College football player, SNL alum, hit TV show: Finesse Mitchell at Funny Bone
Just stay out of the way and let the man work.
Work might be the most fitting word when talking about Mitchell. In addition to his role on Disney’s “A.N.T. Farm” and a spot on Shaquille O’Neal’s “All Star Comedy Jam,” he has written a column for Essence magazine, published a book – with another on the way – and tours as a standup headliner in his own right.
Actually, his success in the entertainment world pales in comparison to the first major stage he ever performed on – playing defensive back for the University of Miami Hurricanes.
He calls his time at “The U” – the nickname for the brash and cocky sports programs of Miami – the best times of his life, lining up with heavyweights like Ray Lewis, Warren Sapp and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.
“I was in awe growing up as a kid and watching them play,” Mitchell said. “I just liked the whole mystique about the school. Plus, ‘Miami Vice’ was the number one TV show at the time. I just thought Miami was the best city ever, because you could go down there and play football and be Ricardo Tubbs.”
The seemingly disparate worlds of major college sports and standup comedy have some similarities, according to Mitchell. In both, the better you perform, the bigger the stage you are given. Just as athletes must constantly prove and improve themselves, so, too, does the entertainer. It becomes a constant process of self-reinvention.
Mitchell’s first forays into the comedy world were decidedly small potatoes. He was managing an R&B act after college when he first grabbed the mic.
“I would go out in between their little sets and keep the crowd busy or entertained and that’s when I realized that maybe I should try comedy, because I’ve always wanted to be a performer,” Michell said.
The life of a standup comic can be painful. Hustling for jobs can become just as much work as writing the jokes. Mitchell began honing his skills anywhere that offered a stage and an audience – open mics, showcases, hosting at small clubs and eventually worked his way up to a feature performer. He spent many nights on friends’ couches, stripping his life to the bare minimum to chase his dream.
“It ain’t no easy life,” Mitchell said. “I really believe when you find your passion or your calling, sometimes things just fall in line for you.”
Still, it took a bit of luck and eavesdropping on Dane Cook and Jay Mohr to land the break that every comic in America dreams of.
“They was just out in front of the Laugh Factory talking,” Mitchell said. “The shit was closed, they was just still hanging out.”
The topic of the conversation – Tracy Morgan was about to leave “SNL.” Understand, it was never really Mitchell’s dream to be on the show, but any comic in their right mind wants that audition. Mohr and Cook knew Morgan’s exit meant only one thing.
“They said ‘they’re looking for the new black guy,’” Mitchell said. “I was like ‘I’m black.’”
Even his agent was skeptical, given Mitchell’s lack of experience in sketch comedy. Still, a tape was sent out and executive producer Lorne Michaels liked it enough to call him to New York and the fabled Studio 8H in Rockefeller Center.
“He invited me to audition with 60 other black guys from all over the country and they just kept narrowing it down,” Mitchell said. “It was all about me just hearing and giving myself a shot.”
Making the cut in auditions turned out to be just half the battle, however. He said his time at “SNL” was one of the greatest of his life, but it was not without frustration. The constant competition and politics of which sketches made the cut each week didn’t always make sense. The writers didn’t seem willing or able to find a place for Mitchell’s talent. Still, it became a valuable learning experience.
Now, Mitchell seems to have hit a stride in the last few years. “A.N.T. Farm” expanded his audience to the tween crowd and he said he is recognized more for it than his time on “SNL.” For a comic though, there is only one place to truly live and breathe creatively.
“That standup muscle, if that’s what you really do, you want to always do it,” Mitchell said. “I think it’s one of the best jobs in the world – all you’ve got to do is show up and make people happy and they’re going to give you a check for that. Come on man, that’s a great job.”
Finesse Mitchell will perform at Dayton Funny Bone from March 21-24. Tickets are $15 for Thursday and Sunday and $17 for Friday and Saturday. Dinner packages are also available. For more information visit daytonfunnybone.com or call 937.429.5233. Follow Finesse Mitchell on Twitter @finessemitchell.