Like most stand-ups, Gary Owen’s comedy stems from a painful childhood. That trailer park in rural Ohio was “backwoods,” the family across the street had nine kids and a pet catfish they kept in the bathtub. Owen moved into the campground when he was 10. By that point, his mom, who had him when she was 17 years old, had married a malevolent stepdad out of central casting. Child protective services were called on occasion. (Owen’s birth father was mostly absent; they reconciled about three years ago following a phone call brimming with yelling and crying.)
“Dude, my stepdad is fucking nuts. To this day he’s nuts,” Owen says, nearly whispering. “I can’t go to their house when he’s there. I don’t let my kids around him because he’s crazy. I’m scared he’ll Marvin Gaye me. I really think that. It’s not a joke. Now he’s carrying a gun.” Owen is sitting in a booth of his hotel’s restaurant the morning after his opening night at Cobb’s, eating an egg-white sausage omelet, a bowl of oatmeal and sipping a nonfat latte. He wears a wool navy hoodie, distressed jeans held up by a Louis Vuitton belt and neon turquoise sneakers. His eyes, typically so expressive, look weary from the hurtful memories.
As a junior in high school, Owen found an outlet in comedy. He hosted school talent shows, bragging afterwards to classmates that one day he’d become famous. First, he had to escape the trailer park. One morning during his senior year, he signed up for the Navy. Following his four-year enlistment, he worked as a military policeman in San Diego while moonlighting as a standup.
He gravitated toward clubs with black patrons. “When you get into comedy, girls start giving you attention,” he says. “I like black girls. I went to the hood spots because I knew black chicks were there and I could meet them after the show.” He met his future wife, a black woman from Oakland and daughter of a Black Panther, in 1997. They married in 2003.
Owen’s big break happened in 1998 when he won the hosting gig on BET’s Comic View. Part of his act at the time involved being a single white guy dating black girls. (Sample joke: “What’s a boo? I want to be a boo.”) He became a staple on the scene, often the only white comic on the bill, and there even came a point where he’d get nervous in front of white audiences. His success posed a challenge to the world of comedy, a field where acts are often sliced into subdivisions—Black Comedy, Redneck Comedy, Hipster/Alternative Comedy—for the intent of packaging a show or tour.
In his act, Owen occasionally flags the differences between white people and black people using fish-out-of-water experiences with his wife’s family as a paradigm: White people eat pumpkin pie, black people eat sweet potato pie; white people have aunts, black people have aunties; white church services are quick, black church services last for hours. “It’s not black comedy,” he says. “People say, ‘All you talk about is black people.’ No, no, no. I say my wife is black but after [the first mention of it] I don’t say that she’s black anymore. I do it in the beginning to establish it, and I don’t really bring it up again. When I say, ‘my wife,’ you see a black lady in your head. When I say ‘my kids,’ you see mixed kids in your head. It’s not like every joke I’m like, ‘my black wife’ ‘my black wife’ ‘my black wife.’”
“It’s from a place of endearment when I talk about black people,” he continues. “I’m not putting them down. I don’t talk about black people being late or having bad credit or having roaches or being broke.” Sensitive matters such as the Trayvon Martin shooting are also off limits (“I don’t think I’d go there”), and he’ll never utter the N-word. Just hearing it makes him uncomfortable.
A few years back, while auditioning for a role in Django Unchained, Owen had to say it repeatedly in front of a black casting director, which was awkward, he says. More recently, he turned down a skit from an online comedy portal after discovering his character repeatedly spouted the N-word. “If that shit gets out and people don’t know it’s a skit? I’ve worked hard to build a brand,” he says. “That would kill me.”
One of his peers, however, finds Owen offensive even without an actual smoking gun the skit could have provided. Last summer, Joe DeRosa, a comedian of Egyptian and Italian descent, knocked Owen during a taping of the popular Laughspin podcast. “His whole approach is, ‘Well, I married a black lady so I get it.’ And it’s fucking offensive,” DeRosa said. “You don’t get it, dude. You’re like talking down to an audience and trying to make it sound like you understand. There’s almost a tone of like, ‘I get you guys more than you get yourselves,’ or, ‘I’m the one who gets it, guys.’ To me, that reeks of impostor and reeks of exploitation.”
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