James Hodge chases his stand-up dream

by Jeff Sykes

Imagine you’re an average road comic at home on a Wednesday evening, scribbling in your notebook or working out that new joke you know will just kill if you can get the delivery down pat.

That’s what James Hodge was doing back on Nov. 5 when the phone rang. It was his friend, comic Tom Simmons, who said booking agencies were looking for local comics to open up for Dave Chappelle that night at the new Cone Denim Theater in Downtown Greensboro.

The agencies wanted Simmons to do the shows, but he couldn’t make the first one because he was at his son’s baseball game. Simmons called Hodge to ask him where the new venue was located. After hearing about the timing problem, Hodge stepped up and said he could make it.

Simmons mentioned a few other guys.

“I was like ‘no, I can do it,'” Hodge said. Simmons called the Live Nation representatives managing Chappelle’s dates and Hodge later got a text confirming the gig. The surprise of that call, and the speed with which it all came together, left Hodge little opportunity to get stage fright.

“The initial reaction was bitter jealousy of like ‘you’re going to open for Chappelle,'” Hodge said. “Then it was like, ‘I might get to open up for Chappelle.’ What a wonderful night for us both.”

Hodge’s comedy career has grown from diving in at open mic nights about five years ago, to winning a contest in Charlotte, to roadwork for a handful of booking agencies from Ohio to Florida. As a host and feature act, he lingered in that space of potential, like a purgatorial green room of sorts, waiting for his chance to headline.

As one of the handful of comics in Greensboro that could do 20 minutes in front of 500 people, he was ready when the opportunity to open for Chappelle hit.

“So I went and did the first show,” Hodge said. “I literally found out at 6:45 pm that at 7:30 p.m. I was going to be opening for Dave Chappelle. I literally ran and dropped off the kids with their mom and went up there and did the show.”

The Joke

Hodge got the green light from his ex-wife saying she could keep the kids that night. He drove downtown, but didn’t even know where to park. Chappelle’s road manager, Sina Sadighi, told him to pull around the back of the theater and come inside.

Chappelle had his own green room, and Hodge was shown a waiting area in the back of Cone Denim Theater. It was unfinished then, Hodge said, with the walls framed in and the foam insulation in place.

Hodge waited around. He hadn’t even seen the inside of the theater. Sadighi came back and told him what to expect. They wanted about 25 minutes of comedy, Hodge was told, and then they took him out to see the stage.

As he walked back to the waiting area, he was even stopped by one of Chappelle’s drivers, who also served as security, but things calmed down once they realized he was the opening act.

“It was cool,” Hodge said. “Right as I got there, people were filing in as I looked out. To see a venue that size filling up, and to think, ‘I have to go out there and tell these people jokes’ … I was super nervous.”

He texted back and forth with Simmons, who told him not to worry.

“He said ‘man, Dave Chappelle isn’t going to watch your set. It’s just any other show,'” Hodge recalled. “For whatever reason, that calmed me down. The fact that I’m walking out in front of 500 people, that was fine.”

The brief prep time also made it easier to cope with pre-show jitters.

“I think that kind of helps, though, because you don’t have a chance to let it get in your head,” Hodge said. “If I had known about two weeks ahead of time that I was opening up for Chappelle, I would have probably spent that whole two weeks freaking out. So it actually kind of worked out.”

When the DJ hosting the show called out his name after getting the crowd fired up with some hip-hop tracks, Hodge stepped into his own. He walked out and delivered his feature set, not knowing if he’d ever get another chance like this.

The Bit

Funny thing is though, Hodge made the most of it. “It went pretty well. I had a good set,” Hodge said. “I didn’t kill one of those amazing, room shaking kind of sets that you get to have every now and again, but it was a strong set. The audience was with me. It took me about two minutes to adjust my brain to deal with the size of the room. That’s a big room and it’s really deep.”

In a 200-seat club, Hodge explained, his words go out and hopefully laughter comes back immediately.

“In a big room like (Cone Denim Theater), there is a delay in it and then the laughter goes to the back of the room and then comes at you,” Hodge said. “Your pauses have to be a little longer while you wait for them to laugh. The first couple of jokes, when the first laughs hit, I probably stepped on the laughter.”

Settling down paid off. According to Sadighi, Chappelle’s road manager, Hodge lived up to his billing.

“Dave likes to have local guys open for him and James came highly recommended from fellow comics in the area,” Sadighi said. “He literally got the call an hour before the show. It was only supposed to be a one-show deal but he did so well I asked him to come back and open in Durham and Charlotte as well.”

