Baron Vaughn: A theatrical experience of stand-up comedy

Photo: Anya Garrett

The comic and Grace and Frankie co-star returns to his theater roots while confounding assumptions of race and stand-up comedy. He does two performances at Amphibian Stage Productions this weekend. With ticket giveaway.

 by Amy Martin


Fort Worth — Baron Vaughn dances the line between stand-up comedy and acting. A lot of comics get screen roles that are extensions of their self. Vaughn, on the other hand, actually acts. His role as legal assistant/graphic novelist Leonardo Prince, the only nuanced character on Fairly Legal, gained him quite a fan base. Now he’s nabbed the plum role in Grace and Frankie of the adopted African-American son of Lily Tomlin’s character, Nwabudike Bergstein, who prefers the name Bud and feels more Jewish than African.

It was the right role at the right time. Coming after a depressed period for Vaughn caused by bad financial losses, “Instead of just floating and going to every audition hoping I’ll fit into someone’s idea,” he said, “this time I felt like I knew who I was and knew what I wanted to do.”

Vaughn’s bridging of theater to stand-up runs equally deep. A graduate of Boston University theater conservatory program, he concurrently worked the renowned Boston stand-up comedy scene, finding a home in the alternative comedy niche. He debuted on Broadway in Drowning Crow with Alfre Woodard and Anthony Mackie, yet also boasts a Comedy Central special; a CD, Raised By Cable; and over 14 years in the comic business. He performs at Fort Worth’s Amphibian Stage Productions at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, June 5 and 6.

“Because I have a theater background I think about stand-up in terms of a piece of theater with a through line and sections like scenes in a play,” said Vaughn. “It’s like a piece of music almost. You have your fast moments, your quiet moments, your loud moments, but it all has to add up to a whole. There’s dynamics and themes that repeat.”

Vaughn’s humor hangs on cascades of associations, not diversions and asides, but rather following through his personal absurdist logic. Let’s just say he marches to the beat of a different drummer. There is a connection between failed relationships and early-‘90s cartoon theme songs if you’re willing to follow him. It’s comedy that skips along like a well-thrown stone on a still pond. He traverses pop culture references from a media-saturated childhood, and a passion for philosophy, art history and other heady topics covered in his Deep S##! podcast. Plus he gets very passionate about Cocoa Puffs.

Photo: Netflix: Brooklyn Decker and Baron Vaughn in Grace and Frankie

It’s not the type of rough, raunchy, urban party-scene humor spun by the majority of African-American comedy club comics. That proved to be a problem last year for Vaughn at the Improv in Denver. “A lot of the Improv audience is black. They see me on a poster and think ‘Oh, another black person, I know what I’m getting.’ And then I’m nothing that they expect.” In Denver, a noisy foursome up front “went over to other tables and convinced 11 other people to walk out on my show as well. It’s beyond just not liking my comedy. It’s like ‘You’re a traitor to the race.’ Fifteen black people protested my very existence at that show. Then I had to do another one. That’s comedy.” And the danger of being unique.

But Vaughn stays his crazy course because “half the black audience comes up to me after the show and says ‘Oh my god, I didn’t even know you existed.’ They’re cool with something different,” he said. “The Amphibian show is at the beginning of transitioning out of clubs. I’m trying to do something that is still stand-up comedy, but not just straight-up jokes. Trying to create a theatrical experience in the context of stand-up comedy.”

Original and video at TheaterJones: