Exclusive: Finesse Mitchell on his Showtime stand-up special and what it was like working on SNL

Finesse Mitchell is riding high right now and has a comedy special on Showtime. Pic credit: Finesse Mitchell
Finesse Mitchell is riding high right now and has a comedy special on Showtime. Pic credit: Finesse Mitchell

SNL alum Finesse Mitchell has nothing but good news these days. His hour-long standup special The Spirit Told Me To Tell You will premiere on Showtime this Friday, October 19th.

The hits also keep coming as Finesse has also snagged a plum role in the as-yet-untitled The Middle spinoff on ABC.

The ABC series sees him cast as Hudson, “a bartender with a big heart” who works with Sue Heck (Eden Sher). They both work for hotel owner Nick (Chris Diamantopoulos). The premise is that Sue has left smalltown Orson to strike out on her own in the windy city of Chicago. Hudson befriends her in this fish-out-of-water meets coming-of-age sitcom.

Mitchell’s additional TV credits include Showtime’s Roadies, Disney Channel’s A.N.T. Farm playing the role of Darryl, Chyna’s policeman father, and ABC’s Splitting Up Together.

The Saturday Night Live alum is now starring in his first solo hour-long comedy special directed by Devon Shepard and shot at the Alex Theatre in Glendale, California.

In it, Mitchell covers everyday life writ large, from the mysteries of swaddling babies to reminiscing about club life to manning up and being “the man” and facing life and all the trials a marriage can bring.

Previously, Finesse had a great run on SNL, creating memorable characters and impersonations of icons like Morgan Freeman, Bobby Brown, 50 Cent and even Gayle King. He recently appeared in the Sony Pictures/Crackle TV feature Mad Families opposite Charlie Sheen and Tiffany Haddish.

Other comics love Finesse, including Ron White who drafted him for his Comedy Salute to the Troops which aired on Country Music Television (CMT) to benefit the Armed Forces Foundation.

Mitchell is authoring a second advice book to follow Your Girlfriends Only Know So Much: A Brother’s Take on Dating and Mating for Sistas (2007, Simon Spotlight) a comedic look at dating based on his monthly advice column for ESSENCE Magazine.

We spoke to Finesse about the windfall of projects he is currently balancing:

Monsters and Critics: You have two babies, has your swaddling game you riff about in your special gotten better?

Finesse Mitchell: [laughing] Yeah I’m the king swaddler in this house right here. So, I’ve had those skills from a long time ago and didn’t even know it.

M&C: I understand that there’s some good news coming your way regarding the ABC The Middle spinoff pilot?

Finesse: Yes, a pilot, correct. With Eden Sher from The Middle. We have a great cast and crew. It’s so funny. She’s so funny and I’m excited to be a part of that.

M&C: What part did they sign you on for?

Finesse: Hudson…she [Sher’s character Sue Heck] makes her way to Chicago to try and find herself and she thinks she has a job interview at a hotel and comes to find out that the email where she got requested, that interview, was two years old. She blames it on stealing her neighbor’s WiFi.

She doesn’t necessarily have a place to stay because her roommate changed her mind and the job interview doesn’t exist, so she’s kind of staying at The Seville hotel and that’s where I work.

And I’m like this handsome bartender that just is, like, okay, I got to look out for this young girl because she’s obviously homeless.

So it’s sort of like a very young, a reverse role of a [Curb Your Enthusiasm] Larry David and JB Smoove [relationship], you know, a young white female and a handsome, charismatic black male. It’s so much fun.

M&C: Who are some of your comedic influences? Also, you’re very spiritual. It’s obvious. You praise the good Lord. With all the greats who have passed, which comic do you think will be kicked out of heaven for being naughty?

Finesse: I just saw Louis Anderson two nights ago. Love him.

Probably Robin Harris and Bernie Mac… and if they’re up there together they gonna get kicked out real quick! [laughing] I think Richard Pryor is more like, ‘I’m just happy I made it in! Nobody’s going to get me in trouble again!’ You know what I mean?

But Bernie and Robin would be like: ‘Oh, look at him, pretend like he didn’t do all that sh**. He did! God knows what you did, Richard!’ you know what I mean?

I loved Redd Foxx growing up, his sitcom, but I also loved his stand-up because I couldn’t believe once I got into comedy, his standup, it was like that Bob Saget revelation of, ‘Oh, like Bob, said what?’ Richard was…so, Redd Foxx was the same way to me.

So, those two. I was knee deep in the game once I realized he [Bob Saget] was a blue comic, but I think he let me realize how far you can go, how likable you can be on camera right now. And I don’t think a lot of comics, especially the younger ones, they even think about that.

So many people just want to be funny and just get on stage. And now, with the social media era, it is just about eyeballs.

But it is also a branding thing that you got to think of it. It may take longer because, I realize in show business, the nice guys really do kind of finish last.

You know who told me this? Jerry Lewis. I was doing Conan O’Brien, and I was the second guest back in my SNL days, and he was the first guest and he wanted to meet me.

I went into his dressing room and when everybody left, he stopped with that slapstick [act] of who you thought he was, sometimes he would talk in that voice when he worked with Dean Martin.

