Comedian Reginald D Hunter admits his recent BBC documentary made him reassess his homeland, writes Richard Fitzpatrick.
REGINALD D Hunter is one of the funniest cats on the stand-up circuit. His shows have a philosophical bent. He explores ideas and prejudices and the darker recesses of his mind.
It’s misleading, however, to imagine his gigs are weighty. He has an infectious sense of fun. The laughs are delivered with a big, booming, Deep South drawl and turns-of-phrase typical of his hometown of Albany in Georgia.
He tells a story about being cornered by a genteel, middle-aged lady in a cafe in London, where he has lived since 1997.
“Oh, you’re a comedian. Tell me about Tommy Cooper,” she commanded.
“He dead,” came the terse reply.
“Oh,” she said, “I must be terribly British, and correct your grammar. I think it’s, ‘He died’.”
“I said at first he died,” countered Hunter, “now he dead.”
SONGS OF THE SOUTH
Hunter, who plays Dublin’s Vicar Street on May 22, recently presented a BBC television series, Reginald D Hunter’s Songs of the South. It’s a road trip through the swamps and streets of America’s Deep South, which gave us the finest blues, soul, funk and hip hop records.
His 5,000-mile adventure includes interviews with the likes of Lynyrd Skynyrd, Arrested Development and Dolly Parton, as well a stop by the soul-food joint that REM used for the title of their album, Automatic for the People.
The expression comes from diner owner, Weaver D’s commitment to “try to be efficient” in feeding his punters.
The programme is also a personal journey of discovery for Hunter, the returning exile, who relives the good — including porches, the unrivalled dusk and his admission that he has “not had any pleasure like skinny dipping at night-time” — and the bad, specifically the “self-segregation” that exists in the South.
“I felt racism and backward stupidity made me run from the South. When we went to the South, it was mostly to areas where I would avoid going. I got forced to review my opinion of the South. I had a chance to broaden my view of my home.
“I think southern racism is based largely on the civil war. It wasn’t about freeing the slaves. Ultimately, it was about northern white businessmen and southern white businessmen, and northern businessmen won.”
Hunter says southern racism today carries a torch for those times.
“They’re really angry with northern white people, ‘northern Jews,’ as they say, but black people are the only people that they can flex on. I think that history is changing. This last experience made me hopeful for the new South. There are lots of white southerners who are vomitously embarrassed about the reputation of the South.
“A lot of my attitudes about the South were quite fixed. I was content to leave them where they were. I couldn’t do that anymore after I was there.
“A place that I found myself running from, ashamed to have in my heritage, all of a sudden is a place I find myself defending. It’s like the world has its racists, but these are my racists!
“I think the universe decided that I had to go back. I wasn’t going to go back on my own, on a road trip, with this kind of introspection, so the universe sent some BBC people and said, ‘Come on. Get your shit. Let’s go. Go and look inside yourself. See if you can evolve’.”
Hunter is one of four children. His two sisters are born-again Christian ministers. His dad, who is 96, is still walking, cooking his breakfast every day and doing the lottery.
Hunter says his dad doesn’t use his good age as a licence to shoot from the hip.
“He doesn’t use it as an excuse to say all kinds of wild shit to people. He’s still a gentleman. It still matters to him how people feel, how they will take certain things. He was refereeing between me and my brother. I didn’t feel like going over to see my brother, because my brother … he is what he is, and my dad said to me, ‘Look, go over to your brother’s house and have a conversation. Just have one conversation. It don’t matter if it ain’t about nothing. And then come home. That’s all I ask.’ I did it,” Hunter says.
Hunter found himself in a sticky wicket two years back, for a gig he did for the annual Professional Footballers’ Association awards ceremony in London.
He was accused of being racist, for using the ‘N’ word, and was asked to return his appearance fee. Getting swallowed up in a media twister was an experience, he says.
“Man, it opened my eyes about invented controversy,” he explains ruefully.
“I did the thing. A third of the room was laughing. A third of the room wasn’t laughing. The other third was looking at the two camps to see which one they wanted to fall in. Afterwards, people shook my hand. Had drinks with some of the footballers and their wives.
“I got invited to come back to some after-parties with them, and I said, ‘No, thank you. The trouble is, y’all look too easy.’
As I was walking outside, this very short dude, on the verge of being midget-like, walked towards me and said, ‘Reg, some people believe what you said was racist.’ Before I could speak there was bright lighting and cameras in my face. Pffh! It feels like you’ve been violated or something.
“That’s what happened on the day. The next day, I was sitting around minding my own business and then my agent called me and she said, ‘What the hell happened last night?’ I said, ‘Nothing happened. I went to talk to pretty white people. Everybody laughed. I had a few drinks and went home.’ She said, ‘Well, read the paper.’ It was like, I don’t remember being at this.
“The politics in Britain is such that a particular newspaper has issues with the so-called establishment, establishment like the BBC and the PFA, in this instance.
They was just using me to get at them. ‘How could you have this racist on top of all the other racial things you have going on?’ That thing wasn’t even about me. I was the Monica Lewinsky of that situation.”
Thankfully, the controversy soon blew over and Hunter is as popular as ever in the UK, and also has a big following in this country.
Reginald D Hunter performs his stand-up show, The Man Who Attempted To Do As Much As Such, on Friday, May 22, at Vicar St, Dublin
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