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Inside With: Wali Collins, Famous From Springfield, Mass.By: Andrew Singer

"I try to talk about human things" --Wali Collins
Photo: Phil Nee
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Wali Collins is a standup comic and a generally positive, upbeat guy. He started out in the Boston area and has earned work in commercials, comedy shows, as well as TV and corporate gigs all over the U.S. When Collins talks about the path that has traveled these many years, one cannot help but feel captivated by his overwhelming passion for everything he does and has done. The Apiary recently sat down with Collins in a sandwich shop in midtown to discuss his beginnings, the usefulness of having a clean set, connecting with his audience and his inspirational clothing line.

Did you need to tone down your material at all for your appearance on The View?
No, my material is clean anyway. It was a matter of choosing what they wanted to hear, what jokes would work on the show and the flow of the set, but I didn't need to tone it down at all. A lot of comics will have curses in their sets, and they figure they can edit them out later, but sometimes the curses are the jokes and then the jokes die. So I try to stay in the habit of keeping jokes ready for TV.

How was your experience on Chappelle's Show? At the time, did you realize it was going to become such a cultural phenomenon?
No, I didn't know. Dave's a good friend of mine, and I got called once in a while to work on the show if I wasn't traveling or anything like that. But I had no idea it was going to be this cult kind of thing. Dave's a great writer, and so is Neal [Brennan] who was his co-producer. They understood their audience. And people just gravitated toward that; or levitated.
How many years were you performing before you began getting steady work in commercials, colleges and corporate events?
Wow. I started in Springfield, Mass. This was when comedy was taking off, and everyone was doing comedy, like restaurants had comedy nights. Discos had comedy spots. When I started out, it was like a hobby. I would get out of work and go to emcee these shows, and they had headlining comedians who came from New York. Once I had enough material, I went to Boston, and then I got a booking agent. New England was just crazy with comedy, like everyone wanted to have comedy in their club or in their establishment and so working pretty steadily was pretty easy.

It was just a matter of me quitting my job actually, because I developed an ulcer doing two jobs. I was burning the candle at both ends, so I had to make a decision to either do comedy or architecture. I went with comedy.

Is Boston still a big comedic scene, or has it died down at all?
I think it died a little bit -- a lot of the clubs are gone -- but I think some of the best writers come from Boston.

How often do you tour?
Well, not as often as I used to. I did a lot of colleges when I first started out, but now I've been doing a lot of corporate shows. So probably on the average, maybe once or twice a month, but those corporate shows that I do, they're probably like two or three days out on the road. I emcee their sales meetings, and so I'll do some stand-up, get the crowd going, introduce the vice president of sales. During his speech, they get kind of sleepy, and then I come back out, get the energy back up again, then I introduce the regional manager for that district, things like that, so basically I'm like the cheerleader who gets the energy going, just make the sales meetings a bit more fun.

At these corporate shows, are you performing for a hundred people, thousands of people or a huge auditorium?
It's the range. The smallest corporate show I've done was 28 people, and the largest corporate event I did was 13,000. Your stand-up and your energy level definitely changes. For 28 people, it's kind of like people in your living room, it's more conversational. And then with 13,000 people you have to be larger than life. It's like a little town, you can see people beyond people. Yeah, it's a great experience.

How much studying do you have to do before these? How well do you have to know the company before you get up in front of everyone?
After a while, they're all the same, the companies. It's all about selling and getting their product out there. They have their own little verbiage or their own vocabulary so you have to learn that a little bit, but probably a month, maybe. Two weeks before, depending on how deep or if it's a new product that they want to sell.

Who would you say are the majority of your fans?
I really think people between the ages of 21 to 35, maybe 40. I think that's my demographic. Male or female, in-between area.

So pretty much everyone, no specific groups.
You know, I have a lot more fun when my audience is as multiracial as possible. I try to talk about human things, not necessarily about being a black man or living in this country or politics or religion. And it seems like everyone has a good time, once I just talk about me being me, and being a kid. Everyone relates to being a kid. So I love talking about that kind of stuff. We have good memories. Some of the stuff I've done as a kid, all people can relate to that. Our parents were the enemy.

I really don't like it when people try to stick me in an all-black crowd. I lived in California for a while, and I wanted to emcee shows, and I went to the comedy clubs and they were like "Oh yeah, our black shows are on Tuesday." And I'm like, "Well, I'm not necessarily a black comic." And I really don't do as well because I'm not that type of comic, because when I think of a black comic or urban comic, as they call them, it's just a certain type of attitude and swagger that I don't have.

Like someone on BET Comic View or Def Comedy Jam?

