Craig Robinson is a goddamn thief.
Over the last decade, Robinson has appeared in dozens of movies and TV shows, usually as a supporting player or “co-star.” And without fail, he uses his miniscule screen time to make everybody around him look like a comedy amateur. Remember Knocked Up? Robinson was on screen less than a few minutes, as a nightclub bouncer with a few throwaway lines, explaining why Katherine Heigl and Judd Apatow’s wife couldn’t get into his club. And even now, almost four years later, I can still recite most of his dialog word for word. “It’s not cause you’re not hot. I would love to tap that ass. I would tear that ass up. But I can’t let you in cause you’re old as fuck. For this club. Not, you know, for the earth.” I did that from memory! And then there’s the NBC sitcom The Office, where Robinson plays warehouse manager Darryl Philbin, a role so small he barely makes it into the credits. Even in a cast of comedy titans, when Robinson gets a scene he can sink his teeth into—like when Darryl introduces his boss to ghetto phrases like “fleece it out” and “going Mach 5″—the show might as well be called Darryl Philbin n’ Friends. And that’s just the tip of the Robinson scene-stealing iceberg. If you saw Hot Tub Time Machine or Zack and Miri Make a Porno or Pineapple Express, you essentially witnessed highway robbery. John Cusack and Seth Rogen may get top billing, but Robinson is the guy who says the quotable one-liners that everybody still remembers long after the plot has become a distant memory.
I called Robinson to talk about his latest gig, hosting the seventh season of Last Comic Standing, which premieres next Monday, June 7th, on ABC. It’s another show where he’ll probably get all the best jokes, which has to be bittersweet for everybody else involved, given that the contestants are fledgling stand-up comics hoping to catch their big break. But whatever, you sign up to be on a show with Craig Robinson, your best case scenario is to take his sloppy seconds and be grateful.
Eric Spitznagel: Last Comic Standing is giving exposure and career opportunities to what’s essentially your comedy competition. Were you ever tempted to try and sabotage them?
Craig Robinson: You are a diabolical genius. That’s diabolical even to consider something like that.
It never crossed your mind?
No, no, not at all. I’m somewhat established already and a lot of these cats are just getting started. It’s a great opportunity for them to come out and get themselves known. I do my own thing, so I’m not trying to… no, that’s not how I see this. (Laughs.) Stop being diabolical! Now you’ve got me thinking about it! I’m like “Hmm, maybe he’s right. This is the competition!”
What’s the worst advice you could give to a struggling up-and-coming comic?
Don’t get on stage. I mean at all. Just stay at home and work on your jokes, but never tell them to anyone. Save it all up and then one day it’ll happen for you.
Yes. That’s great advice. (Laughs.) Actually, no, I take it back. That’s a terrible idea.
Because Oswalt will find out and rip you a new asshole on his blog?
Well that, yes. But also because Patton is so funny. Only he can deliver that material. It’s coming straight out of his brain. There’s no way to even try to do it the way that he does it.
Musicians cover each other’s songs all the time. Why is it so taboo for comics to do somebody else’s jokes?
Coming up with comedy is hard, man. Those bits aren’t easy to think of! And it’s personal. It’d be like if somebody kidnapped your child, and when he got caught, he’s like, “I don’t know what you’re talking about. This is my kid.” It hurts.
Have you ever unwittingly stolen a bit from another comic?
One time I was in Vegas, and I was opening for this comic named Mike Saccone. We’d done a few sets together, so I knew his stuff. One night, I’m up there on stage, and I swear, I start doing his bit. I didn’t mean to do it, it just came out. I don’t even remember what it was now. Something about female orgasms.
That sounds like a broad enough topic.
Naw, naw, it was too close to his bit. It wasn’t word for word or anything, but it was definitely something he’d been doing in his act. So after the show, he comes up to me and he’s like, “Uuuuh, what’s going on, man?” And I’m like, “What?” And he’s like, “You just did my bit, asshole.” I was so embarrassed. I’m still not sure what happened. It was straight stream of conscious. I blame it on alcohol.
Has it happened since?
Not at all. I’m very careful about that. I’ll never steal from Saccone again. (Pause.) At least not when we’re working together. (Laughs.) No, no, I’m playing.
What about heckling? Are the audiences at Last Comic Standing encouraged to get a little drunk and disruptive?
If anything, it’s the opposite. There’s a lot on the line for the comics on this show. You should leave ’em alone. If you don’t like their act, just shut up about it.
But isn’t that how you find out the mettle of a comic, when they’re thrown into a hostile environment?
That is one of the ways, yes. But they’ve got only two and a half minutes to get out there and perform. How fair is it to throw a heckler into the mix?
It’s not fair at all. But who said comedy was supposed to be fair?
You’ve prepared this material, you’ve rehearsed it over and over in your head, and you’ve got no idea if the crowd’s gonna relate to you. And now you got somebody out there going, “Yoooooou suuuuuuuuucccck!”
Isn’t that how you separate the professionals from the Michael Richards?
(Laughs.) I guess so, yeah. That’s one way to find out, as you put it so eloquently, the mettle of a comic.
Or who’s a racist.
(Laughs.) That too, yeah. I used to go to this club in Chicago called Heckler’s Heaven, where you’d get heckled on purpose.
Isn’t that just a typical night for standup comic?
Yeah, but this place was brutal. They’d give you three minutes to do your thing, and after three minutes they’d ring this bell and for the rest of your time you’d get heckled. You had a total of eight minutes to be on stage, and unless three rubber chickens were thrown at you from the audience, you’d win something like two hundred bucks.
