A conversation with the noted comedian about jazz cruises, the NPR audience and the Los Angeles Clippers Comedian Alonzo Bodden got his first break as one of the finalists in the popular TV show Last Comic Standing, and since then has developed into a headliner at clubs and festivals throughout North America. He’s a regular guest on the weekly NPR radio show “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me,” which looks at the latest news and current events in a humorous way in front of a live audience. Bodden is also a regular on several of the cruises produced by Entertainment Cruise Productions, including the Smooth Jazz Cruise, the Jazz Cruise and Blue Note at Sea. He talked with Lee Mergner in 2017 about doing the cruises as well as about his affinity for jazz.
Lee Mergner: How did you first start working with ECP and the cruises? Do you remember your first cruise and your impressions of it then?
Alonzo Bodden: The first one I did was the Smooth Jazz Cruise. This was back when Warren Hill was still hosting the cruises, I think around 2007. Ronnie Gutierrez was Warren Hill’s percussion player and Ronnie is a good friend of mine. He said that Warren was talking about getting a comedian for the cruise. Ronnie said to them, “What about Alonzo Bodden?” They said, “We love him,” because they recognized my name from Last Comic Standing. Warren asked Ronnie, “Do you know him?” Ronnie says, “Yea.” Warren says, “Well, can you get him?” Ronnie pulls out his phone and Warren goes, “Oh, you really know him.” Ronnie called me up and Michael Lazaroff and Warren came out to see a show I did in Santa Monica and they liked me. They had me do that cruise.
The first show I did, about halfway through, because I’m a big fan of smooth jazz, I started making fun of the musicians. Warren Hill had a mullet. For Kim Waters, it was “I always thought you were a woman.” Just goofing on them. The next morning Michael called me into his office and said, “Listen, that was really funny what you did last night – I only had one complaint.” I’m thinking “Uh-oh, it was fun, but it’s over.” And he says, “Peter White wonders why you didn’t mention him.” The second show the first 20 minutes were on Peter White. Michael called me in and said, “You’re my guy.” I’m a huge fan of jazz so it just fell into place as the perfect gig for me.
How many sets do you do during a week’s cruise?
I do two sets and I do some other events. I became the host of Bingo, because they used to use guest hosts and different artists to do it, and my Mom was on the cruise and she is an old pro at Bingo. So I know the rules. You gotta be clear and loud. Don’t play around – give these ladies their Bingo numbers. It was one of those things where I actually did it too well and now I’m the official Bingo guy. There’s always a Bingo game on the cruises. I do some other events, like the Q&A’s and interviews.
What is the difference between the cruises, other than the obvious stylistic difference? How are the audiences different?
The Smooth Jazz audience is the party audience. They’re the party crowd. They’re also the crowd that’s most familiar with me and the artists, because there are so many repeat people. I have a lot of fun interacting with them and really joking about the artists. The Jazz Cruise, the first time I did it, I wasn’t sure how it would go because it’s an older crowd. They loved the show and I have fun with them. I like doing crowd work. You never know who is going to be in the crowd. There have been some interesting people. I remember one year on the Jazz Cruise we had one woman is was a member of the House of Lords, and so, “I have no business talking to you – you know the Queen – what are you doing here amongst us peasants?” I probably don’t hit as hard on the Jazz Cruise.
The Blue Note at Sea cruise is a much more international crowd and not as many people come to [my] show. Comedy is sort of cultural and there are a lot of events going on. But there it’s smaller and closer to a comedy club feel vs. a big theater. Like 200 people vs. 500 people. And it’s more fun for me to do it in a smaller room because there’s more of an intimacy to the comedy. I love all the shows. I’d say that the audiences for the Jazz Cruise and the Blue Note at Sea are more similar. Then there’s the 80’s cruise which is a whole different animal. That’s a big party. Let’s just say the crowd is a lot more lubricated than any other cruise. I’ve done the Soul Train cruise, the Gospel cruise. The only ones I haven’t done are the Country, NASCAR and Star Trek ones. They wanted me to do the Star Trek one but I had a conflict. I’m not wearing any uniform, but I’ll play along.
