Newport News, Va. — Something interesting happened this morning, says Felonious Munk. Don Imus mentioned him on television. Munk’s father heard about it, and he said to his son, “You’re famous.” The son denied it — but it’s true, or getting true. Felonious Munk is a comedian. He is bold, profane, wide-ranging, quirky, and outrageous. For many, he is irresistible.
One of his YouTube videos has gone viral. This is the one that caught Imus’s attention (along with that of about 3 million others). In the video, Munk delivers himself of a volcanic rant. He admonishes the federal government to pay its bills. He does this in a hard street argot. I’ll give a heavily Bowdlerized version (as well as a heavily condensed one):
Pay your bills! Why can’t you balance your checkbook? Every American has to do that every week. You’re supposed to be “the best and the brightest”: Harvard, Yale, and so on. Should have gone to Norfolk State. You’d have saved yourselves a lot of money.
I’m not blaming Democrats or Republicans. I’m blaming everybody. How can I tell my daughter with a straight face that capitalism is a better system than Communism when we’re borrowing all our money from China?
Don’t go on television, don’t do any more press conferences, until you’ve balanced my budget. And, Obama, this is for you: We black Americans were proud when you were elected. But, for heaven’s sake, pay your bills!
I have not done anything like justice to Munk’s rant. For one thing, I have made it unfunny. In any case, the video comes in a series of Munk videos called Stop It B. (Like the people who bring us Good Morning America, Munk eschews a comma.) “B” is short for “b-boy” or “b-girl,” which comes out of hip-hop, and refers to someone who does break dancing. “Stop it, b” is Munk’s tagline, as well as his title.
I’ve come to the Hampton Roads area in Virginia — Newport News, in particular — to see Munk. We sit at an outdoor table at Starbucks. Nearby is an auto dealership, where he used to work. He was the finance director. He has now taken the plunge into comedy, full-time. “The way my mother puts it is, I’ve run off and joined the circus.”
He grew up here, and in New Jersey. The Munk I encounter is personable, kind — you could even say sweet — and a torrent of words. Oh, what a talker. He loves words and language, high and low. He’s the type to play with homophones — “profits” and “prophets” — and to relish the fact that “cleave” has two opposite meanings. Also, he’s a first-rate mimic.
In his trademark get-up — backward baseball cap, long T-shirt, and jeans — he looks like he’s in his mid-twenties. But he’s actually one year shy of forty, which people have trouble believing. He’s used to whipping out his driver’s license. You could mistake him for a cool cat (as they said eons ago). But he denies that he’s cool. He is early to bed, early to rise. “The only time I’m in a club is when I’m working.”
He was born with the name Dennis Banks, but chose the name Felonious Munk, in tribute, of course, to the jazz pianist Thelonious Monk (1917–82). Why the different spelling of the last name? Someone else had taken “Felonious Monk” on Twitter. The comedian is “Munk” (not “Felonious”) to pretty much everybody. “Even my mother calls me ‘Munk,’” he says. “I don’t know how I feel about that.”
His grandmother was the head of a high-school English department in Norfolk, and his mother, too, is a stickler for proper English. So is Munk. But he can slip into the street argot, or other modes, when he wants to. “They say that people who use foul language have a limited vocabulary.” Problem is, “it’s not true.” (William F. Buckley Jr. made the same point.)
When Munk was little, he sneaked his mother’s Richard Pryor albums. Pryor, says Munk, was the first to use “the white voice” — an imitation of white people. Munk uses this voice too, and in unusual ways. He’ll put on the voice when quoting his black critics. In my observation, he uses the voice to signal anything that is uptight or contrary.
He reads everything, listens to all kinds of music, watches all kinds of television. He is encyclopedic on the popular culture. A philosophizing comedian, he comes out of the Lenny Bruce school, as he says. He also cites George Carlin as a forerunner. But he is not so in love with commentary that he forgets to be funny.