Baron Vaughn is in the business in making people laugh. He’s a stand-up, an actor, a writer, a creator. There are few people who can do what he does. Forces of nature like Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy, Steve Martin (all Vaughn’s idols) can. The connection is clear. A love of performance and exceptional talent takes Vaughn’s work to that next level. It hasn’t been easy getting the recognition, though, in this white washed industry. In this interview, the Grace and Frankie star talks comedy, craft, and representation on screen.
MC: When did you catch the acting bug?
BV: I was pretty young actually. I tell the story of being in a church play as a child. I was cast as Wise Man #3 for the nativity scene. Wise Man #3 had no lines. I was like, “What? Come on. No lines? I don’t get to say anything?” Wise man #1 had all the lines and delivered them with so little feeling…That was the moment I was like, “I can do this so much better.”
Did anyone or anything in particular inspire you to pursue a career in comedy?
I wouldn’t point to necessarily one person. There are a lot of different influences I drew from, especially when I was a kid. The idea of being on TV, I guess, or being seen was the biggest draw. And then the people who probably influenced me the most were people like Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy. You know actually Lily Tomlin was a pretty big influence as well, so it’s wild to even be working with her. All interesting, dynamic people. Steve Martin was a huge influence, as well. They all have such vast careers. They wore so many different hats: doing stand-up, acting, writing, directing. It was all of that. Hitting it from all these different angles is what I’ve always been drawn to.
How did you go about establishing a career in stand-up and acting? In many ways they’re fundamentally different career paths and art forms.
Well you know what you’re talking about, whilst valid, is an external thing. You’re right, they’re very different in terms of career—in terms of how you need to sell yourself. They’re also very different art forms. From the external sense, when I’m selling myself to this industry if you will, I’m a creator. I am basically a person who creates content—comedy content. I can do this from a bunch of different angles. But as an art form, they’re both very different. In some ways I think that stand-up is closest to what theater was before the invention of dialogue…Stand-up in a way is the purest form of theater there is because it’s one person up there creating a world. Acting is more about collaboration. It’s more about being in a scene with someone: existing in a space and bouncing off of each other’s energy. Both of them when they’re fun, woo, they’re fun.
Baron doing stand-up on Conan a few years ago
How are the audiences different in stand-up and theater?
Well, that’s one of the reasons I wanted to start doing stand-up…When I was in theater school at Boston University, when we were putting together a play, there was a constant conversation about what the audience was going to think—what the audience would or wouldn’t understand. We were doing all of that [speculation] without an audience. [In theater] you’re second-guessing the audience the entire time. It’s not until the performances [you get a response]…
But with stand-up the audience is a collaborator as well. You can go up there with an idea and think it’s hilarious—it’s not until someone actually laughs at it. Then after that it’s about getting a laugh for the reason I want to get a laugh and in the places I want to get a laugh. The audience is giving you the feedback. Then you tweak your jokes around what is and isn’t working. The audience is present in the process of stand-up [versus] way later in theater.
How else did BU’s training help with setting you up for success?
Well first off, I learned how to really read a script. Contrary to popular belief, it’s not just learning lines and saying them when it’s your turn. Then learning how to interpret a script but also learning what the thought process of the character is—sounding like a human being. Acting is connecting the dots. It’s a puzzle. [I learned] a lot of different ways to do that in an environment where I was allowed to fail. I could see what did and didn’t work.
That’s what professional acting is, especially with TV acting. TV acting is super quick. There’s not a lot of time to process. There’s not a lot of time for memorization. There’s not a lot of time for rehearsal. You have to make a decision about who your character is super quickly. When you get a script, you don’t have it for that long. A week at best and while you have it you’re shooting something completely different. I learned a way to apply tricks for memorization and interpretation that I could do on my own.
You know, being a guest star is insane because there is no rehearsal. When you’re about to act on TV with people in a room it’s the first time you’ve met them, it’s the first time you’ve been on that set, it’s the first time in new clothes. You run the scene once or twice and then shoot it for the world. It’s not like people even really talk to you. It’s like, “Okay, you over there, stand here, and go that way.” And you’re like, “What? What about my character?” “Don’t have time, get it done.” So [because of BU] I have the tools to act like a human being when I have no preparation time. Long answer to a short, little question! [Baron laughs]
That must be really frustrating though, because this is your job, your creative outlet. Do you get annoyed by the quick turn around?