You do crowd work and in recent interviews with Marcus Miller and Robert Glasper, they both told me that they viewed it as similar to soloing in jazz. And even though people are teased or roasted, they really line up for it. Has it ever backfired on you or just not worked at all?
Sure, sometimes you take a chance and it doesn’t work. Like when you ask them what they do and they’ve got nothing and it falls flat. There’s an old saying that every comic wants to be a musician and every musician wants to be a comic. I think that there’s a lot of truth to that. I joke with the musicians all the time that I have to be creative. Marcus [Miller] can play “So What” that was written in 1959 and the audience says, “Marcus is a genius.” I can’t do Eddie Murphy from 1982.
I have to say the first time when I was riffing on the crowd, the musicians said, “Man, that was a solo – you’re doing jazz improv.” That was an honor and it felt great. The first show that I do I have an outline and an idea of what I want to do. The second show I do is usually based on what’s happened on the cruise that week and what’s happening with the people. The other shows are scheduled so that one half of the ship will see one artist early and the other half will see the same artist later. So he could do the same show. But with me, anyone can come to both shows. I don’t want to do the same show four days apart. That’s where I love going with the improv and riffing and creativity. My personal challenge is making it all come together, when I can take five people’s stories in the audience and somehow weave a common thread.
I know that well. It’s your “I’ve got a friend” call-back. People love it.
I love doing that and when it falls into place, it’s great. I love the musicians. I am a huge fan of their talent because I have no musical talent at all. That’s why I love riffing on them and making them laugh.
You came into it as a jazz fan, maybe more of a smooth jazz fan, but over time you’ve seen a lot and now know more than most people about the artists. What artists have you enjoyed meeting and hearing on the cruises?
It’s funny that you had mentioned Robert Glasper before. I met him briefly at the Hollywood Bowl, but I just went up to him backstage and said, “Listen, the trio is one of my favorite bands and I absolutely love what you do – just don’t ruin it for me.” He busted out laughing. We hit it off from that moment. I loved getting to know George Duke. I really dig George, both his music and his presence. Arturo Sandoval is hilarious and his stories are great. Marcus [Miller] and I have become very good friends. On an early cruise, we learned that we grew up within a couple of miles from each other in Jamaica, in Queens. So is Najee.
And Lenny White.
Right. Lenny White’s cousin is a good friend of mine, Gene Williams, who’s a keyboardist. There are so many acts that I’ve seen and been exposed to on the cruises. Quite often it’s people I knew of, but had never met. It’s a different thing when you meet them and you get to sit with them. I tell everyone that I’m the fan with the best seat in the house, because I get to sit backstage and I get to listen to the stories and listen from the sound guy’s perspective. There were moments I remember, like with Joe Sample, who as you probably know, didn’t have a filter. We were backstage in the green room and Joe turned to me and said, “Alonzo, you ain’t shit either.” I felt so good at that moment, like I’m in the band.
Like “He said the same thing to the bass player!”
Exactly. I made it. Those are the moments I love. There have been so many of them. Musically, there have been many too. Like one cruise, Tower of Power was on and every horn on the ship wanted to play with them. There were, I don’t know, 15 horns on stage. Marcus was working as the arranger, setting up everybody onstage to get their solos. There are moments like that where it will never be duplicated. There was one show when Keiko Matsui brought the funk. I told the other guys, “You better keep up, because Keiko out-funked all of you.” She’s a sweet little Japanese woman until she gets behind that piano and all bets are off. It’s the creativity when [the musicians] are together. I’ve learned over the years that they just don’t get a chance to play together. This is a situation that’s unique.
Also the artists don’t get to hang with each other like we might think, which is why they enjoy the cruises.
As comedians we don’t get it at all. As you move up to the headliner slot, it’s different because there’s only one headliner. Honestly, we get to know each other by seeing the posters for who’s coming and who was just there. That’s why I love comedy festivals for the same reason that they love the jazz festivals or cruises, because that’s the only time you get to see some friends. We started out together, as opening acts or at open mics, but once you develop into a headliner career, we’re just crossing paths at airports. I see more comics at airports than I do at comedy clubs.
