Donald Glover is a lucky man, and he says so himself. After Tina Fey hired him right out of college to be a writer for 30 Rock, he was cast as dim-bulb jock Troy in NBC’s latest hit comedy, Community, and now he’s debuting his first half-hour stand-up special March 19 on Comedy Central. But his rapid ascent through the comedy ranks is more than just luck. He’s a prolific entertainer, juggling his acting and stand-up with writing and performing duties for the sketch team Derrick Comedy. He also produces and releases albums under the name Childish Gambino. But while his success could be attributed to many things—luck, talent, ambition—for Glover it all seems to boil down to being a nerdy obsessive. He recently spoke to The A.V. Club about why nerds are achievers, how he figures out whether something is funny, and what it was like pursuing stand-up even though it meant leaving a job where he “pooped Emmys.”
The A.V. Club: Right after it was announced that Community got picked up for a second season, Dan Harmon posted a video on Twitter of himself trying to trick the cast into thinking it had been cancelled. Did you believe him at the time, or were you on to him?
Donald Glover: I was kind of on to it. I was like, “They just added three episodes. If they were canceling us, that would make no sense.” It was the day we came back from the Olympics, and our ratings were the highest they’ve been, with no promotions, so I was like, “That seems a little crazy.” But then I was like, “Well, NBC hasn’t been doing the sanest things lately.” So I was a little concerned, but once Dan started getting into it—at the beginning of the tape, when he’s like, “It’s not canceled, but…” I was like, “Okay, that’s a good way of going into it, if we got picked up,” so I was fine. But I was enjoying Yvette [Nicole Brown], because Yvette is always thinking we’re canceled. She’s like, “Oh we got fries to eat today, does that mean we’re canceled? Does that mean we’re not good enough for potato chips? What does that mean?”
AVC: So when you left 30 Rock to do Community—
DG: Actually, a lot of people think that. People think I was on 30 Rock and I got offered Community and I left. I had left 30 Rock already. Now looking back, I’m like, “That was stupid.” It’s funny. I was like, “I’m gonna do stand-up.” [Laughs.] Leave this great job where I poop Emmys and go do stand-up, because I had fallen in love with stand-up, and I was like, “I’m gonna do this. I love it. I’m going to work it every night and do stand-up.” But then I auditioned for this thing that they asked me to do, and I happened to get it.
AVC: Did people think you were insane for leaving 30 Rock?
DG: Yeah definitely. My mom more so than anyone. My mom was livid. I mean, she wasn’t going to kill me, but she was—no, I’ll take that back. She was. She didn’t get it. She’d come to visit me before and said, “Okay, he’s not starving. He lives in an apartment. He’s not on the street. I don’t get what he’s doing. I assume he’s writing Tracy’s [Morgan] words, but at least he’s taken care of.” And then I was like, “I’m leaving,” and before that, I had planned on moving to L.A. too, so she was really like, “I don’t get it. What are you doing?” People, I’m sure, were like, “Why are you leaving?” But then this Community thing came up and it kind of eased the pain, I think.
AVC: What about stand-up was so attractive to you?
DG: I did a lot of sketch, and I guess people say sketch and stand-up just don’t mix, because—they talk about that on Saturday Night Live. When they used to have more stand-ups on Saturday Night Live, it was hard for them to break out and have characters and stuff like that. You would always write Chris Rock bits around him basically doing Chris Rock stand-up. I guess they fight each other. But a lot of my sketches came from thoughts, and I always just wanted to act them out.
The thing about stand-up was, I was doing all this sketch and YouTube stuff where I was not being censored and I got to do my own thing, and it was really cool. You’re working with four other dudes, the four people in Derrick Comedy, and you’re working together because you have this vision, but you have to compromise certain things because it’s not your vision, it’s Derrick’s vision. And then I moved to 30 Rock and I was writing there, and there’s nothing but standards and practices for everything. You can’t say “butt” there. It’s like, “Okay, it’s after 8:15, you can say ‘butt’ now.” That kind of thing. I was like, “Oh my God, I can’t do that kind of thing all the time.”
AVC: Especially because Derrick was pretty bawdy.
DG: Yeah, Derrick Comedy was extremely bawdy. We have a sketch where somebody says “Nigger-faggot.” No one’s telling you you can’t do that. The thing about stand-up was, not only was I getting to write it without anybody saying I couldn’t do it, but I got to perform it. It just kind of became therapy for me. I had just gotten through a break-up and I was talking about it a lot. I was talking about my family. Some things I hadn’t even remembered, but that just kind of came out onstage, and it was a great way for me to talk about this stuff I hadn’t even thought about for a while, without somebody telling me “You can’t do that.” It was kind of like a therapy thing, and I just fell in love with it.