It can be annoying at times, but it really depends on the job. Some places are factories. They churn everything out, people come in and they’re like parts. And then some places are trying to make something really interesting, something really good. They hire the actors, they hire the directors, they hire the lighters for the sake of collaboration….There are all these different ways to act. TV acting is different from film acting, which is different from theater acting. And they all require different muscles. I’ve seen brilliant film actors be horrible on stage and I’ve seen brilliant stage actors not be able to figure out how to do television…
How did Grace and Frankie come about?
I did an old fashioned audition for it. I was writing sketches over at Funny or Die at the time and then this audition came by. I hadn’t been on a show in a while. I had gotten to a place where I was very comfortable and then this audition came along. It was a show I had heard about. I had heard that Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda were doing some sort of show on Netflix. I had heard about it months before I auditioned. So I was like, “Oh that sounds interesting.” Then this audition came across my lap. I was pretty amazed. I read it and was like, “Wow, this is really, really good.” I like that it ends in a big question mark. It’s not a clean, neat little package where everything is figured out in 30 minutes…
When I got in the room I decided I was going to do my take. You know that phrase, “writing the essay the teacher wants to read,” where you’re like, “What do they want to see?” You’re anticipating their needs, but you don’t bring yourself to the table. And if they don’t want you, that’s fine. It sucks because you could not be employed for two and a half years—I’m talking about myself. Luckily, I was in a good place mentally when I auditioned for this, so I could do something that was real to me and real to this character. By Jove, they responded!
During those two and a half years you weren’t working how did you keep your head in the game: focused and creative?
I won’t say I was totally successful at that [Baron laughs]. There was a lot of me feeling, “I do not want to have my head in this game. I am not focused and I am leaving this country.” There was a lot of that. When people are talking about representation on scene this is one of the things, on a personal level, for a lot of actors of color there’s not a lot of variation in the roles that are being offered to us. There’s not a lot of frequency. When you have more people of color behind the scenes, that frequency goes up. Surprise, surprise. Because they’re telling stories from a perspective that they lived in, a lot of the time that’s a perspective I can portray…When there aren’t a lot of roles, when I feel like I’m falling through the cracks, I must make the cracks the sidewalk itself. I focused on the things people weren’t responding to about me and then realized that those were the things that are unique about me. They’re not a problem, they’re not my disadvantage, they an attribute. Those are my virtues. As I got more comfortable with that idea of myself, I got clearer about how I wanted to do things and the projects I wanted to create and pursue…If I don’t see it, I’ve got to make it.
I’m so glad you brought up the issue of representation. It’s super shitty.
Yeah, it doesn’t change overnight. It’s really easy to internalize what the world is saying about you and what the world is saying about your existence—things you cannot change, things that are true to you. When the world is saying, “Nah,” it’s very hard not to take that personally. We’re a people of getting pointed at and being told, “Not you!” That’s evil. Half of the work is fighting the external forces and the other half is changing the internal forces. I have to let the things I internalize go and that work helps me see externally who’s pointing the fingers and why. That’s true in terms of politics and my career.
What’s your advice for aspiring actors and comedians?
It’s similar to what I just said. You have to learn the difference between what’s external and what’s internal. If you’re going to put yourself out there, make sure you know who you are [Baron laughs]. This is back to the acting and stand up thing. Stand-up is always me. I wrote it, directed it, produced it; it’s a microphone and me in front of an audience—the ultimate playground for a control freak. Acting as an art is very fulfilling. But the reality about the acting industry is that you’re always waiting for someone who’s already made something to tell you that you’re good enough. That’s the majority of the career. When there’s a lack of things that you fit that reflects a cultural attitude, my advice is: make what you cannot see. If you do not see a role for you and you do not see a story you know should be told being told, then tell it and make it. ♦