Hodge split shows with Simmons in both cities, taking Friday and Saturday in Durham and the opening show of the second night in Charlotte at the Fillmore.

Hodge said he gave a shout out to Duke fans in Durham and got quick applause. He followed that up saying he went to UNC, with those fans cutting him off mid-sentence.

“No, no, I went to UNC- G. Greensboro,” Hodge said. “You people all have me beat.”

That earned him an early laugh in front of the much larger crowd of 3,000 people in Durham. Hodge said he didn’t change his set much, other than shortening it a bit so people could see the man they really came to see. But he did mix in jokes about the fact that he was opening for Chappelle into the set.

“That’s really what you want to do on stage, you want to be in the moment as much as possible, you want to be present,” Hodge said. “You don’t want to be just reciting jokes. If you do, it’s stiff and hard to watch and just feels like you’re reading stuff instead of seeing someone do it.”

His approach and delivery were spot on, according to Sadighi.

“You never know what you’re going to get with local comedy scenes, but James was a slam dunk,” Sadighi said. “It’s very hard to make an audience laugh who is ready to see arguably the best stand-up of our generation, but he had them laughing hard.”

The Chunk

James Burton Hodge Jr. was born in 1978 in Richmond, Virginia. He grew up in Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina until he was 18, and then attended community college briefly before coming to Greensboro for the first time.

He bounced back and forth between independence and his parent’s house until 2003, when he returned to Greensboro, this time married, and with a plan to finish his English degree at UNC-Greensboro.

He finished his studies in 2006, and went to work in the hospitality industry, working at local hotels in Greensboro. Hodge now has two children and an ex-wife, both of which feature in his comedy routine.

But his dreams of the stage gnawed at his insides, Hodge said. He’d participated in theater in high school, and beyond, and even had dreams of moving to Los Angeles to pursue an acting career.

He got as far as Memphis, Tennessee. With his car packed with his belongings, he remembers waking up in a hotel room on Sept. 11, 2001, with a fear and uncertainty brought on by the World Trade Center attack. This caused Hodge to turn around and head home.

Hodge said he was unhappy with his job after college, and with his marriage in decline, decided that he was tired of giving up on his dreams. He took to the computer and looked up comedy clubs in the Triad. Two weeks after he separated his wife in 2009, Hodge went to his first Open Mic Night at the Comedy Zone in Greensboro.

He sat and watched that first night, but decided to get up on stage the next week. He’d wanted to be a comic since he was eight years old. That’s when his mom dropped him off at a skating rink and he went over to the movie theater next door and bought a G-rated ticket, but instead snuck into Eddie Murphy: Raw.

Hodge said his worldview was shaped by comedians, thanks in part to growing up watching George Carlin, Richard Pryor and Murphy on HBO specials. Their takes on the larger world helped him escape the stereotypes of growing up in a small southern town like Roanoke Rapids.

“I felt very alone when I was 12 or 13 years old because I didn’t think anybody saw the world the way I did,” Hodge said. “When I saw Carlin, here’s this guy that does, and he’s funny about it. That’s kind of what makes comedy cool. Comedy can be that bridge between uncomfortable issues and people’s ability to talk about it.”

After his marriage fell by the wayside, comedy helped give him back a sense of hope. He still had that drive to be on stage, fueled, Hodge said, by a blend of insecurity and overwhelming narcissism.

“The first night I went to watch, it was a mixture,” he said. “For one, I thought ‘these guys are really funny.’ Two, I can be funnier. It was a mixture of excitement, that ‘oh my God, I’ve found my thing. These are the people I need to be around.’ Then there was also the nervousness of trying it and the narcissism of thinking I can be as funny as those guys. That’s what being a comedian is, in a weird way, a mixture of complete and total insecurity and overwhelming narcissism at the same time. Like, you need both. You don’t spend years learning how to be funny if there’s not something in you that you are trying to fill up. I think you are always trying to convince yourself that you are funny.”

His first time on stage he got a few laughs. Chris Wiles, who started that open mic, told him to come back. He did, and he’s kept at it for more than five years, progressing from open mics, to showcases and contests. He’s played VFW Halls, and underground venues, eventually winning an Almost Famous competition at the Comedy Zone in Charlotte.

Hodge said it was fellow Greensboro comedian Eli Southern that invited him to his first showcase. Hodge had done an open mic night at Boston’s House of Jazz, finishing his bit before Southern came on.

Southern called him out of the crowd for being the only white person in the bar, but Hodge shot a one-liner back at him. That caught Southern’s attention, and an introduction after the show.