Which part of all of this is the most fun for you?
I was going to say the money, but that's not at all the case. When I'm on stage, and I know that people are into what I'm talking about, and when I can go off-book from my regular set and start a conversation and everyone's into it -- that's the best time, because I feel like everyone's enjoying what I'm saying. I feel like I have this control, and people are trusting me. I'm like the host of the party.

Wali @ The Laugh Factory | Photo via Carlos Morcillo
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So it's that sugar-high vibe where everything just clicks?
It really is. And people say it's better than sex. Sometimes it is. Sometimes.

Tell us about your motivational clothing line, Y'NEVANO, and how it came to be.
Basically what happened was I started out going to college for architectural technology, and I was a musician. I thought that my life was going to be an architect during the week and then a musician on the weekends. My mother asked me if I could be whatever I wanted to be, what would I be? I said I'd love to be an actor, and she says, well then how come you're doing architecture if you want to be an actor? And I said, I'm from Springfield, Massachusetts, no one famous ever came from here. And she said to me, "You never know." So I said, "Yeah, I guess that's true." So I said, "I don't know where to start," and she said, "Well you're a funny guy. Try comedy." And so I went to a comedy spot about 45 minutes away from Springfield, and my very first time on stage, the guy put five dollars in my hand and said that I have stage presence. He told me that 75% of the battle is having stage presence, and writing material is that's the technique you have to learn, so I said okay.

And I went back, went back, went back, and kept writing material, and then I moved to Boston, and later on to New York, and then all those things I've done, just...You never know. Writing, producing shows, doing commercials, signing a commercial agent, now I write and produce webisodes, I have a production company, but I've done all this stuff because Y'NEVANO. I wanted to relate this to the people, but trying to do it on stage one show at a time, I really didn't feel that I was getting across.

I decided it would be kind of cool if I have a clothing line where people can see the logo, which is an open door, Y'NEVANO, and they can see that and remind themselves to live your goals, live your dreams, whatever how small or big they are, no matter what, Y'NEVANO, Y'NEVANO. It's gone very, very well actually. And people understand that Y'NEVANO's a state of mind, reinforced through a clothing line, and a clothing line reinforced through a state of mind.

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Please tell us about your musical background. Do you still perform music today, and has that ever been explicitly part of your comedy?
Okay there's a lot to that question, those questions. I started playing drums -- I'm a drummer -- in 8th grade. My friend was a bass player. He needed someone to play drums while we rehearsed. We went down into his basement. His grandfather had an old, old drum set, so he taught me a rhythm, and I just thought it was really cool to hear this bass and drum as music, this is kind of cool. So I just kept playing and playing, and I would hear rhythms in my head, and I always loved music, and I studied under Max Roach, the jazz drummer. So then I just realized that jazz was just so, jazz has so much power and so much depth to it as a way of life, so to speak, I don't want to sound too corny or too deep or too zen-like, but I always relate jazz to comedy and how people, jazz musicians express themselves through their instrument, and so I always enjoyed, I played in bands, I've done in studios, played a couple albums, then the architecture and the comedy kind of took off.

But I still play once in a while. I'll go in a studio and play by myself or I'll go to jam sessions. But I'm always playing. I have some drum pads to rehearse on, to play on, get my frustrations out. My dream's to play, to sit in with my favorite band called Incognito. If I could play with them, my life would be complete. Music is still very important to me.

Which upcoming acting role are you most excited about?
At least the ones that I've written, I want to get those produced and get those on the way. I guess those are the roles I'm most excited about now.

What has been one of the keys to your success?
Well, Y'NEVANO has definitely been a key. But, you know, I think it was truly enjoying what I do. By living Y'NEVANO, always keep it in my mind, it always puts me a little further because then it's kind of like me stepping into another realm, an area that I'm not familiar with, and then I find something about it I like, and then I don't want to get too hung up in that area, you never know, then I go to the next one, expanding more and more, that's why I'm still doing what I do.

--Andrew Singer is a contributing editor for The Apiary. He performs regularly as "Soce the Elemental Wizard." He recently interviewed about Ophira Eisenberg.

Wali's official Web site

Reader Comments (5)

great interview.
March 9, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterjohn
wali is awesome/hilarious and seriously, one of the nicest guys EVER. he's awesome!!!!!
March 9, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterjenkwok
Nice work Andrew! Walli used to host a stand-up show on Comedy Central I watched as a kid. Franklin Ajaye compares comedy to jazz as well.
March 11, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAbbi Crutchfield
Misspelled name alert. Wali is much cooler than Wally. And Wall-E.
March 11, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAbbi Crutchfield
fabulous interview!
March 11, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterstephanie jackson

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