Comedian Steve White on Relocating to Sarasota and How Humor Has Changed Since His Career Began
This article is part of the series Listening to Diverse Voices, proudly presented by Gulf Coast Community Foundation.
Steve White has worked with Spike Lee five times—on Do the Right Thing in 1989, Mo' Better Blues in 1990, Malcolm X in 1992, Clockers in 1995 and Get on the Bus in 1996—and, from 1992 to 1997, performed stand-up comedy on Russell Simmons' Def Comedy Jam on HBO. The 57-year-old Sarasota resident also earned a recurring role on the ABC comedy series Hangin' With Mr. Cooper, and other film appearances include his first: Coming to America, an opportunity that came about thanks to his hometown friend Eddie Murphy, who gave him his first break.
On TV, White was the first Black announcer on The Price Is Right with Drew Carey, guest-hosted Soul Train, appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show and performed stand-up on Comedy Central, Showtime at the Apollo, NBC's Late Friday, MTV's Half Hour Comedy Hour and The Arsenio Hall Show. He's also shown up, of course, at Sarasota’s own McCurdy’s Comedy Theatre. We caught up with the comedian to talk about how comedy has changed since he started, how to navigate political polarization on stage and what he likes about living here.
How did you get into comedy?
"I grew up in Roosevelt, Long Island, and was studying accounting at Nassau Community College. I wanted to be an accountant and go out with clients and make them laugh and get their business. My English teacher said I'd be good at stand-up comedy. Eileen Knight was her name.
"I performed at Richard M. Dixon’s White House Inn. [Editor's note: Eddie Murphy, Billy Crystal, Rosie O'Donnell and Jerry Seinfeld all performed at Long Island's White House Inn before hitting big]. I went on stage for 45 minutes and I caught the bug. To this day, I’ve never done my own taxes.
"Comedy led to acting. I was playing pool with Eddie Murphy at his house in New Jersey. The house was called 'Bubble Hill.' [In an interview with the New York Post, Murphy said he named the home after the Black expression 'bubble,' which is slang for 'party.'] I told him I missed out on a commercial gig because I didn't have a Screen Actors Guild card, and he said, 'No problem. I’ll put you in a movie.' He said to show up with John Landis and they put me on the subway in a scene in Coming to America and told me to figure out what to say.
"I said, 'So, what do you think?' to the lady sitting next to me on the subway after Akeem proposes to Lisa, and it got me my Screen Actors Guild card.
"When Spike [Lee] came to the premiere, I was full of piss and vinegar 'cause I had been in a movie. I said to Spike, 'Hey, I know you’re doing a film and I want to be in it.' He told me to audition for Do the Right Thing and I did a soliloquy and got the role of Ahmad in it. I think they were impressed I knew the word 'soliloquy.'
"After graduating with a bachelor's in accounting, I moved to Los Angeles in 1994 to get into comedy and acting full-time."
How would you describe your comedic style?
"That’s always a difficult thing for me to explain. I don't know what it’s called. Quick wit. I touch on current events, race relations and raising kids. Men and women relations. It’s a tad conspiratorial and sarcastic, but all wrapped in love."
How has comedy changed since when you started in 1986?
"It changes as the world changes. It's society's mirror throughout history, starting with court jesters. It's always a reflection of the times.
"I used to do jokes about how we eat bad food, but as people get more conscious about body image issues, the jokes get less of a response.
"I once did a joke about Lizzo and the crowd told me to leave her alone. Over time, people get more sensitive to certain topics. You wouldn't be able to show All in the Family on TV today. People are more compassionate surrounding certain subjects and you need to respond to that so the material on stage has to evolve."
Of all places to move to, why Sarasota?
"In 2018, I was flying 180,000 miles a year and most of that was to Florida to do cruise ship shows. My accountant said I’d get a sizable raise without having to deal with a state income tax, and I can fly back to L.A. and be with the kids. [White has young adult twins.] I moved to Sarasota in 2019. I do the ship, come home, go through my mail, do my laundry and do the ship gigs again.
"I knew Eric, who owns Visani Italian Steakhouse and Comedy Theater in Port Charlotte. He [told me his club was in Port Charlotte], but he said if I were to move here to check out Sarasota.
"I also overheard an older woman talking on a street corner in Hawaii and she had a New York accent, so I approached her to ask where she was from. She said she was born and raised here and remembered when there were no lights on Cattlemen Road. The word 'Sarasota' just kept repeating itself.
"Mark Caragiulo went to the same community college as I did. Back then, he said I was the first Black guy he ever saw do a wheelie on a Kawasaki. Now I know all of his friends here: Ron Genta, the people at Owen’s Fish Camp. They’ve been here since '89 and if I need advice on anything like where to get a colonoscopy or an interior designer, he knows. I have more friends here than in L.A."
What do you like about Sarasota?
"It’s safe. Stuff stays where I leave it. Not a lot of traffic. And the beach, which I love. L.A. got so expensive for no reason. I got divorced, so it was a good time to say, 'I’m done with it.' L.A. sets you up to chase the Joneses and go broke.
"When I’m driving toward the [Ringling] bridge, I can feel my body relax. I can at least live here and survive and not go broke and not work my ass off if I don't want to. Why should white people have the best beaches in the world and not me?
"I like cheap golf, too. The first thing when I get home from traveling is to spin around in my living room and yell at the top of my lungs to express gratitude."
You use "Steve White Ain't White" as a tagline. Can you deconstruct that?
"I do a joke that says I got pulled over by a cop, and after looking at my license, he says, ‘Is your name Ain't?’ I don't remember if it also happened in real life, but I'm sticking with it. Now it’s like my middle name."
How do you approach politics in your work?
"I’m not a super right-wing guy, but the magic of me is that crowds can't put their finger on me. I’ll do a Trump joke in a heartbeat. Then I’ll do one about Obama. Another about Colin Powell. I treat humans the same and it’s all wrapped in love. There’s a bunch of evil people out there that don't want certain groups on the planet. I'm not oblivious to that and I see them. People ask why I do comedy. I say it’s to survive.
"I know what I look like and I can defuse a tense situation easily. I can find common ground fast after I quietly assess a room or person. It can be with a cop, or in a race riot. I’m all about finding that common ground and just getting home safe. It’s something I teach my kids, too.
"I'm conservative when it comes to fiscal stuff, but I don't like to get deep into politics. I'm almost androgynous about it. For gigs, my Jewish friend invited me to their spot, and I get invited to do shows at gun ranges. I was the only Black guy at the gun range once and I asked if I was the target. They thought it was funny.
"On the ship, I say the Supreme Court should get its hands off women’s bodies. The punchline is: 'I know for a fact women have 100 percent of the vaginas and they should boycott until they get their rights back.' You’d think everyone would clap, but it's not necessarily the case."
Do you perform in Sarasota?
"Typically I do McCurdy’s once a year, but no one’s getting rich there. I do it more so my local friends can come out and hang out."
Do you do private events in the area?
"Yes. Retirement homes sometimes.
"I’ll probably buy a house in The Villages and rent to a white guy who hates Black people. I do a joke about the STDs there with a commercial: 'Are you 80? Do you have syphilis? Do you want to have unabashed sex?' [One of the largest retirement communities in Florida, The Villages was once coined the 'STD capital of America.'] About 150 people from The Villages heard that joke on a cruise ship I was working, so they invited me to do a show there."
See Steve White live at McCurdy’s Comedy Theatre, where he’s headlining from Wednesday, July 5, to Sunday, July 9. Learn more or book a show here, or email him at [email protected].