How many weeks of the cruises do you usually do?
The longest run I’ve done is five weeks, and all I can tell you is that the ship gets very small. Normally it’s two or three weeks on and a week or two off and then another two weeks. Listen, spending January and February on a cruise ship in the Caribbean, it could be worse.
Any advice for those folks who are doing both the Jazz Cruise and Blue Note at Sea?
The advice I give to passengers all the time is, don’t try to do everything. See the shows you want to see. Go on an excursion. You’re on vacation and if you try to do everything and see everything, for one thing, you won’t make it. You’re going to be into the music at one show and then miss another show that’s starting in another room. And you have to eat. Some nights you’re going to want to enjoy a meal in one of the nice restaurants vs. rushing to a show. Enjoy yourself. Do what you can do, see what you can see. And if you’re there for two weeks, you can schedule your dinners at the different restaurants. Mix it up. I’m a big fan of doing that. Going to the dining room every night is good, but it gets boring. That’s my advice. Don’t overschedule. Don’t ever think you’re missing something if you’re enjoying the room you’re in. Some of the collaborations you’d miss if you did run from room to room. Like when Marcus was on the Jazz Cruise and he has a song called “Preacher’s Kid” that’s devoted to his Dad and he did it and there’s a melody to it and Take 6 came out and sang the melody. You’d have missed that if you had run to see the Bad Plus open their show. There are those moments that are either not planned or they didn’t tell anyone what was gonna happen. I’m a big fan of working with a flexible schedule. Just make sure you see the comedian. You’ve got one comic among 80 musicians.
Whoever he might be.
Yea, whoever. On the Jazz Cruise a few years ago, Michael was hosting a dinner with Esperanza Spalding [who was onboard as a guest] and he invited me but I told him I couldn’t do it because I had a show. I get a call the next day from someone to tell me, “The dinner was moved because apparently Esperanza wants to see some comedian that’s performing.”
Any favorite shore destinations over the years? You must know EVERY Caribbean island at this point.
I’m a big fan of the Saints. St. Thomas, St. Bart’s, St. John’s… If there’s a Saint in front of it, that’s my favorite. And I love Puerto Rico. I have a history with Puerto Rico. Back in my aerospace days I worked at San Juan Airport for about five months and fell in love with the island and it’s fun for me to go back there.
For many years, people would recognize you for being on the TV show Last Comic Standing, but in recent years I imagine that people know you as one of the regular guests on NPR’s popular show “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me.”
My “Wait, Wait” crowd is getting bigger every week. I love doing the show and more and more, people are recognizing me for doing that. Obviously, Last Comic Standing was the first big shot. That was 12 years ago, which doesn’t seem that long, but it is. For the last few years, I’ve been doing more and more appearances on “Wait, Wait.” And the NPR audience is sort of like the audience for the Jazz Cruise. They’re like, “OK, we’re going to check you out – we’re withholding judgement – you’ve only been doing the show for two years – alright, it’s the fourth year, we’re going to put you in the brochure.” The Wait Wait audience is growing and they’re great people. What I love about the show is the cross-section of people that listen to the show – there is no way to describe it. I was in Pakistan earlier this year doing some shows and there was a Pakistani family who told me, “We love you on that show and we download it every week and listen as a family.”
How did you come to be on the show?I had an agent who recommended me and they saw my act. I was working just outside of Chicago and one of the producers came out and saw me and said, “This guy has the right sensibility and sense of humor.” They had me on and it just fit perfectly. And Peter Sagal [the host] said, “That was the best first time we could hope for and you’re in.” I’ve been doing it ever since. Like any other job, make the boss laugh.
The show suits you very well, because you’re attuned to politics and current affairs. I see you as a guy who’s maybe not watching Bravo, but more likely CNN or MSNBC.
