “home run” joke. Because of this approach, there are few dead zones in his comedy coverage area. The little laughs add up; their cumulative effect can be overpowering. When Riggins is onstage, you might just find yourself consistently on the edge of anxious anticipation, before breaking out into hysteria and doubling over with laughter.
During a recent set at Oakland’s Shashamane Grill, where Riggins was a featured artist during the weekly “Speak Easy” open mic showcase, he demonstrated his ability to win over a non-comedy crowd with his engaging personality. Spoken word fans are typically dour and serious. And coming on the tail end of a bunch of young poets who were using the stage as much for therapeutic release as for performance experience – one young woman referenced experiencing sexual trauma at the hands of a relative – Riggins had his work cut out for him.
He started out by riffing on 49er fans, medical marijuana, people who write $10 checks, and bank employees (“they know all your business”), lacing his remarks with occasional comments about his personal life: he’s able to work as a full-time comic and pursue his career path, he said, because of being married to a woman “with a very good job.”
In no time, Riggins built a rapport with the crowd. Having earned their trust, he took it up a notch with his assessment of midget porn (“it’s like watching someone overcome adversity”), eased off the throttle a bit to talk about babysitting his infant nephew who “doesn’t have any eyebrows,” before launching into a discussion of the difference between the salad bars at Denny’s and Sizzler.
Riggins’ affable delivery and even-handed energy relaxed the crowd and put folks at ease. By the end of the set, the laughs had gotten louder and came much more frequently than at the beginning.
“I was always that dude in the smoking section that could make everybody laugh,” Riggins told Oakulture during a phone interview. “But I was always afraid that it would be harder to make people laugh on purpose than just by being myself in a social situation. I didn’t realize it was actually the same thing.”
He got his first official shot at doing stand-up six years ago, he says, when a club promoter friend challenged him to open for Dave Chappelle. It went so well, he opened for Chappelle again the next night and hasn’t looked back since.
Comics always like to talk about their influences, and for Riggins, his main two are Chappelle and Eddie Murphy, whom he called “my generation’s Richard Pryor.” His success at making inroads onto the comedy scene has happened, he says, because he makes an effort to be “relatable.” Though the East Bay influences a lot of his comedy, he makes it a point not to sound too “regional,” to have material which he can take on the road.
He might draw inspiration from driving on International Avenue looking for a fabled cheap gas station and observing the hoe stroll in full effect, but he tries to frame his jokes in a universal way. Unlike some African American comics, he prides himself on being able to switch up his material from “urban” to “mainstream,” which he reveals is comedy industry jargon for being able to work black audiences as well as majority-white crowds. He sometimes injects social commentary into his act, but he says he hasn’t been doing as much of that lately as he used to. Reason being, if you’re going to go there, “it has to be extremely funny.”
Riggins admits he sometimes uses social media as a sounding board to test out new material or just to practice, but he notes that during live shows, “I won’t say it like I said it on Facebook.” A big part of comedy is timing; another is body language and facial expressions, neither of which can be read across computer screens.
And the “cold potato” reference? That’s an inside joke, Riggins explains, from a comedian friend who had a dirty joke about having sex in a KFC bathroom which involved gratuitous potato wedges being stuffed in bodily orifices. The image was so visceral—“you can picture it,” he says—the metaphor stuck with him, and he started saying it, to the point where it’s become a signature phrase. “I got other people saying ‘cold potatoes’ just because I thought that sh*t was hilarious.”
Riggins has some high-profile gigs coming up: December 19, hosting the Yasiin Bey (Mos Def) show at 1015 Folsom in SF, and New Years Eve, opening for Bobby Brown at the Bal Theater in San Leandro. At press time, he was still debating whether to put any jokes about Brown’s well-documented offstage antics into his set. “It seems so easy making Bobby Brown jokes,” he reasons, saying he’ll wait until he actually meets Brown to make the decision on whether to include any material on the singer. “If I meet him and he seems cool…,” he says, leaving the door open.
Riggins feels blessed, he said, to have started his stand-up career later in life, after he was already married with kids. Had he gone that route in his early 20s, he might have had developed substance abuse problems: comedians, he explains, are notorious for drug and alcohol use as part of their lifestyle. When he’s not onstage, he’s usually parenting. “I enjoy taking care of my family, that’s all I do outside of this,” he says.
As far as success in comedy, he says, “I do see myself getting to a [more prominent] level. This is the only thing I’ve done in life which has come so easy to me, and I think when you find that, you should do that.”
This week’s picks:
Yasiin Bey, w/ Kev Choice, Jahi + the Life, DJs D-Sharp, Mr. E, Leydis, hosted by Chris Riggins, 12/19, 9pm, $35, 1015 Folsom, SF
Tony! Toni! Tone!, 12/19-12/22, $34-$37, Yoshis, 510 Embarcadero
The 45 Sessions 45th Edition, 12/20, 9pm, $10, Legionnaire Saloon, 2272 Telegraph
“Let’s Stay Together” Holiday Screening, 12/21, 7pm, $8, Owl n Wood, 45 Grand Ave.
Monday Soul Holiday Toy Drive with Toure’s Theory feat. The R.O.D. Project, Nio the Gift, Too $hort, DJ D-Sharp, 12/23, $20-$30, 10pm, the New Parish, 579 18th St.