When everybody left, he was like, ‘Finesse, I’m going to tell you something so serious. You want to make it in this business? I was like, “yeah.” He said, “you got to be a motherf***er, you got to be a bastard,” and I was like, “what?”

“You’ll get there quicker, trust me.” I was like, “No, I want to stay [and be] cool Finesse and just be nice to everybody.” But sometimes it doesn’t work that way.

People like your talent and appreciate you, but you’re not necessarily their first choice unless they’re like [here’s a] wholesome ABC Sitcom, who can we get? And now it’s almost like a social media numbers game. Especially with urban comics…sometimes it falls through the cracks of great representation and management, but a lot of times just like who’s super hot right now with over a million followers.

Me and JB Smoove, we’ve been on the circuit for so long and we were at SNL together. He was a writer, I was a cast member, but we used to catch total hell. Just trying to get something on TV.

M&C: What happened?

Finesse: When it comes to SNL, it’s a machine that operates itself and it’s almost sort of like Double Dutch. You sit there and you’re just like trying to jump in without making them ropes tangle.

In any given week there’s no rhyme or reason for a sketch getting on, versus like if you are Tina Fey or say the head writer where you’re pretty much going to get your sketch on. You know what I mean? You might get two sketches on, but there are only eight sketches. Out of 45 sketches submitted.

So there’s sometimes no rhyme or reason. When Queen Latifah or Halle Berry is the host those percentages go up a little bit. You know what I’m saying? “Hey, we need more black talent because we have a black host.”

But other than that, sometimes you hit a home run by writing something that only took you 15 minutes at 6am in the morning and it makes the show, versus you have an idea for two weeks waiting for a particular host to come and then you spend four hours writing it and it tanks, so it’s not one particular person blocking you.

M&C: Do hosts have a say in the sketches going on?

Finesse: Yeah, but it has to be a seasoned host. You know how they have that club if you host five times? There are some people that come in and they know exactly what they want to do, you know what I mean?

Whereas some people are just so terrified because it’s live TV, they just are like, ‘Whatever the process is, guys, whatever you guys want to pick, we’re just going to have fun, you know?”

But my first love was stand-up. My first TV opportunity was BET’s Comic View. Coming from the University of Miami, I used to watch Def Jam. The best time of my life. And I put that before Saturday Night Live. How crazy is that?

It was a fun time to be in Miami, the nineties. [We had] 2 Live Crew, it was a special time, we went to the national championships in football, plus there was the diversity of the city versus when I was growing up in Atlanta, which was still black and white.

And just being popular on campus, it was just such a great time because there were so many things…we [fraternity] all should have gone to jail for so many things.

One of my fraternity brothers called me yesterday because we were talking about a Frat reunion coming up in November and I was like, ‘Do you know we should have a [criminal] record by now?’ He was like, ‘Oh man, don’t even, don’t bring that up.’ We did so many illegal things, and it was just like, ‘wow, was it because we were young?’  I would say yes.

It was in Miami where I saw Dave Chappelle do Def Comedy Jam and I said,  ‘I want to be a comedian.’ I was in school to try to either play football and make it to the NFL or be an engineer, because my family has a general contracting company in Atlanta, then I saw Dave Chappelle and I said, ‘You know what, I going to be a comedian! But how am I going to break this to my family?” I gradually eased into it and it just all worked out.

M&C: Tell me about your relationship with Ron White. You worked with him. How important is that to you, and performing for the troops?

Finesse: My next door neighbor who was born on the exact same day as me went into the army. With us being so close, and just hearing his experiences all my life — because we are still best friends—- every time I got a chance to do anything for the troops I would do it and just have him in spirit.

Nothing happened to him. He has all of his limbs, his life. But to always let him know, “Man, I appreciate you doing that because I can’t do it. I like marijuana too much, they gonna kick me out, but I appreciate you making that sacrifice.”

So he was over in Desert Storm and it just blew my mind. I was trying to go to college and play football and he was fighting for us, and he used to never let me forget that.

I met Ron White when we did a TV show on Showtime called Roadies, and my father is a huge Blue Collar Comedy Tour fan, so he loves all those guys.

When I told them I was working with Ron White, it blew his mind. And then Ron White told me that he does something for the troops every year in Vegas. He knew of me but didn’t know I was a comedian.

So when we were shooting Roadies, he booked the local comedy club in Vancouver and he invited the cast and it sold out.

He did it just because he was bored, he just wanted to do a show. So it was a great show, but then all the execs at Showtime were like, “Ron, you know, Finesse is a pretty brilliant standup.”

And he was like, “What? why don’t you go up there?” And so I got up on stage and just blew the place up. And he was like, “Holy Sh**, you got to come and do my Salute to the Troops. It’s going to be on CMT.”

He flew me around in his private jet. I started opening up for them in different places. And then we shot the special and I was just like, “Thank you, Ron!”

He was just like, “Man, I’m just blown away by your talent and everybody should know who you are like I do.”

Finesse Mitchell: The Spirit Told Me To Tell You, premieres Friday, October 19 at 10 PM ET/PT on Showtime.

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