Local comedian Dwight Simmons may not be on your radar, but he should be.
After the success of his 2015 debut album Pacifist Aggressive, Simmons has found success all around the Midwest in recent years, while also holding it down in the local comedy scene as well. This Friday, Aug. 31, in fact, the Indy-based comic is set for another live album taping at the White Rabbit Cabaret, with support on the bill from Jonathan Pfendler, Corey Ewing, and host Isaac Landfert. Beforehand, we caught up with Simmons for an in-depth interview.
NUVO: Where are you originally from, and how did you first get into comedy?
DWIGHT SIMMONS: I grew up in Indianapolis. I was an IPS kid up until sixth or seventh grade. And then, my parents got a job, and we moved from a real bad neighborhood to Carmel. [laughs] That dichotomy of those two things kind of shaped who I am as a person, and obviously, my comedy.
I got into standup when I was in college at IU. When I was a junior, what’s now the Comedy Attic opened. I went to do a couple open mics there, and that’s how I really started and got into it.
NUVO: Did you have an interest in comedy before doing those open mics?
SIMMONS: My mom and dad love standup, and they would always have it on. Just by virtue of always having it in the background, it was something that I fell in love with. When I was like 10, I remember finding these VHSs of filthy standup comedy specials, and I would watch those all the time. That just continued into when I got older, with me watching pretty much everything. I’d watch Comedy Central, Def Comedy Jam, BET’s ComicView, Premium Blend….I loved HBO specials when they’d come out. So I always had an infatuation with watching it on television but didn’t really fall in love with going to live shows until I got to college because I was obviously too young to go to live shows until then.
NUVO: You talked about the dichotomy of moving from “a real bad neighborhood” to Carmel when you were younger. Elaborate on that and how that experience plays a part in who you are today, both as a person and as a comic.
SIMMONS: I think it’s very prominent in the way that I interact with people. Going from a predominantly Black area into a predominantly white area, there are undeniable differences that you’re hyper aware of as a kid. Even though you’re not taking it in at a level that maybe I am now, you’re internalizing all of these differences between the two communities. I feel like it’s made me a more empathetic person toward everyone, and I feel like my comedy is more informed because of it. Obviously, as a comic, I’m very opinionated, but I think I am able to see things from different angles and not just have these blinders on all the time.
NUVO: You mentioned that The Comedy Attic wasn’t yet in Bloomington when you first started doing comedy?
SIMMONS: Yeah. When they first opened, it was a chain of the Funny Bone, so the comics that they got were Funny Bone headliners. That’s just not the type of comedy that is going to do well in a liberal arts college town like Bloomington. They want comics like Maria Bamford, and that’s not who the Funny Bone booked.
I love that they switched. I got to see comics like Bamford, Tig Notaro, and Geoff Tate in this intimate venue, and it opened my eyes to [the fact that] comedy can be anything.
NUVO: What adjustments did you have to make upon moving to Indianapolis and pursuing comedy here?
SIMMONS: After graduating, I actually moved to Chicago for a couple years. I wasn’t doing comedy at all. I had essentially quit because I had graduated and thought it was time to get a real job. I was in a relationship that was awful. When all that ended, I moved back to Indianapolis and dove into standup full-time. [laughs] It was kind of a wake-up call because Bloomington spoils you. Indianapolis was a much-needed shock to the system that this is hard work and not everything is going to go your way. If you want to get better and do this for real, you need to put as much time and effort in as possible to make yourself a well-rounded writer and performer.
When I started at the clubs [in Indianapolis], you couldn’t work Morty’s and Crackers at the same time. If they found out you were working one, it was frowned upon by the other club. So you had to hustle up all these other ways to get stage time, which is one of the best parts of doing comedy in Indianapolis. You’re within a four-hour radius from 15 different cities that you can drive to and get on stage. So the hustle element of it is just a little different.
NUVO: How long have you been traveling outside of Indianapolis to do perform?
SIMMONS: Probably four or five years. I dove into it full-time, trying to travel as much as possible, two years ago, so that’s been the change. This is my full-time thing now. This is what I do to live.
NUVO: I read about your one-man show at IndyFringe last year. Tell me more about how that came about and how the experience went.
SIMMONS: I was looking for something to do after my first album came in 2015. I was just looking for another project, more or less. I had been to IndyFringe probably three years in a row and watched some of my friends do an hour of comedic storytelling. So I was like, “I think it’d be a good challenge for myself to try to write an hour-long show,” so I decided to do that.
It was about race and politics and just silly goofiness. I called it Seeking Consciousness. I still can’t explain why that name sounded amazing to me, but that’s what I went with. [laughs] But the experience was great. I’d definitely do it again. I learned a lot. There’s a different pacing with a theater crowd versus a comedy crowd. I think the way I would structure and write the next show would probably be a little bit better, but it’s only because I would have a better idea of what to expect.
NUVO: I ask a lot of comedians this, and I’m guessing you will have an interesting opinion on it as well. Do you feel responsible to be socially conscious and make social statements when you are doing a standup set?
SIMMONS: I don’t know if I have the burden of feeling responsible. I do feel that comics have a responsibility to themselves to be authentic, and we have a responsibility to the audience to do that in a funny way. So in my opinion, and a lot of people will disagree with this…talk about anything if you’ve written it and it’s funny. I talk about politics in my comedy because a lot of it’s very emotional for me. And I think if I can find a way to make it funny, it can be therapeutic for myself and also the audience.
I don’t think it’s the job of an artist or a writer to try and solve problems. If you can report on what’s happening and do it in the avenue that you’ve chosen, then I think you’re on the right track.
NUVO: That being said, what can people expect from your upcoming live taping at the White Rabbit?
SIMMONS: I’m just gonna yell “Fuck Donald Trump” for an hour. [laughs] Over the last couple years, I feel like I’ve gotten much better as a comic and a storyteller. [I’ve gotten] comfortable in my own silliness and comfortable talking about certain issues. People can expect a funny show first. I would like to be thought-provoking, but it’s not my goal. It’s not something that I’m chasing after, but I do put a lot of time and thought behind my material. So I hope people can resonate with it.