I love the topical stuff. It was after Last Comic Standing that it shifted and I had more fun with the topical stuff and I find it more interesting than my own life. My act is more geared to the topical and the news. Right now the big issue as a comic is that everyone of course asks us, “What do you think about Donald Trump?” To be honest, it’s boring, because it’s the same thing. Every week it’s one ridiculous tweet or one horrible action. It’s a line where you have to acknowledge it because it’s the elephant in the room, but I don’t want to turn my act into “Look what he’s done now.” That becomes a challenge. Also on the cruise, it’s not my club act so I don’t in as hard. When Donald Trump is your President you can’t not mention that, but I don’t want to make the act a 40-minute attack on Republicans.
How do you keep up with news and current events?
I have an app called Flipboard and I have my different news sources and I read them. I get a lot of down time waiting around in airports and in hotels. I like reading and I like having knowledge about what people are talking about. Years ago, a friend of mine, very smart and Ivy League, would laugh at me for reading USA Today, calling it a “kiddie paper.” I would say to him that this is what America is talking about. America is not reading the New York Times. They say they read the New York Times, but America looks at charts in USA Today.
It’s funny you mention Bravo, because sometimes I get calls for this pop culture stuff and that’s what I don’t know. Like when Kesha came up on Jerry Seinfeld and he backed off, like “Who are you?” I’d have been the same position. I wouldn’t have recognized her.
You were raised in NY and live in LA. So, Knicks or Lakers?
Neither. The Clippers. I was there back in the day when Danny Manning was the best player. They had guys like Loy Vaught and Michael Olowokandi. When Danny Manning was sitting in the corner crying wondering when he was going to get some help. I grew up a Knicks fan. And I was here for the Lakers Showtime era and you had to love that team with Magic, Worthy and Kareem. That team was awesome. But I became a Clippers fan partially because you could go to Clippers games. During Showtime, if you weren’t anybody, you couldn’t get tickets unless they were in the nosebleed section. But Clippers tickets were easy. And Clippers fans were more into the game. You go to a Lakers game and they’re more into the scene.
A few years ago, I went to see the Knicks play the Clippers and I wore my Knicks shirt and my Clippers jacket as a kind of joke and all my boys were, “Nope, you got to pick one – right now – we will not allow this dual fan thing anymore.” So I’m a Clippers fan.
Maybe an easier choice now that the Knicks are perhaps a worse franchise.
Well, you don’t know how many times my brother and I would talk about which team is worse. I grew up a Mets fan and being a Mets fan is perfect training for being a Clippers fan. Danny Manning once said, “This organization is bad, from the peanut vendors to the starting five.” I hate to say it, but I think he might have been right. Even when things are good, they’re bad. Like when the Clippers are about to go to the playoffs and Blake Griffin breaks his leg. There’s always something. It’s actually great though because it’s one of the getaways in my life. There’s something about being at a game, watching them and yelling at them, it’s like a vacation for me.
What other comics are you eager to catch whenever they’re in town?
Obviously the big names like Dave Chappelle. He’s a real artist. He loves music. He does a thing after his shows called Dave’s Juke Joint. He’s had Robert Glasper playing for him. He’ll have a New Orleans jazz band and he’ll be onstage with them. He loves jazz. George Wallace is one of my mentors and a guy I still love to watch. Other comics are friends of mine, so I love to see what they’re doing. Jeremy Hotz out of Canada. A guy named Erik Griffin who’s killing it now. Tiffany Haddish. When you work in LA where we do showcase shows, that’s where we see each other and see each other’s acts. I still love watching comics. I don’t listen to satellite radio comedy too often because if I listen to what other people are doing, their ideas might seep into my head and I don’t want to do their idea. It’s not like musicians. I can’t send a check to ASCAP to do your act.
You also do a podcast.
Yes, it’s called “Who’s Paying Attention.” I do it weekly. It’s sometimes funny and sometimes serious but it goes deeper into the stories that are striking a note with me. Like this week the plan is to destroy health care for 20 million people and get rid of Medicaid and people support it. That’s the amazing thing. When I was in Florida a guy was wearing a t-shirt that said “Trump/Pence 2020.” I guess you’re never going to get sick.
Bodden will be appearing on The Jazz Cruise, the Smooth Jazz Cruise and Blue Note at Sea in 2019.
Learn more about Alonzo Bodden here.