AVC: With the sketch comedy and 30 Rock, you come from a more collaborative background, writing-wise. Did you have to adjust at all with stand-up, where it’s just you writing your own material?
DG: It’s one of those things where the more different it was, the more the same it was. I treated it the same way we were writing the movie Mystery Team, the same way we were writing everything else. You have this idea, you think it’s funny, shape it up, and if you’re not sure or if you just want to test it, you either try it in front of an audience—which I’m sure a lot of stand-ups just do, though it’s terrifying to me—or you can just ask a friend, “Do you think this is funny?” Usually, if I think something is really funny, I’m not gonna test it. I’ll just test it when I’m onstage. But that’s the great part about having friends that are funny. You can just be like, “I want to do this. What do you think?” And they’ll give you an opinion.
It’s very different from improv and sketch, where you build something together and everybody is like, “Oh wow, look at this scene we built.” And you share the accolades and the experience. But when it’s you, you get all the shine. Everybody’s like, “Oh, you came up with that!” but if you don’t do well at all, holy shit, you fall on your face and you’re the only one to blame. It really is one of those things, like when I was in high school, you feel like a weirdo sometimes. I guess that’s the sense I got. Sometimes when jokes fall flat, you feel so alone. You’re like, “Well, I thought this was funny.” Sometimes you can feel really lonely.
AVC: In your Comedy Central special, you talk about asking Tracy Morgan for advice on doing stand-up. Did you talk to anyone else before making that leap?
DG: I talked to Judah Friedlander. He plays Frank on 30 Rock, and he does stand-up. I really just watched a whole bunch of stand-up. I watched [Chris Rock’s] Bring The Pain a bajillion times. I watched Delirious. I still watch Delirious every time I do a big show. I watched Louis C.K., Woody Allen, Richard Pryor. Watched those a bunch. That was it. It was one of those things where a lot of people are like, “How do you break in? How do you start doing stand-up?” It’s never not worked out for me, if I want to do something, to just watch a bunch and start doing. So I did ask for pointers, but most of it was just watching other people and being like, “Okay, I see what he does there. Let me see if that works for me.” Then you just find your own stuff.
AVC: Also on your special, you mention that it’s a great time to be a black nerd. What is your nerdiest quality?
DG: I don’t know if this is a nerdy quality or just something left over from my uncle’s alcoholism, but I get obsessed with things very easily, things that don’t matter. I think that is a very nerdy quality to be like, “Oh this thing! I love it and I’m going to learn everything about it real soon.” I think that’s not just a nerdy quality, but people who achieve a lot, that’s something that helps them achieve, to be like, “Oh I like this thing. This thing is really cool.” When I found out about stand-up, I was like, “Why am I not doing this every night?” I must have done it every night. I would get out of 30 Rock and run to this place called The Creek in New York and run to UCB [Upright Citizens Brigade]. I was running everywhere, because I was like, “There’s all these venues and I can perform there for free!” I got really nerdy about it. Also, I was really into Sailor Moon as a kid, so that was pretty nerdy. I loved Sailor Mars. That was my thing. You know that weird teenage thing where you kind of dabble in, “What if you could make a cartoon real? Maybe she could be my girlfriend.” It was sadness.
AVC: Community is the first time you aren’t involved on the writing end of the comedy you’re doing. Was it weird to transition into solely performing?
DG: It was actually easy, because I like the show so much. I trust Dan. He’s funny, and he knows what he’s doing. And it was one of those shows where I was nervous when I first got the script, but after I read it, I was like, “Oh, it’s not like most shows where I read the pilot and I knew exactly what kind of show it is.” The kind of thing where they’re aiming for the middle, and “Let’s see if it turns into something.” I didn’t feel that way. As soon as I read that script, I was like, “This has a definite point. This has a definite edge.” Yvette was always like, “Aren’t you worried if we get canceled?” and I was like, “No.” Arrested Development got canceled, and I loved it. Not to compare us, but none of the people walking away from Arrested Development are gonna be like, “I got paid for this shitty show, and now I’ve got to figure out how to spin shit into gold.” No. You’re doing good work. It wasn’t weird for me, only because the work was good and I felt comfortable with the people there.
