HE'S ON "THE OFFICE", NOW HE"S ON MY BLOG
The Craig Robinson Band must be seen to be believed
By Carl Kozlowski
Think of a night out at a comedy club, and you might think of a bunch of jokesters making wisecracks to appreciative audiences. But no matter how funny the talent, the odds of finding a truly fresh comedy concept are slim these days.
Thankfully, Pasadena's very own Ice House is breaking the mold, on Wednesday nights in particular, by offering an array of fresh voices each week in its special tapings for the Comedy Time Network's cellphone-programming service. Even better, the club is completely reinventing the concept of a comedy headliner by topping the shows with the Craig Robinson Band.
A mix of outrageous, audience-interactive comedy and sonic stylings in the tradition of James Brown and Stevie Wonder, the band surrounds the keyboard-playing Robinson with experienced pros on bass, drums and horns. In his role as the fiery and funny frontman, Robinson builds on not only his decade as a headlining club comic but also his popularity as a cast member of the former FX show "Lucky" and current NBC Emmy Award-winning hit "The Office" to bring the show's energy to a fever pitch. Best of all, the fun costs just $5 (plus a two-drink minimum). There's likely no other club in the country featuring a nationally known comic who also knows how to bring the pain with a mix of raucous original tunes and booty-shakin' R&B.
"I actually had a couple bands before in LA, and there was always dissension because everyone wants to be the head of a band. So this time I decided to grab some musicians, put my name on it and have them play as part of my act," explains Robinson. "I want to get us traveling, and there's talk of having us perform at some major premieres. We create onstage, and want to put the shows on a CD and a DVD and all of that stuff. But most of all, we try to keep it a no-pressure situation."
The band is comprised of two alternating drummers, Asa Watkins and Donald Barrett, whom Robinson describes as "thrilling and amazing to watch"; saxophone player John Valentino, who has played with such luminaries as the late Phyllis Hyman and the Whispers, and loves to milk laughs from the contrast between his near-Shaquille O'Neal stature and his tiny alto sax; fellow comedian Will Walls on bass; and Dave Sampson, who "makes love to your soul with his guitar."
Together, it's the joyous energy they share onstage that brings the laughs, as Robinson leads sing-alongs of classic tunes before pulling lyrical switcheroos that turn songs in a humorously dirty or bizarre direction and the audience bursts into laughter at having been fooled. Or Robinson will improvise what sounds like a classic romantic plea for men in the audience to repeat after him to their ladies, and winds up taking things in an outrageously naughty direction. Valentino's constant attempts to jokingly woo women in the audience as he plays take it to another level as well, with the drummers adding to the mix of musical mirth by constantly mugging as they play.
For his part, Chicago native Robinson, a "30ish" single guy, began performing comedy by hosting shows and attending open mic nights during his college years at Illinois State University. But his most memorable early experience — when, he claims, "Comedy chose me" — came when he had rubber chickens thrown at him during one of his first shows in his hometown.
"I was always kind of funny, but then I did this open mic in Chicago called Hecklers Heaven. There were three people in the audience who got chickens, and three others got scorecards, and if you had all three chickens thrown at you, you had to get off the stage," Robinson recalls. "For the first three minutes nobody could bother you, but you were onstage for eight minutes total, so they could be ruthless for five. That first week I just told jokes, got a low score and jumped offstage when two chickens hit me. But I returned the next week with my keyboard, I got a whole lot of love but no chickens, and that was all she wrote."
Robinson taped HBO's "Def Comedy Jam," which aired in 1997, and by 1998 he was headlining shows all over the country and in places as diverse as Acapulco, Sydney and Amsterdam. He quickly discovered that "silliness and music are universal." He moved to Los Angeles in 1999 and since then has amassed appearances on ABC's "Jimmy Kimmel Live!" and HBO's "Real Time With Bill Maher."
"Moving to LA provided more opportunities to get into television and film and be seen by power people," says Robinson. "Chicago had that home vibe, but I had to turn LA into my home. There are a lot more places to perform and a lot more opportunities to make something happen with your career."