Southern began to invite Hodge to off-the-radar, mostly black venues, where Hodge said he learned to sharpen his act.

“I like those rooms because, for one thing, you can’t cheat. If your jokes are good they will let you know,” Hodge said. “If they are bad they will let you know. You can’t play around. You can’t be scared. It makes you a better comic.”

The Set

Persistence and getting better at delivering laughs are the two things most people say make James Hodge a comedian with a future.

Reflecting on his early jokes, Hodge points out the beginning of his evolution from open mic performer to working road comic. Early on he tried too hard to be edgy, and shock the audience, delivering punch lines about Dale Earnhardt and The Intimidator ride at Carowinds, or long set-ups about abortion and other social issues.

“It was all the things that new comics do. I was trying too hard to get shock,” Hodge said. “In front of an open mic audience it would get laughs, because it was other comedians and they were like ‘that’s edgy’ or whatever. Trying to do that in front of a real audience, it doesn’t work. It’s just mean spirited and it’s not that funny.”

Simmons, who Hodge credits with being a mentor of sorts, said when he first saw him perform, the jokes were few and far between. Hodge opened with two or three minutes of social commentary, mostly about abortion.

“It was awkward and made everybody uncomfortable,” Simmons said. “He needed to learn how to balance that.”

Simmons said most young comics don’t understand that success comes after years of getting up everyday and working on your writing, crafting your bits and working on delivery. Hodge get’s it, Simmons said.

“I can see the stage time and the focus he puts into his writing and work paying off,” Simmons said. “He gets better and more consistent every time I see him. He’s risen from a guy who didn’t have 10 minutes of material that worked, to a guy who is beginning to work consistently and seeing that he really can be a comedian.”

Winning the Almost Famous contest in Charlotte helped Hodge hook up with a booking agency for the first time.

“I won it on a night where I had a really good set and a little bit of buzz got started,” Hodge said. “Comedy, when it comes to bookers, is all about the buzz.”

He’s learned to be more efficient with his stage time, to tighten up his delivery.

“You want to get to the punch line with as few words as possible while still making the point you are trying to make,” Hodge said. “You need to say everything you need to say and get to the punch line.”

In the beginning, his setups were too long “” 30 or 40 seconds with too much detail, like exact times, specific locations.

“You don’t need all that. You need the setup and you need the punch line,” Hodge said. “I had to learn how to tighten up my writing.”

The first booking agency Hodge hooked up with was Charlotte-based Heffron Talent International. Joel Pace, Heffron’s new market development booking agent, said Hodge was raw when he first came on board, but had a good stage presence, and a sense of timing and delivery. Hodge was more of a storyteller when he started, but has tightened up his act and is getting more laughs per minute by getting to the comedy sooner.

“James has grown quicker than most comedians. He believes in himself and works really hard to reach the level he’s getting at right now,” Pace said. “His potential is endless, but comedy is one of those things you get out what you put in. As long as he keeps working as hard as he is now, the world’s open to him.”

Eric Yoder, a booking agent with Funny Business Agency, said his firm began booking Hodge this year in the Midwest and Southeast. They gave him a few dates to begin with to see how it went. Hodge consistently gets “rave reviews” and earns consistent work.

Simmons said the experience of opening for Chappelle really was a boost for Hodge in that it gave him the confidence to know that he could do a show in front of an audience with such high expectations. Hodge’s work ethic is paying off, he said.

“He’s persistent. It’s more about the work ethic. I’ve tried to stress that to him and some of the younger comics in the area,” Simmons said. “The guys who get up and write everyday are the ones that move forward.”

Motivation isn’t hard to come by for Hodge. Boiling down his quirky observations about politics and sex, or the differences between being a child now as opposed to the 1980s, is blended with self-deprecating humor about not being able to afford a cell phone and the absurdities involved with dating as a single parent.

“I fell in love with comedy because of guys like George Carlin and Richard Pryor,” Hodge said. “I’m never going to be as good as those guys, but I’d like to do my version of that, of Mark Twain the social critic, the guy who looks at the world and says ‘this place is really messed up. Let’s talk about that for a minute.’ That’s the comedy I like and what I gravitate toward.”

But as an unknown comic, he’s learned to open with material the audience can relate to.

“I usually open with stuff about the kids,” Hodge said.

“It makes the audience relate to you. It makes them like you. You can’t just walk on stage and immediately jump into ‘this is what’s wrong with the world, you’re all a bunch of idiots.’ You can’t do it.” !