AVC: Is there any improv element to Community, or is it pretty tightly scripted?
DG: It’s pretty tightly scripted, but Dan is really cool. We improv a lot of the stuff. My favorite words to hear on set are “Donald, go crazy.” Joel [McHale] will be doing a scene and I’ll do my stuff, and he’ll say, “Okay, Donald, just go crazy.” And I’m like, “Yes! I get to say and do whatever I want! And they use it sometimes!” Which is great, because people ask, “Which would you rather do: write or act?” and I don’t have to choose. Even though I have to say it’s better to be an actor, only because people worry about what time you go to sleep and what you dress like. As opposed to a writer, where it’s like, “Oh I’m in my New York University sweatshirt and I’m not wearing pants.” You’re not worried about what you’re eating or anything. It’s all a part of your process. But yeah, there’s improv involved. Like, the Halloween tag was completely improvised.
AVC: The tags you do at the end of each episode with Danny Pudi all seem to have an improv quality.
DG: Well, it is. A lot of them come from our ideas, just messing around. They’re all tightly scripted, and then we come in, and we might add a tagline or change a line here or there. I like them a lot, because they remind me of the YouTube stuff I did with Derrick. Most of those episodes are shot weeks or months in advance, but those tags, we shoot the week that thing airs, most of the time. And I love that. It feels like YouTube with Derrick, where we’d shoot something and it’d be up the next night. So it feels very fresh, and you don’t have to worry, “Oh, is this thing going to be funny? I said donkey dick eight times. ‘Donkey dick’ feels weird in my mouth.” That’s not the first time I’ve said that. [Laughs.] Yeah, they let us do whatever we want, which is nice because then you don’t have to worry about, “Oh is this funny?”
AVC: Because of your rapping background, I assumed that you wrote the Spanish rap you did with Danny at the end of the episode “Spanish 101.”
DG: Here’s what it was. We were at the Paley Festival. It was our first thing in the public eye, and me and Danny were on the red carpet, and this woman from TV Guide was talking to somebody else and she was like, “Can I get a rap?” She was talking to somebody else, but Danny was like, “Oh yeah, we’ll rap for you.” And then Danny started beatboxing and I started rapping over it, and we went for it. It really just came out of us improv-ing and us just messing around. And a lot of them come from us joking around. We really do hang out. I’ll be honest, I’m a little hungover, because I was hanging out with them. And we weren’t not rapping. [Laughs.] We were joking around. Most of the time it’s something we do, and the writers just write something awesome.
AVC: You’ve also been releasing music under different pseudonyms for years, most recently as Childish Gambino. How did that evolve?
DG: I guess it started in college, freshman year. My friend got me a ripped version of this program, Fruity Loops. He gave it to me and I didn’t leave my dorm room that day. I became obsessed with it, like a nerd. I just fell in love with music, started making more beats and buying more stuff. I created a studio and kept trying stuff out, and it became this project where I can—you know, I love hip-hop, I really do, but I know what my sensibilities have always been. I was the kid who was like, “Oh I really like The Cranberries.” And I compose with instruments and stuff. I was like, “I’m going to try and start making my own beats and rap over them, but with indie sensibilities.” So it came out of that.
Before they hear it, people are like, “Oh it’s a joke-rap kind of thing.” People expect it to be comedy, and I get why they do that, because a lot of comedians want to be musicians, and vice-versa. Jay-Z and all these rappers talk about Chris Rock and have Chris Rock bits on their albums, and they have Dave Chappelle on their bits, and they quote Eddie Murphy, and they’re obsessed with it. And comedians want to be rappers and that kind of thing. It’s not new. Then there is this new thing of, “I’m a good rapper, but I’m a comedian. I’ll put out a joke record.” I don’t think that’s bad at all. Just personally, I feel like I say what I need to get out in comedy in a comedic way. I don’t want to do that with my rap.
When I read message boards and stuff like that, people are like, “It’s a joke, right?” And then people are like, “No, it’s not a joke. It’s awesome!” And people are like, “Wow. It’s really good. I know Donald’s a comic, but he should do it for real.” It really does depend on your point of view, because I feel like Lil Wayne is really, really funny. He has jokes in his songs that are really funny. Drake is really funny. There’s a sense of humor there. But because they’re rappers—if they were comedians, I think people would be like, “Oh they’re jokes.” I think that’s just something I have to work hard at. I have to work at making people see that this part is not a joke. But I think this album I’m putting out, that I’m really excited about [Culdesac], I composed all the music from scratch and scored it, and there are strings, and I bought all these guitars. I did all this shit, and I’m really excited about it. And a lot of them aren’t even rap. A lot of them are just songs. I feel like it’ll be different from the other albums.
