The hilarious, serious Felonious Munk
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.
In his Stop It B videos, he says all the things he has always said — including at the auto dealership. The words aren’t an act. “The only acting,” says Munk, “is the anger” — the huge indignation that he works up. And he does everything extemp: no script, no ’prompter.
On the subject of men and women — the relations between the sexes — he is hilarious and scalding. I’ll do some more Bowdlerizing:
Fellas, you’re always saying that women are worthless. But you’re going to be in the club this weekend chasing those “worthless” women. How hypocritical can you be?
Ladies, you’re acting like men. You’re acting like men because you’re thinking like men. You can’t think like a man and act like a lady. Your actions come from your thoughts. Quit submitting to every Tom, Dick, and Harry. When you’re sleeping around for fun, you’re getting pregnant for real.
Mothers and fathers, raise your kids! You’re going to the club, but how about a PTA meeting? Plus, we’re having more baby showers than we are weddings. You think marriage isn’t important? You’re crazy.
One of Munk’s constant refrains — here I’m quoting, not Bowdlerizing — is “Change your life.” “Become the person you know you should be.” “You can’t do anything about what you’ve done, but you can do something about what you’re going to do.” “Get your life together.” “Recalibrate your system.” “Stop it, b” — cut the nonsense.
Munk is keen to point out that he’s not talking down to anybody. His material comes out of his own experience, not just past, but present too. We all have things to work on.
When it comes to race, he is blissfully frank, as he is on all other questions. He talks about white guilt. He talks about stereotypes, even reveling in them. “Yeah, I love fried chicken and hot sauce. Why should I shy away from that?” I say I don’t think of hot sauce as “black.” He says, “Yes, it is. And you guys put mayonnaise on everything.”
What he seems to love most, other than his daughter, is politics. Total political junkie. I want to talk about comedy. He’s more interested in talking about politics. He reads both the liberal press and the conservative press, and laments that many others won’t do the same. People should get out of their “comfort zones,” he says. They should do more than reinforce their own prejudices.
White people will meet him and assume he’s a down-the-line Democrat. “I understand that,” he says. “That’s what they’ve been fed.” People who look like Munk are supposed to be Democrats, if they care about politics at all. And “in the urban community, we’ve been fed that Republicans don’t care about us. Most of us don’t know that more Republicans voted for the Civil Rights Act than Democrats did, in percentage terms.”
In his politics, Munk is a mixture of views, it seems to me. (So are most people.) Above all, he is an individual. In one of his videos, he says, “Before I’m black, I’m a man.” And he says to me, “I refuse to be grouped. And because I refuse to be grouped, I try my best not to group others.” He may play around about hot sauce and mayonnaise — but he takes people individually. And he wants to appeal to all audiences, in his comedy. He’s pleased to have fans in Malaysia and other corners of the earth. (The Internet is globe-circling.)
I say to him, “You hate whining, don’t you? That’s a theme of your videos: No whining, no excuse-making — stop it, b.” Sighing, Munk says that whining “is the bane of my existence.” Then, smiling warmly, he says, “I’m always complaining about others’ complaining.” His mother, too, hates whining. “The only way I can tell something’s not right is that she won’t answer the phone, or won’t call me for a couple of days.”
He is intensely patriotic, Munk, to the point of supporting the president no matter who he is. “It’s my sincerest wish that our president be successful. If he’s not successful, it kind of trickles down and affects my life.” He holds to the view that the people must run the government, not the other way around. There’s a reason politicians and others in government are called “public servants” and “civil servants.”
Naturally, conservatives like a lot of what he says. And liberals have said to him, in so many words, “Aren’t you embarrassed by that?” His answer is no. He’ll take his support where he can get it. In the course of our conversation, he says the following about the two parties: “I think the conservatives can be a little insensitive socially, and the liberals can be a little irresponsible fiscally. The idea that one party has my best interests at heart, and the other is out to get me — I’m sorry, I don’t subscribe to that.”
A man drives by the Starbucks, spots Munk, and yells out, “Stop it, b!” Munk loves it. In fact, he is having a ball, in this burgeoning comedic career. At night, a few hours after our talk, he takes the stage at a local hotel. He is the last of a string of comedians to appear. There is one white person in the audience. I serve as foil.
“Cover your ears!” he calls out to me. “I’m about to say something about black people. This is just in the family, you know.” But Munk will say anything to anybody. You can see it all on YouTube. It’s fantastically profane, and now and then wrongheaded, I think. But it is something remarkable under the sun.