Blake Griffin's comedy dreams did not stop when he left Los Angeles. Sure, his new city can't stack up to Los Angeles' comedy scene—or the scenes of New York or Chicago. There isn't a Comedy Store or Carolines or Comedy Cellar opening on Woodward Avenue in Detroit anytime soon. But Griffin still wants to make people laugh.
"It's something down the road, a second career when I'm done playing basketball," Griffin said. "My whole idea is to start now, to get in and meet a bunch of people, shadow people and learn the ins and outs so when I'm done playing, I'm not starting fresh."
While it would be easy to write off an athlete's pursuit of a career in entertainment—who could forget Shaq in Kazaam, or Kobe's unreleased album K.O.B.E or just about any athlete cameo on a sitcom dating back to the rise of the T-Rex?—Blake Griffin isn't just another athlete trying to entertain. He is juggling three projects optioned by studios, including a remake of White Men Can't Jump from Black-ish creator Kenya Barris, a reboot of Disney's 1991 film The Rocketeer with a black female lead and a sci-fi comedy with Paramount, whose plot details are under wraps. On television, Griffin executive produces Okies of Bel Air, an animated comedy for Fox. And, as TMZ announced Tuesday, Griffin is preparing to face off against master roaster Jeff Ross on Comedy Central's Roast Battle this Saturday.
One thing is clear: Griffin is already making things happen.
Griffin gravitated toward comedy naturally as a kid. Growing up in Oklahoma, he'd sit in the living room with his dad, Tommy, watching Saturday Night Live and I Love Lucy. Griffin gravitated toward stand-up legends like Eddie Murphy and Richard Pryor. When he was older, he would often tune the car's Sirius radio to the comedy stations and absorb whatever played over the speakers.
When he made the move to L.A. in 2009 after being drafted No. 1 overall by the Clippers, Griffin began to hit the comedy club circuit, and it was there that his interest in the field blossomed. In 2011, during the NBA lockout, a staff member of the website Funny or Die approached Griffin with an idea: Since he didn't have a job, FOD would give him one. The three-day "internship" consisted of Griffin filming several sketches and writing scripts.
Up until that point, the combination of athlete and the performing arts typically resulted in something straight-up bad. (Think Michael Jordan in Space Jam.) But with Griffin, something was different. Betsy Koch, an Emmy-nominated producer formerly of Funny or Die who now works at Gary Sanchez Productions, wasn't sure what to expect when the camera turned on. "You don't know what athletes or musicians know about comedy and performing," she said.
On the final day of the internship, the group brought Griffin to Will Ferrell's house to shoot a video—pairing comedy legend and basketball superstar. "That last day, Blake was improv-ing with Will Ferrell, and it was clear from beat one on the sketches he could straight-up riff with Will and totally hold his own," Koch recalled. "Blake Griffin is the Will Ferrell or Daniel Day-Lewis of the NBA."
Over time, Griffin befriended other members of the comedy community, including Neal Brennan, the co-creator of Chappelle's Show, whom he met while filming a skit at the 2014 ESPYs. The two hit it off, and before long, they were trading stand-up clips. Brennan sent Griffin pilot scripts, videos and ideas and lent him advice on his craft. "If you think of something, write it down. Keep it for later," Brennan remembered telling Griffin. "You don't have to say it or tweet it."
Under Brennan's tutelage, Griffin began to feel that joke-telling might be a second calling. It was a risky endeavor—the stage, the microphone, the spotlight. But Griffin found it intriguing. So one night, at the Laugh Factory, he decided to read a fake slam poem off a notepad. A video of the reading went viral on YouTube. A few days later, Griffin received an invitation to host the Just for Laughs festival in Montreal. He approached Brennan for some help, and they refined his 10-minute set.
"They asked me if I would be interested in hosting this show. I stupidly said yes, not really knowing what I was getting myself into. Five minutes at the top? That will be fine," Griffin said. "As it got closer and closer, I panicked, and I threw out some jokes, and I started rewriting jokes. Neal started helping me out a lot, giving me stuff here and there."
On the first night of Griffin's comedy debut, five-night stint in Montreal in July 2016, his performance didn't quite go according to plan. "One-thousand percent, it was the most nervous I've ever been," Griffin said. He got his jokes off, but he was a bit rough in his delivery. "It was weird. ... I had this sense of I really felt like I had put myself in an uncomfortable situation."
Afterward, Griffin called Brennan to talk about the adrenaline rush that he felt while holding a microphone. He also thanked him for his help in crafting his material.
"It was funny hearing it cuz it was like a kid going through puberty explaining sex going, 'And then I had an orgasm, and it was like an explosion of feelings,'" Brennan said. "It was funny hearing [Griffin] explain stand-up, but it's fun. He truly knows so many stand-up comedians' acts, understands [their] sensibilities. He has a sharper sense of humor than some comedians."
Griffin had also enlisted the help of his brother, Taylor, who recorded the performance so Griffin could review later. "I would go back and rewatch it, like watching game tape," Griffin said. But Griffin's brother wasn't the only one recording—a member of the audience captured a bit of the performance with a camera phone and posted it online. It quickly went viral. Many NBA fans expressed their surprise at the basketball star's confidence and delivery onstage—traits not typical of most comedy beginners. But Blake, like many stand-up comics, was more worried about his material being spoiled. "I was bummed that was the one that got released," he said. "But whatever."
