It's the best birthday present that money can't buy. James Davis is getting caught up in the moment on the set of his upcoming Comedy Central series Hood Adjacent with James Davis, handing out pretend ribs, wings and weed to audience members gathered for the finale taping. When everyone learns it's his birthday, the entire set breaks out in a loud, enthusiastic rendition of "Happy Birthday." But it's not a gimmick or a planned stunt. The cameras haven't started even rolling yet. On any other show, this would make for "the perfect shot," but with Davis, he's more concerned with cultivating an authentic vibe with his audience, because he's here to make friends, not fans.
After sitting down with Davis in Comedy Central's brand new offices in Hollywood, then watching him host the season finale of the first season of his new series, it's clear that the most important thing to him is staying true to himself. And not going to lie, when his show (premiering Wednesday, June 28 at 9 p.m.) is all about bridging the gap between urban and mainstream culture through comedy and his own personal experiences, authenticity and honesty is pretty important. "Media training? What's that?" he jokes when asked about doing press for his first big TV show. "All I do is tell the damn truth."
Born and raised in South Central Los Angeles, "one block away from where sh*t goes down," Davis essentially comes from both sides of the tracks. "I'm hood adjacent," he explains. "I'm not fully submerged into stereotypical urban comedy nor am I just the super cut Seinfeld-ish mainstream club comic."
Hood Adjacent is his way of sharing his unique perspective on the world in an amalgamation of a talk show and sketch show, but it was born in an interesting way. When he was performing his live show Urban Dictionary where he taught the meaning of real slang words being used today, Comedy Central brass attended one of his performances. They liked what they saw, so they gave Davis a Snapchat series, Swagasaurus, to continue bridging his two worlds.
"In the process, I was just in love with the fact that I was getting closer and closer of my goal of getting a TV show, but I never ever ever thought that Snapchat would be the avenue that I would take to get my own show," Davis says. "It was fun because it was new. [Comedy Central reps] start telling me it's doing pretty well so they're like, 'Pitch us a show based on that.'"
And so, a long-form TV series was born out of a Snapchat show. "It's almost Chappelle Show meets Daily Show where I'm doing standup but then tossing to field pieces instead of sketches," Davis says. "Some of the stuff is so wacky and unexpected but it's all true and either one world or the other has been somewhat ignorant to. But it's not a preachy thing. It's not like, 'Listen white people,' or 'Listen people in the hood, this is what you don't know.' It's like, 'I'm this dude in the middle, and did y'all know this? Let's all party.'"
Davis wants to make that very clear: he's not trying to convince anyone of anything. He just wants to educate people on cultures or lifestyles they may not be familiar with.
"I don't want the show to be 'my black take' on just random stuff," he says. "Everything is very personal for me. I want to talk about things that matter to me, small or big, general or very specific. There's something about this show where my heart is in every piece. I've always seen myself as a good guy. That comes out in most pieces, no matter what we're talking about."
When I bring up the topic of politics, he falters. He definitely doesn't shy away from making political comments on his show (during the finale taping, I witnessed one joke comparing gang members to Trump's cabinet) but he's not here to campaign for or against any party or political figure.
"I like to get subtly political," he says. "I don't have to say, 'I disagree with our president.' But if I'm very authentic and very pointed in how I feel for something, if I'm very strong in what I'm pro, it becomes evident what I'm against. In this show, I'm very purpose-driven. In that 22 minutes, I'm talking about problems or referencing problems that are out there, but I'm not going to spend 5-10 minutes talking about something that they're going to have the same conversation about on CNN, MSNBC."
He continues, "If my take isn't uber-specific, personal or just downright funnier than what's already being talked about, I'm not going to go there. I'm not going to waste anyone's time on that. My dedication to being so personal is almost activism and political because I'm very dedicated to showing that there's another image of black men, another image of liberal, another image of male. By being authentic to that, that touches on a lot of political conversations."
While it may sound schmaltzy, all Davis wants is "for everyone to get along." And if he can help two opposite worlds come together through comedy, he considers his work to be done.
"Especially in a time where our country is so divided over so many issues," he says, "when we can connect over small fun things like words or when you see someone not like you or from your area using the same words or understanding something you thought was only select to your experience, I feel like it brings us together rather than reinforces the borders between us."
Davis hopes that if audiences can accept him and his unique perspective, he can pave the way for so many other young comics with perhaps an even more unique experience than him. By becoming Comedy Central's next rising star, a whole new world can potentially open up.
"I finally feel like people are accepting me and this culmination of all these experiences to create this point of view," he says. "It just validates me believing in myself and believing that my specific type of young black comic is acceptable."
If the audience reaction on set is any indication, not only is the public ready to accept Davis, they're absolutely hungry for him. Or maybe that was just the result of being handed fake ribs and wings. And weed.