AVC: You seem to like going the self-produced route with your music, which echoes your initial approach to comedy. Would you ever want to move into the more “professional” realm of a studio album?
DG: Again, it’s that thing where once a person controls it, you’re limited a little bit. And I get that. That’s fine. The point of that stuff is to make money. But I’m not trying to make money, so making these beats, making these mix-tapes is relatively cheap. This is the first time in history where I can put out a pretty professional-grade album out of my room for no money. My new album has strings, vocals, and guitars, and I must have spent maybe $500 on equipment and stuff. That’s a really amazing and beautiful thing. I call them albums, because I think I spend as much time on them as someone would on an album, and it’s free, so people are like, “Oh, it’s a mix-tape.” People think, “It’s not legit unless I pay for it.” It’s this weird thing where I feel like I’m letting them down if I don’t charge them. [Laughs.] I just wanted to express myself as much as possible. When you’re selling something, it’s harder to do that. That’s okay. A lot of people think, “Oh, you’re compromising your vision and you can’t be an artist.” But I’m so lucky. I’m so lucky to be on Community. I call Community the best day job in the world, because between takes, I get to write music. I get to write sketches. I get to write movies. It’s the best job ever. When anybody pays you to be creative, you’re very lucky.
AVC: Derrick Comedy has also been promoting its first movie, Mystery Team, with a nationwide tour. Has it been hard to keep up with the screenings while shooting Community?
DG: It’s been hard, but I’ve gotten to some of them. But yeah, Community takes precedence, and I haven’t been able to make it to a bunch of them, unfortunately. But I’ll be at the one out in L.A., definitely.
AVC: What has the response been at the screenings you’ve attended?
DG: Craziness. Kids are stoked about it. It’s really humbling. I won’t be there, but I’ll get Tweets like [High-pitched voice.] “Just saw Mystery Team. Donald wasn’t there, but it was awesome!” DC [Pierson, of Derrick] will record stuff. Like on my birthday, I couldn’t be there. They were opening it somewhere, and they recorded the audience singing me “Happy Birthday.” It feels a lot like the way it was when we were first getting started. We were in this group called Hammerkatz at NYU, which was a big sketch group. At one point, we had 14 members. We were huge. We kind of took over whatever space we were in, and people looked at us and were like, “You guys are so big, why are you guys here?” It kind of felt that way whenever we would go into these artsy little theaters with this movie that’s not artsy at all. It’s just a fun comedy. Kids line up around the block and take over this theater, and it’s really cool to have 14-year-olds with their dads and 17-year-olds and college kids running to a theater that’s playing The Hurt Locker next door, talking about farts and stuff.
AVC: We talked to DC for a local screening of Mystery Team, and he said you came up with the idea for the movie because you always wanted to do an Encyclopedia Brown-type project. What about that seemed like good fodder for a feature-length comedy?
DG: There’s just something about when kids do something, it’s always going to be funny, because kids grow up. Nobody doesn’t grow up, and whatever you do as a kid usually isn’t considered amazing when you’re an adult. A baby changing its own diaper, you’d be like, “That baby is a fucking genius.” But when he’s 27, you’re like, “He shouldn’t be wearing diapers anymore.” You’re a crazy person for doing that now, but when you’re a child, you’re considered this prodigy. I always thought that was really funny, how something when you’re a child can be considered an amazing talent, and then one day, you’re nothing. You’re worse than an actual adult.
AVC: In that same interview, DC answered some questions as the absent members of Derrick. He answered the following question as you, so here’s your chance to rebut: “Donald, not only did you come up with the idea, but you also had the most lines, the most screen time, and you did the score. Why so selfish?”
DG: I guess because I like Encyclopedia Brown. I like doing the stuff. I guess if it wasn’t me, it would probably be Dominic [Dierkes], and nobody wants that. I’m extremely lucky nobody said not to. It’s pretty cool I got to do this stuff. Also, we had this meeting where we were like, “We definitely need a lead character,” and it just kind of fell into place. It became me. And then later on, it became, “Okay, we need a love interest.” So then it became, “Okay, Donald also gets to kiss Aubrey Plaza now? Okay, great.” [Laughs.] Yeah, I guess I’m just lucky.