See, that’s entertaining. Why doesn’t Last Comic Standing do something like that? I’d definitely tune in if the audience got to throw shit at the comics.
That happens a lot. I saw a guy get dragged out of a comedy club by security the other day because he was drunk and he threw something at the stage. It’s not cool.
But it’s funny.
(Laughs.) I don’t know, man. I don’t like shit being thrown at my head. But sometimes hecklers are funny. Sometimes they win. You got to shut them down when you got the chance. You have the crowd on your side, you just have to be prepared.
You’re the fifth host for Last Comic Standing, replacing guys like Bill Bellamy and Jay Mohr. Have you learned from their mistakes?
I have. I do exactly what the producers tell me. “Craig, go out there and dance.” Sure thing, turn on the music! “No music.” You got it! (Laughs.) I ain’t rockin’ the boat, man. Just tell me what to do and I’ll do it.
Does the Last Comic winner get anything besides a cash prize?
I don’t know. They get something else, I think. But the money’s pretty good. I think it’s like… $215,000. (Laughs.) I almost said a million dollars. That’s a close one. The rest would’ve come out of my paycheck.
I heard something about an NBC talent deal.
Oh yeah, I think that’s part of it too.
Does the fine print of this contract mention that they will someday get screwed by Jay Leno?
No, I don’t think that’s in their contract. But it was definitely in mine. (Laughs.) No, no, I’m kidding.
Is “I’m kidding” something you have to say a lot?
Every day, man. My whole life, people have been like, “I don’t know if you’re playing or serious.” It works both ways. It’s not just that people don’t know when I’m joking. They also don’t know when I’m being serious. I’m always having to reassure people. I’m saying things like “This is not a joke. I actually am standing outside in the rain, waiting for you to open the door.”
This isn’t a question I get to ask of a lot of comics, but how much can you bench press?
On my best day, probably 275. I should be able to do more because of my size, but I’m a pussy.
Your size is kind of unique. There aren’t a lot of comics who are physically intimidating.
I try to use my size. I play the keyboard in my act, so that visual image is part of it. I’m this big dude with a tiny little keyboard. Audiences are like, “What’s going on here? Is he messin’ with us?”
But girth doesn’t always equal funny. Look at comics like Joe Piscopo or Carrot Top.
I think Carrot Top is hilarious.
No you don’t.
I do! I like his humor. I love that prop comedy stuff.
I don’t believe you. You’re just being deadpan again.
Hey, man, funny is funny. But I think what you’re really asking me is, do I worry about being so handsome that people won’t find me funny when I drop the jokes? Sure, that’s a legitimate concern. Do I worry about being so sexy that audiences are like, “I don’t know if I should laugh at him or undress him with my eyes?” Yes, that’s a real issue I have to contend with on a daily basis.
You can’t control how pretty you are.
Thank you! Who of us can? Even if I stopped shaving, then all of a sudden I’m ruggedly handsome. There’s nothing I can do about my genetic gifts.
Before becoming a comic, you were a middle school music teacher. I have a very disturbing mental image of what your classroom was probably like.
(Laughs.) And you are probably exactly right, sir.
I think about you teaching kids, and then I think about your standup act, and punchlines like “One of the most important things you can do (when seducing a woman) is remember if she’s the one who has the rape fantasy,” and it just seems like a recipe for disaster.
(Laughs.) Well, there was a situation with me and some of the moms, but other than that. No, no, I had a good time teaching. I was pretty good at it, too. But sometimes the kids would come up and say, “Uh, we need discipline. You shouldn’t let us go crazy around here, Mr. Robinson.” And I was like, “Aw come on, call me Craig!” I stopped teaching in 1999, eleven years ago, and I hope the kids that I used to teach are like, “Hey, Mr. Robinson did it! He’s living proof! He didn’t just say go out and live your dreams, he actually did it.”
Or maybe they’re thinking, “Wait a minute, was that our middle school music teacher who just told Judd Apatow’s wife that he’d tear that ass up?”
(Laughs.) Yeah! Whatever inspires them, man. Speaking of which, I didn’t know that was Apatow’s wife when we did that scene. I had no clue! I never would’ve said any of that if I knew Leslie Mann was married to the director. I ain’t stupid. I would’ve been like, “Whatever you want, Mrs. Pretty Lady. You’re fantastic in my eyes.”
You’re still doing music, right? You’ve got a band called the Nasty Delicious?
That’s right. We’re going into the studio soon to record an album. And I’m hosting the Hip-hop Honors (on Monday, June 7th, on VH1) and my band is gonna be there. We do our thing. They’re an all-star lineup of amazing talent, and they just rock. They lift me up when we’re on stage together. They’re like my soldiers. When I call them and say “Yo, we’ve got a gig,” they’re like “We’re on it.” I don’t know if you’ve ever been in front of a band, but it’s an amazing feeling. We’re working on a single called “I Want To Fuck You…” wait, never mind.
Never mind? Come on, Craig, we want to hear about this!
That’s a whole other twenty minutes. Forget it.
I’m not going to let this go. I’ll spend the rest of this interview just begging you.
The song is called “Everlasting Love,” but the chorus is “I want to fuck you in your face.”
I talked to John Cusack, your Hot Tub Time Machine co-star, and he told me a charming anecdote about tripping on mushrooms at the Super Bowl. Do you have that in common in Cusack? Have you ever experimented with recreational drugs while at a sporting event?
(Long pause.) Um. Wow. That was amazing how you almost got me to admit to something. That is talent right there, sir.
I have no idea what you’re talking about.
(Laughs.) Nice try, though.
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in VanityFair.com