After ten years as a Cook County correctional officer, comedian Robert L Hines has begun to find the humor in his grueling former occupation. Now based in LA and performing stand-up across the country, Hines spoke with Our Town about his time as a jailer, his views on rape jokes and hecklers and why pain is comedy gold.
Our Town At first you were reluctant to talk about your work as a jail guard. Why?
Robert L Hines Well, it wasn’t a happy situation and it has nothing to do with the jailers, it has to do with the situation. These people have lost hope, and they feel like they have no other option than to go against the law. In your training, they tell you that you need a hobby because just doing that job itself will make you crazy, and you will hit a wall. So, I felt I needed to separate my stand-up [from] my jail life, because they had convinced me that if I gave the jail too much of myself, then there would be a time where I would burn out and wouldn’t be able to handle it. And I was not going to let anything like that get ahold of me. I don’t know if you know this, but generally black people will not get counseling. ‘I’m not gonna sit here and tell you my problems. It’s not your business.’ So to avoid all of those problems, I’m gonna keep this separate from this. Remember, I was at the jail for almost 10 years. I would end my shift at the jail, then change and go to the clubs. I left the jail in 2003, and I have only started doing the jail material in the last six months. So, it took some time—maybe, after you feel that you are no longer in danger— some time to look back and see the humor of the situation.
OT What convinced you to incorporate jail material into your act?
RLH A good friend of mine, Shay Shay—he’s a comedian, himself, he said I needed to share some of the pain I had, that pain was comedy gold, and that until I stopped being so stingy with it, I would never get the outcome I was looking for. But I was still pretty guarded. Then, last year I signed with new management, and my team said I was not really tapping into all the entertainment that I had to give. So, it was a combination of Shay and my management team both saying, ‘hey, listen, this is what’s funny, if you let it be funny.’ So, really in a very short amount of time, I have been dedicating a significant amount of my set to the jail material, and to my surprise, people are very interested. They are eating it up. It’s been outside of my own personal ability—outside of what I thought I could do. It has been amazing.
OT Why do you think audiences are interested in that material?
RLH I found that people are interested in what they have no experience with. There are a lot of misconceptions. For instance, people think you are relatively safe and separate from the prisoners. But, where I was, I was in direct contact with maximum security prisoners. So, I was in there alone with murderers and thieves and car jackers and I was unarmed. All I had was a black pen, a red pen, and a flashlight. Not the big-assed, ‘knock-a-bitch-out’ flashlight. No, no, no. I had the little ‘where’s my keys?’ maglite. From time to time the supervisors would say, “Officer Hines, why are you in there playing cards and dominos with those inmates?” And I would say, “Inmate? That’s my cousin. He’s got a name.”
OT Do you think getting to the audience to feel some of the things you felt—like getting them to feel scared or threatened— has anything to do with it?
RLH Definitely. That is a part of it, because that’s what you do when you are a storyteller. When I was a young stand-up, one of the things I learned from Bernie Mac is that the reason that this is an art is that you are painting a picture with words. The picture can go from being something beautiful to something horrific, and you need to understand that the words you use are very important. Like, he would say, “If you’re going to talk about a grape, I want to be able to taste the sweetness of the grape. I want you to be able to have rinsed the grape off and there still to be water on the grape. I want you to tell me every bit of your taste bud enjoying that grape. If you can’t do that, then you really can’t hang around me. You have to make that picture with your words.”
OT Who are your favorite comedians of all time?
RLH There are quite a few guys that make up the mosaic that is me. Some of the Chicago guys— Richard Belzer, Bernie Mac, Shay Shay, Daran Howard, Evan Lionel. Then there’s Eddie Murphy. And, of course, every black comic has a love affair with Richard Pryor, because he really changed the game. Before that, it wasn’t as theatrical. After him, everything was, you know— everybody was dramatic. And I also like Franklyn Ajaye quite a bit. When I was a young, like four or five, I would see guys on TV— like the Belzers and Franklyn Ajayes— and I would think, ‘That is the coolest job in the world. I want to do that.’ Because they would be so laid back, and so cool, and so happy on stage.
OT What are your thoughts on the recent controversy surrounding Daniel Tosh’s rape joke?
RLH I think that when you go to see Daniel Tosh, you are going to see Daniel Tosh, and you should expect that it is going to be sort of nasty, or mean, or whatever. I mean, you don’t go to a demolition derby and complain because there are cars smashing into each other— it’s just nonsensical. And I also believe that he has the right to say anything that he wants to say. But, I think that there is also a price to be paid for that freedom of speech. Okay, so it’s like the NBA player who was an ambassador for the league who said that he was, uncomfortable with, quote unquote, fags. So, you can say whatever you want to say, but the NBA can also do whatever they want to do behind it. So, when you make certain statements, you should be prepared for the backlash. My personal thought? There’s nothing funny about rape, so that’s not part of my act. For me, as a stand-up, I want you to leave my show happy. I want everybody to get laid after they get through seeing me. And I want all that sex to be consensual.
OT Is there a time when a heckler needs to be put in their place?
RLH Yes. I am pretty tough on a heckler, because I have taken years to prepare what I am going to talk about, not what you want to talk about. So, if you are going to try to take my show away from me, then, of course, I am going to need to put you in that place that you need to be in, and that is an audience member. When I’m on stage, I will do this, and you just sit there. I have total control of this, and if I have to make you an example— for you to understand that I have total control of this— then so be it.
OT As a comedian do you feel any topics are off limits?
RLH Um, for me, there are topics that are off limits for my comedy, because I am basically a mother’s boy. If there is anyone on the planet that can make me do something it is probably my mother, or my wife. And my mom is a church lady.
OT What do you miss most about Chicago?
RLH Well, outside of my mother and my father, what I miss most about Chicago is the food. There is excellent food in Los Angeles, and don’t get me wrong, if you’re a fat dude, you are going to find a way to eat. But in Chicago, they will shovel the sh*t at you. They will feed you a pizza that is two and one-half inches thick! The food— it is lively. And that’s what Chicago brings, like no other city that I have been to in the world. Every city has its specialties. Like, you can go to the South and go into a gas station and get decent fried chicken. But in Chicago, everybody takes pride in the sh*t they feed you. There is always meetings over food, conversations over food, gatherings over food. Right now I am running late to go by somebody’s house to have a meal--because that’s what we do here in Chicago.
Learn more about Robert L Hines at robertlhines.com
A writer with an MFA in Creative Writing from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Sarah Terez Rosenblum freelances for a number of web sites and print publications. Her debut novel, “Herself When She’s Missing," (Soft Skull press) is available for pre-order here. She is also a figure model, Spinning instructor and teacher at Chicago’s StoryStudio. Inevitably one day she will find herself lecturing naked on a spinning bike. She's kind of looking forward to it actually.
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