How Gary Owen Earned His Hood Pass

Features

By: / January 28, 2014

As a middle-age white dude who courts and caters to black audiences, Gary Owen has cooked up a winning stand-up recipe. Has he truly earned his black card?

By Thomas Golianopoulos / Photographs by Trevor Traynor

As a rule, most comedians don’t listen to their opening acts. Headliners can get psyched out from overhearing the audience’s reaction. But sitting in the green room of Cobb’s Comedy Club, Gary Owen finds the silence a little disconcerting. It’s a big week for Owen. Tonight is the first of four dates in San Francisco. Next weekend, he’s in Atlanta filming his latest one-hour special, I Agree With Myself. And he still doesn’t know how he’ll close it. Plus, it’s been two weeks since he last played a club—eons for an itinerant comic. He looks up from his Caesar salad.

“How’s it looking out there?” he asks his road manager. “Is it light?” By the time Owen walks onstage to Drake’s “Started From the Bottom,” Cobb’s, which holds around 400, is near half-capacity. Like most of his shows, the crowd is primarily African-American. Over the next hour, he’ll joke about rappers (T.I., 50 Cent, Drake, even MC Ren), while also mixing in local bits and personal tales, including the first time he spotted an uncircumcised penis. (He was in the military and it freaked him out.)

The bulk of his set, though, deals with his family: his overprotective son, his crazy stepdad, the mentally challenged cousin riddled with STDs. In one yarn, he compares his wife to Sofia from The Color Purple. Then, in lieu of a close, he takes questions from the audience.

“What do white people eat?”

“Pussy,” Owen answers without missing a beat.

A second audience member requests a celebrity anecdote and Owen recalls the time Jamie Foxx pranked him in his own hometown. Owen then points stage left to a big black guy, who offers a compliment cloaked in a question. “Where the other white boys like you at?” he shouts. “You’re the man!”

Spend enough time around him, attend one of his shows, and it’s apparent that black people love Gary Owen and Gary Owen loves black people. He’s the only white guy ev er to host BET’s Comic View. He sells “Black Girls Rock” T-shirts at the merch table after shows. He’s making inroads in Hollywood costarring alongside Kevin Hart in Think Like a Man, Ride Along and Think Like a Man Too. Ebony once dubbed him “Black America’s Favorite White Comic.” If the crown fits, he’ll wear it.

“There’s no white comic that sells tickets to black people like me,” he says. “They’re going to get their hair done, get a new outfit and come out to see a white dude. Right now, it’s black people paying to see me. White people just happen to show up. It’s a black event.” Even offstage, Owen is feted by his black fan base. “I go to hiphop nightclubs, I go to hood shit and they just love me,” he says. “Everything I do, I go to black people. If I have a problem at the airport, I’ll go to the black ticket agent. I hope they notice me because I’ll get better service. If I’m at a restaurant, I look for the black waiter. Rent-a-Car, give you the upgrade.”

How did Owen, a white guy paler than eggshell white from a trailer park in rural Ohio, obtain his hood pass? Better yet, is it even valid?

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