With a star-studded cast featuring the likes of John Belushi, Chevy Chase, Bill Murray and Gilda Radner, in the ’70s “The National Lampoon Radio Hour” cemented itself as a fixture of comedic history. Today, decades after its initial debut, a new generation of comedy trend-setters has taken up the mantle and released a podcast version of the show.
Included in the show’s cast is Detroit’s own Alex English, an openly gay comedian who is based in New York. Between The Lines caught up with English to talk more in-depth about how he got involved with the show, developing his sketch comedy voice, writing with his queer identity in mind and some of his creative goals for future episodes of the show.
What prompted your move to New York?
I went to Central Michigan, I graduated in 2012 and then the summer following I went back home and I literally did not know what I was going to do. Then, I was presented with the chance to move out here to New York by a family friend. And so, what was supposed to be just a week of visiting and sightseeing and feeling out the place where I would eventually stay, I made the decision to work very diligently at just securing some sort of odd job so that I could stay, which I ended up doing. That turned into now, almost eight years being here.
What made you get into comedy?
Two or three months into living in New York City I had kind of found myself by the suggestion of another waiter at a restaurant I was working at, to start and try stand-up. I had always had it in the back of my head, but I did not know how to even begin with it as a career. But eventually, I found myself kind of like walking myself into it and kind of figuring out and navigating the scene, and eight years later I’m with National Lampoon.
Catch some of English’s stand-up as he opens the first season’s finale.
How did you get involved with the “National Lampoon Radio Hour”?
I was familiar with National Lampoon just with the movies. When I was younger I used to watch “Animal House” all the time and “[Thanksgiving] Family Reunion” and the vacation movies. So, I wasn’t familiar with the “Radio Hour,” but I was familiar with the National Lampoon brand and what they were about: very silly and absurd humor. I basically had gotten a request from my representative and was told that by request of Jo Firestone and Cole Escola that they wanted me to take part. And based on what I had already done, National Lampoon was pretty familiar ground to me. So it really didn’t take much thought for me to hop on.
Writing sketches and performing stand-up is very different. Did you have to change your approach to comedy at all in this role?
One hundred percent. What I tell people when they ask me about the podcast is I definitely had to flex, or even develop, a new muscle. Because, you know, stand-up is pretty much writing for yourself and you’re performing for yourself and for the audience that’s in front of you from the very beginning. A lot of stand-ups have the story of like, ‘I started in improv, or, ‘I started in sketch,’ or, ‘I took a sketch course,’ or, ‘I did theater at school.’ And they had that training of learning how to write a sketch and the dos and don’ts of sketch writing, but I didn’t have any of that — particularly because I didn’t have the money for sketch writing (laughs). When I got into the room for the “Radio Hour,” I knew, based on my familiarity with the cast, a lot of them had that background as I came in kind of just with my own comedic instinct on stage. So, I had to learn how to kind of share the stage in a way.
How do your stand-up roots influence your sketch writing now?
Well, you know what’s so funny is growing up and familiarizing myself with the National Lampoon — and especially the “Radio Hour” — when I go back into the historical context of what the “Radio Hour” was and how people view it, people labeled it this very white boy-driven institution of comedy. And so, when I think about it, I don’t think there was a single person — much less like myself — that placed my voice in that particular genre of comedy. I am this queer black kid from Detroit. And I’m from the West side of Detroit, so it’s definitely a different polar opposite kind of thought process and comedic sensibility. I was like, “Are the people who enjoy ‘National Lampoon’ going to get me?” And I didn’t want to try to do something other than what I know how [to do]. Everybody got cast because of their own individual style and their own individual voice, so it would be [wrong] to try and water down or fix or change something based on what I think everybody else would be doing.
What’s something that you haven’t done yet with National Lampoon that you’re excited to try comedically?
One thing I was trying to work on very hard that I don’t think I was able to accomplish in this first season was a character that was making appearances throughout episodes. Because Cole’s really came together with that Renee character or the guy who sings. So I definitely want to come up with a character that everyone can kind of fall in love with.
How would you say the type of humor in the Midwest comedy scene differs from the east coast? Do you draw inspiration from that to bring back to National Lampoon?
I will say that going back home often allows me to look at home and where I’m from with more of a comedic lens than I used to be able to. I can go home and now I’m more inspired to play off of [it]. I come from a very religious background, and [I can] make light of more religious figures and church people, because I’ve never realized until this point in my life how funny where I come from actually is. So, I definitely want to give more life to those kinds of characters.
You’ve mentioned in your stand-up that sometimes as an openly gay comedian you’re pressured to behave in a stereotypical way. How have you fought that pressure?
Absolutely, absolutely. One thing I tell people all the time is, just because my persona is a little bit different than what people expect, “That’s in no way me denouncing who I am.” Even outside of regular conversations I’ll hear some people say to me, “Why don’t you just be yourself.” And I’m not quite sure what that means ever. It feels very coded. I’m like, “We don’t all come in the same package; we’re not monolithic. Like any other group of people, we all have different interests and ways that we communicate.”
Would you say your comedy changed or improved after you accepted your identity?
I definitely got better. You know what’s so funny? I started well after I came out, but on stage, I wasn’t necessarily addressing it immediately. But then, I started thinking about it and I was like, “If I’m going to go up here and tell all these ideas, there’s going to be a point where people are watching myself and my mannerisms and listening to me speaking and it’s going to be something that’s in their head, so why not share that part of myself along with these other ideas and jokes and things I think about? Because then I can also find the humor in that. I used to think that it wasn’t really interesting [to be gay]. But then when I started writing more about myself and being a little more self-referential and biographical I found myself being like, “Oh wow, I could actually call back to my own experience and either make myself the punchline or make it more interesting or more delicious for the audience to take in.”