Kenji Thomas was born and raised by a single-mother in Hawthorne, CA. When he was fourteen, his mother got married, and they moved to Alta Dena, and that’s where he’s been since. He says he was a knucklehead through his high school years, and was never interested in school or classes, “So I kind of always knew college was not in my future.” He found a job bartending, “I lied about my age, and I told them I was 21.” This job would soon change his life, “I had a lot of regulars, and I would always talk to them, it was very chill. There was this one wealthy businessman who for six months, every time he came in, would tell me I should do comedy. Finally, one day he came with an envelope with 200 dollars in it. He told me there was an open mic, and if I went, the money was mine.” Kenji knew he couldn’t turn down the money, so he went, “The minute I touched the mic and got on stage, I was hooked. That was it. I haven’t looked back since.”
Classes never being his strong suit, he stayed away from any coaching, and it was always trial by fire for him, “You get in front of people you don’t know, and you try and make them laugh. You will find out pretty fast if you’re funny or not.”
Kenji doesn’t follow a strict process for his comedy, “My best friend, who also happens to be my manager, calls me the Jay-Z of comedy. I walk up and down my living room with a beer and just talk. And that’s what I do on stage too.” He finds that is the best way to stay fresh, and doesn’t even write his jokes down, “I like to keep it new. Life is the best inspiration, if you just stop and pay attention. It comes from the weirdest spots, weirdest instances.”
He looks up to whom he calls his ‘Holy Trinity of Comedy’ – Richard Pryor, George Carlin and Eddie Murphy, “If I could make a Mount Rushmore of comedy, it would be them. And Bill Cosby on the side.” He also considers Kevin Hart as the Mayweather of the comedy game right now. Kenji is constantly watching TV and DVD’s of the greats, “I’m always rotating through my DVD collection. Watching comedy gives me inspiration for my own comedy.”
Kenji believes the comedy world to be in a state of stagnation, “It’s like the NBA, the golden era has gone. It’s kind of watered down lately. Comedy is a tight rope, there’s a way to touch on sensitive subjects and not be crass and rude. You can say what you want, as long as you don’t fall off that rope. It should be an oh my God I can’t believe he just said that, but yet, don’t come off mean spirited.”
Having watched his DVD, I can tell you Kenji straddles that tight rope with perfection. His style of comedy is often labeled as ‘out there’ because he talks about the things no one else wants to talk about. Kenji takes the proverbial pink elephant and trots it out on stage with him. Most people discuss these things in shushed voices, behind closed doors, because they are considered taboo. But the way he skillfully handles topics such as race, religion, marriage and weight, makes him unique, and secures him a place in the forefront of comedy.
Unlike a lot of other comedians, Kenji doesn’t follow a particular format or genre, “I don’t want to pigeon hole myself as a black comic. I’m a comic who happens to be black. The last thing I want to do is box myself. There’s plenty of people in this industry who will do that for me.”
Another thing that makes Kenji distinctive is that he laughs at himself on stage, contrasting with a lot of comedians who prefer to put up a wall between them and the audience, “If it’s funny and I know it’s funny how can I not laugh at it? I enjoy my comedy as well.” He also believes that that is something that allows the audience to realize that everything he says, no matter how crazy or offensive, is all a joke, “If I smile, they smile.”
Since Kenji didn’t get into comedy with a goal, he is now exploring the industry, and even has his own production company that puts on shows and tours. The world of acting has recently been introduced to him as well, and he is enjoying it, “I’m gonna see where it goes, but comedy is my therapy, it’s my wife. Not my mistress. I would cheat on comedy with acting, but always go home to my comedy. As long as people keep thinking I’m funny, I’ll keep doing comedy.” And that’s what he hopes to still be doing ten years from now, “I want to be rich, but I don’t want to be famous.” He believes that there comes a point in the life of a comedian, where fame becomes a negative attribute, “When the audience starts laughing at everything you say, just because they are pleased to see you, not because it was funny, you lose your creative edge. I don’t ever want to be at that point. The famous part scares me.”
Kenji is also a manager at the Ice House in Pasadena, which is the first comedy club he performed at, and his favorite, “The Ice House is magical, there’s nothing else like it. You hear and feel every laugh. There are no other rooms like that.” He also believes in giving back, and he works with a non-profit organization for inner city kids.
Advice he would give other up and comers is, “Don’t listen to anybody about your comedy. If you see something a certain way, say it. Don’t let anyone off-stage tell you anything. The audience will be your editor. Comedy is a profession where you’re going to die or shine up on that stage. Just you. So do you.”
Kenji performs every Wednesday at The Ice House in Pasadena, in the Rudy Moreno’s Latino Comedy Showcase. You can also see more of his work on his DVD, ‘How Come I Can’t Say That?’ which is available for purchase through his website.
To find out more about Kenji, and follow his inevitable rise in Hollywood, check out these links:
Written By: Ishira Kumar