We’re SUPER stoked to have the one and only Chanel Ali on the lineup at this year’s Bentzen Ball! More specifically, she’ll be performing at Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage this Sunday, October 27th alongside fellow Bentzen Belles Rosebud Baker, Wendy Wroblewski and Franqi French! (Free!!!) In advance of her arrival in DC, she was kind enough to hop on the phone with me to talk about getting her start in the Philly comedy scene, how moving to New York influenced her storytelling style, how saying yes to experiences has become a key part of her creative process and MORE! Read up on our full chat below, follow Chanel on IG + Twitter, and make sure to come out to KenCen Sunday for what’s going to be an incredible closing show!
You came up in the Philly scene. Are there big differences between there and New York? Or do you find that they’re fairly similar?
It’s similar, but Philly is much smaller. I’d say it’s definitely more segregated in Philly; there’s a pretty strict line of Black rooms and alt rooms. The Black rooms are usually soul food restaurants that also have a stage. People pay a lot more money, but the comedy has to be really, really good. And then these alt rooms are kind of like these dive bars. And there are a few clubs, but they don’t really invest much in the local talent; I feel like most of my good stage time came from a combination of those rooms. I don’t know, I feel like comedy in New York…it’s hard to explain the difference, but it’s much more introspective. I feel like the crowds here make you dig a little deeper and expose yourself. I think Philly was a good place to start, because it made me really tough. Then by the time I got to New York, I feel nothing inside. Let’s go. [Laughs]
How often do you typically do shows per week? Are you doing a couple per night?
Yeah, usually two or three a night. It’s pretty rare these days that I have a day without a show, but every once in a while it happens.
And then how often do you get out on the road? I saw you were just in Arizona, right?
Yeah, I did a festival in Arizona, and then I did a festival in Portland. I’m on the road about twelve days a month, I’d say, on average. Just usually two or three days here and there, like obviously I’ll be in DC for about four days at the end of this month.
So obviously Philly is between here and there; do you get back down there often? And when you’re there, are you doing shows?
Yeah, I did a show there last night, actually, at the Punch Line comedy club. I go back pretty often, two or three times a month. It’s awesome that they’re booking me as a headliner now, and that I can come back and make good on what I said I was going to do.
Right. Was this something you always wanted to do? Even as a kid? Maybe not even necessarily stand-up, but something entertainment-related?
Yeah, honestly, when I was about seven was the first time I remember fully forming the idea of…not necessarily that I want to be a comedian, but I think I am that. And I remember feeling really connected to a lot of comedy movies and comedy specials, and just kind of identifying some of those personality traits. I remember consciously at seven thinking, “I have those same traits. I’m one of these people. I don’t totally understand what this is, but I’m one of these people.” You know? Once I tried it, which was probably not until I was about twenty-four, it was like, “Oh yeah. I don’t know why I’ve wasted time doing literally anything else with my life.” Everything underneath that light just felt so perfect; it felt like the most perfect place to really talk, to really be myself.
If you think back to your early days, then, if you were to compare those to where you are right now, have you changed very much stylistically? What’s been the evolutionary process for you?
I’ve always been a storyteller, and back in the day people used to compare me to Bill Cosby. They don’t do that so much anymore for obvious reasons, but every once in a while, because I always pull from the truth and talk about real experiences. But for a long time, I was focused on being silly and twisting my stories to make them more ridiculous, just to get crowd reactions. I feel like New York has really made me be more honest on stage, and talk about what has affected me and changed me, what molded me into the person to be able to even stand up here and say, “I don’t care, I like Harry Potter, and I’m a stand up comedian.” Just to really, fully expose myself. I just feel like New York really kind of taught me about being an artist, and how powerful it is to talk about, you know, how I grew up, and moving, and experiencing poverty. I really talk about what’s happening right here and right now, and how I got here, all the time. And in Philly, I didn’t really do that as much. I was more-so going on fantasy rides, making up scenarios. But I’m much more present, and I feel much more like an artist now.
Right. And I know comedy scenes tend to be tight-knit all over, but New York seems especially that way. Do you feel like you have certain people that you really love to be on the same lineup with, or to be around?
Yeah, I do. I feel like New York is a steel sharpens steel type of place, so I just feel like I’m around so many talented comics who are writing on television, on SNL, just all really influencing the conversation of comedy. And they’re all just really fun hangs, so I love joking with Sam Jay (she’s a writer on SNL), Alex English is one of my favorites (he was a writer on a BET show called The Rundown with Robin Thede, and now he’s working with National Lampoon)…the list goes on and on. I think Petey DeAbreu is one of the most talented New York City born and bred comedians that I’ve ever met, and every single time I watch him host a show, let alone actually do a set, it inspires me to get back to my notebook and keep writing and keep working, you know? We all really support and inspire each other.
For sure. And speaking of writing in your notebook, do you have a specific process when it comes to working out material? Do you make it a daily routine regardless of how inspired you’re feeling?
I don’t write every day, because I feel like if I make it a chore, it really becomes a chore. But I have a firm commitment to saying yes in life, so my writing style and my writing schedule is that if anyone invites me to do anything or go anywhere, see anything, and I don’t have very valid reasons to say no, other than I just don’t want to, I always say yes. And it creates a life where I take the train a lot, but I go out all the time, I see people, I do things, and I force myself to have experiences so that I have something to pull from, something to write from. I just feel like earlier in my career I could sit in my room and write out all the comedy that I felt was inside of me, and some of it is, but really my process is just living every day, every single opportunity to try something new and experience something new. I’m always trying to keep my brain moving, and that’s how the jokes come to me. Usually not in the moment, but after a long day of experiences I can kind of go home and digest it and unwind, revisit some thoughts and write things down.
That’s a great strategy. Obviously there’s always crazy stuff happening in this city, but in recent memory, what’s the most interesting thing you’ve done, or bizarre thing you’ve witnessed? (Because that obviously happens here all the time, too!)
All the time. And I think especially now that I’m really kind of being recognized as a comedian, I get a lot of crazy opportunities. The other day, the most popular nail technician on Instagram reached out to my manager and offered me $500 to do my nails. And so I went to this really swanky studio, they did my hair and my makeup, and she did my nails. I wish you could see them right now. They’re insane. They’re like, Cardi B status platinum, there’s an actual Harry Potter on my thumb with like, a head and a body and hair. It was just an incredible opportunity for someone to say, “I like your jokes and I want you to experience this and come be a part of this, and let’s just talk while I do your nails.”
Yeah, that was a couple of days ago and I’m still reeling off it.
I was also going to ask you what your Hogwarts house is. Have you taken the quizzes?
Gryffindor! I think the first time I took a test it told me something else, and I was like, “Absolutely not. Let’s take this again, and we will get it right.”
“There’s clearly been a mistake here.” That’s amazing. Alright, so what else besides the obvious Bentzen Ball appearance do you have coming up for the immediate future that you’d like to plug?
I’m recording my album on December 4th in New York City at a place called Caveat. (It’s so swanky, they have great carpets, you’d love it.) I have a podcast called Daddy-Less Issues, and I’m in the process where I just finished a book called A Girl’s Guide To Going Out, so we’re shopping that around now. I hope to have it out in the next few months; it’s just tips and tools for the modern woman to be able to handle her weed and liquor better.
Amazing! That’s a ton of stuff!
Yeah, I’m really excited about all of it!