Griffin's next stage appearance came last December, when he hosted his first stand-up comedy show called "Comedy by Blake," a joint venture between his charity, the Team Griffin Foundation, and Red Bull. Some of comedy's biggest stars—John Mulaney, Norm Macdonald, Whitney Cummings, Phoebe Robinson and Jim Jefferies—were on the bill. But as funny as the veterans were, the audience was there for a reason: to see Griffin. They eagerly awaited for the then-L.A. Clippers star to take the stage and host the evening.
When Griffin came out, the crowd erupted in rapturous applause. "I have to get one thing off my chest," he said. "I can see all of you out there, with your judging little eyes, thinking this guy is not a comedian, that I'm just a dumb, stupid-ass athlete. I know all of you think that."
Griffin strolled about the stage, posture straight, with a confident strut, and made consistent eye contact with members of the audience. His barbs tickled the throats of the star-studded crowd, which included teammates DeAndre Jordan, Sam Dekker and Hollywood paparazzi fodder Kendall Jenner. They all sat on the edge of their seats as Griffin rifled through one joke after another.
"You see athletes interviewed on TV. I bet it has something to do with that. You might think it's because we're stupid, but we're not," Griffin said. "Actually football players are pretty f--king stupid. There's not football players here, right? I would love to see someone who is smart by the world's standard be interviewed 30 seconds after they just got done exercising for two straight hours. It's not that we can't speak. We just can't get enough oxygen to our brains to form a complete thought. I'll prove it to you. Can I get a volunteer somewhere?"
Griffin looked out into the sea of faces and selected a random middle-aged man to join him onstage. When the man sauntered up nervously, Griffin ordered him to exercise: 10 pushups, 10 jumping jacks, 10 high knees. As the man performed the physical activity, Griffin critiqued him from the side, as if mimicking a color commentator. "It's crazy how the simplest of exercises he can make so difficult," he said to louds laughs. Jordan borderline fell out of his seat in a first-row couch.
When the man finished his reps, Griffin approached him with a microphone, doing his best Doris Burke impression. "All right, get over here," he said, waving to the man to gather near. "I want you to tell me how you feel and also how you feel."
"I feel great," the man responded.
Griffin then turned to the crowd, as if breaking the fourth wall.
"Look how stupid that sounds," he said. "See what I mean?" He then pivoted back to the man: "One more question and then we're done talking here," he said. "Tell me who you're having sex with these days."
The man froze.
"See, we're really not stupid," Griffin said pointing at the man, who couldn't help but laugh at himself. "We're just put in these uncomfortable situations."
So much of stand-up is about demeanor and confidence on stage, and most people who start out have little of each. Audiences can see right through the people who don't know who they are yet, who can't carry themselves in front of an audience. Brennan's theory is that Griffin has been such a quick learner because his day job consists of playing in front of large audiences on a daily basis.
"That's where that athletic confidence comes in handy, and again, he's one of those guys, he's hard to hate," Brennan said. "Kevin Hart should be loathsome, but he's not. Kevin Hart is...his Instagram account is nauseating, but I still think he's hilarious. You know what I mean? Blake shouldn't be like a guy who makes $25 million a year or whatever. 'Coming into my turf' and all that s--t should be cause for fury, but I don't hold it against him, because he genuinely is funny."
Griffin gets asked a lot how much confidence comes from his experience in front of large crowds on the court, and he said that performing in front of a large group of strangers does, in fact, come as second nature. He's played basketball his entire life. But he wasn't certain the two experiences were comparable. "I'm not so sure, man," he said. Being on stage—when the spotlight is focused squarely on him and the crowd is silent until he speaks—is different from performing on the hardwood floor.
"When you're on the court, you always have four other teammates who are there to help you," Griffin said. "It's not like all eyes are on you at all times. It's just kind of a weird feeling of being up there. And then you have to speak. In a way, being in front of people doesn't necessarily bother me, but speaking in front of people does."
Despite having been traded in January, Griffin returns to Los Angeles from time to time, and when he does, he makes sure to stop by the comedy clubs. He hasn't completely put his entertainment aspirations on hold; he's working on a number of ventures, like acting and talent development. (He co-owns a production company, Mortal Media, with Carolina Panthers center Ryan Kalil.)
"To me he feels like he's really good at development," said Koch, who's developing projects with Griffin. "He's great at identifying super-talented people, and that comes along with him having very good taste."
He still hasn't been to a comedy show in Detroit, but Griffin still studies, still works on his craft. He pays attention to the comedians of the moment—he counts Brennan, Cummings, Mulaney, Jefferies, Jerrod Carmichael and Bill Burr among his current faves—and has found alternative ways to test his material when he's not onstage. He's gone back to tweeting out random quips. Other times, he adheres to Brennan's wisdom, saving his ideas for another day, writing them in a notepad.
"I'll come back to it later if I think of something else to add to it," Griffin said. "Now, I have a decent collection."
That doesn't mean he's getting ahead of himself, however. "Some of them are not good," he said, adding, "Or are not there yet."
Correction: A previous version of this article stated that no comedy clubs were on Woodward Avenue.