Q&A: Brandon Vincent Jackson

Brandon Vincent Jackson teaches English as a Second Language by day and performs stand-up comedy by night. In his upcoming Communication Through Comedy class he’ll help students master their ability to express themselves on stage using the principles of linguistics. Over a phone call one Sunday morning he talked with me, ever so eloquently, about audience expectations, how speaking naturally on stage is like basketball, and what comedy can do better than any other art form.

This class is about teaching people about how to sound more natural on stage. But shouldn’t sounding natural just be natural?

That’s the thing. When people get on stage, they don’t know that a lot of humor comes from natural speech. They think that they have to manufacture it. They think that they have to talk differently on stage than they do off stage.

Does that entail stripping away insecurities or conventions?

It’s not a psychology class. We will talk about the psychology of speaking a little bit but it’s a linguistics class. We’ll be analyzing speech, analyzing other comedians, analyzing our own language, looking at grammar, annunciation and intonation.

You’re an English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher, correct?

Yeah, I have a Master’s degree in Teaching English as a Second Language. It was a year and a half into comedy when I went to grad school and it completely changed my understanding of doing comedy.

In which ways?

I compare it to the way I play basketball. I’ve always been overly concerned with form: how you have your hands on the ball, where your feet are. I would spend all this time focusing on form and then completely miss the basket. But then I would mess around and just shoot and the ball would go in. You have to just assume that you know how to do what you’re doing and just do it. There’s no time to think about it, you have to just act. [Teaching ESL] made me realize that communication is the same way. People who speak a language proficiently and natively, they’re just doing it based on instinct.

When you’re playing Jenga and he gives you this look. Photo by Cole Saladino.

And that goal is to express some core truth about yourself or the world.

Yes. The fun for the audience is watching you trying to explain yourself and trying to illustrate these complex feelings, emotions and philosophies you have in a way that people can understand. I’ve realized over the past couple years that the reason why I started doing comedy is because I have this incessant need to explain myself.

Do you have the need to explain yourself because you feel like you’re misunderstood?

Mmhmm. I feel like people make a lot of assumptions about me just because of who I am. It is very easy to look at me and get the wrong idea about a lot of things. Comedy is the only place where I can explain myself and reveal things about myself and illustrate them and have fun with it. There’s no other medium or art form or profession in the world where it would be appropriate for me to go up to people and try to explain my insecurities.

One time I saw you begin a set by walking on stage and saying, “I am gay.” Everyone laughed because it seemed so unexpected to start your set that way.

Right. They’re looking at me and assuming I’m a straight person. Me coming out creates a lot of tension. I only need to say 3 words to get to the heart of what people are thinking. Part of being good at comedy is understanding the context behind what you’re saying. You have to know what the audience already knows about what you’re talking about, what their expectations are, what you talking about this looks like. And then you can play with that and that gives you the power to say more with less.

Brandon Vincent Jackson’s Communication Through Comedy class starts on Sunday, October 20th. You can enroll right here.