The New York City comedy scene is full of brilliant, compelling performers who are widely respected by their peers, yet never become household names like Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock, or Amy Schumer. Certainly, Keith Robinson can be counted amongst them—and he knows it. His Twitter bio says, “I’ve done a lot of things! Trust me.”
Those things include, but are not limited to, being a finalist on Star Search, writing on Chappelle’s Show, starring in his own Comedy Central special. You may or may not recognize him from various movies and TV shows. Most recently, he turned up in the Season Three premiere of HBO’s Crashing where he introduced protagonist Pete Holmes to the Comedy Cellar stage—a job Robinson fills regularly at the storied club.
Laughspin decided to check in with Robinson about his recovery process and how his health forced him to write without all the ‘extras’ and just tell good jokes.
Congrats on the appearance on Crashing. How was that able to come together?
I know Judd Apatow from Trainwreck, where I did a scene. I’ve done every season of Crashing, but you’re always happy to do something. It was good to be on it.
Based on your appearance on the show, you seem to be doing better physically, am I right?
Yes, the progression is really good, getting back in shape. When I first came out of the hospital, they had a scene for me in the Robert DeNiro movie at the Comedy Cellar, but I couldn’t do it because I wasn’t ready. After I had the stroke, it was like a whole different world. I was thinking, “Uh-oh,” because comedy is your thought process. Would that interfere with it? Can I still do it? What’s gonna happen?
I had the stroke all during the day, February 3, 2016. When I got up in the morning, I was dizzy and I was leaning towards one side. I shook it off, took two Bufferin. Then I had to drive to Philly to get my passport renewed and see my son’s show. When I’m getting my passport, my vision got blurry and my leg started to go down, but I went to see my son, and I’m limping up the steps to the venue. My cousin said, “I think you may be having a stroke.” I said, “Ah, shut your fuckin’ mouth.”
Then, I get back in the car, take two more Bufferins. I get home in Woodbridge, New Jersey. I take a nap, feelin’ fine. Then I take a drive to the Comedy Cellar to do the club’s podcast with Noam [Dworman] before my spot. Right after I finished the show, my energy just dropped, and I’m like, “Oh, man, what is goin’ on?”
Hannibal Buress was there and I gave him my spot. I didn’t tell anybody what was going on, because most men are goofy. When there’s something wrong with them, we don’t go, “Help! Please help!”
I tried to order some chicken, trying to get some protein. I’m diagnosing myself, like a dumbass. Then, I limped to my car and drove back home. My girlfriend, at the time, drove me to Mount Sinai hospital, back in New York. I got there about midnight and everyone at the hospital was really panicking. I’m like, “Why is everybody panicking?” I didn’t realize the severity of the stroke. I woke up the next morning and my right side was down.
Did they give you any reasons as to why the stroke might have happened?
The reason why was my high blood pressure. It was a hypertension stroke.
What was the initial recovery like?
When you’re in the hospital, to me, it’s almost the same as being incarcerated. After having a stroke, no one cares about the severity of it. They just treat you like you had a stroke. They say, “You can’t do this, you can’t do that. Don’t get out of bed.” But I’m like, “I can get out of the bed!” They have cameras on you. They had nurses, like security, making sure you don’t do nothing wrong. They’d say, “Let us know that you’re going to the bathroom.” I’m saying, “I’m a grown man; I’m not letting y’all know, get outta here!”
You make a lady wash you, and all this, and it’s just like, oh, my God, I can’t take this. I should have took my blood pressure medication!
How debilitating was the stroke?
One side of my body ceased to operate fully. You can see, the face gets crooked. It takes time for the muscles to regenerate, so I was in a wheelchair for a month. But I’m hardheaded; I kept getting up to see what I can do.
Did you have to do speech therapy and physical therapy?
Speech therapy ended pretty early. But all your therapists want to see where your mind is and test your short-term and long-term memory. One woman tried to play games with me to see if I could think right, so I said, “Let’s play some chess.” She said, “Oh, you like to play chess?” I said, “Yeah, let’s play some chess so we can see where this mind thing is,” and I beat her in like five moves. So I said, “How’s that for you?”
So she wasn’t so condescending after that?
Right! I whooped her. I was smiling, and she didn’t like that.
When were you able to get back up on stage?
I got out of the hospital March 3. Then, I start going to outpatient therapy. I was in that for about a week and I said to one of the therapists, “I want to get back to comedy around June.” She said, “Good luck with that,” which pissed me off. So in the next couple weeks, I’m back on stage again. I’m like, “Fuck this, ‘Good luck with that!'” Are you kiddin’?
Where did you return? Was it the Cellar?
No, the first time was at the Stress Factory.
That’s kind of ironic.
Yeah, yeah! The Stress Factory is not too far from me, so I’d go to open mics and work stuff out.
You really didn’t hesitate much to start working on that material about your stroke then, huh? You just get up on stage and you have to address your condition, right?
Right. I just kept on doin’ it. A lot of people would see me with a crutch and I’d say something about how I was at a Trump rally, to start off. It would get a laugh, but then I’d say that it was a stroke. I did the mics for about a month. Then I’m back on the road with Wanda Sykes for three months.
Within three months of the stroke, you’re back on the road playing theaters?
So, if I may, your stroke material was already good enough?
It was good enough and I had other material I was working on, too. I started to get stuff to be good enough to where I could deal with it.
And people were responding, huh?
Wow. What was that like, especially when it’s going well, in front of a crowd at a theater?
It was great because just getting back meant the world. In my mindset, I had to fight through thinking that comedy isn’t perfect. So, it may not be perfect, but I’m back.
How grateful are you to Wanda for bringing you out?
Well, me and Wanda we’re like best friends. I’ve known Wanda since like ’87. Wanda opened up for me around then. So us being friends, it just helped out. Wanda came through to the hospital. The hospital staff saw Amy Schumer come through. They saw Kevin Hart come through, and they’re like, “Who’s this guy?” They started treating me like gold! “This guy is somethin’ special!”
You just named these huge names in comedy as friends, but you haven’t ever broken into the mainstream quite like they have. Are you content with your place in comedy?
No, you’re never supposed to be content, hell no! You just keep working. No matter what, you keep working. And you can’t think about where somebody else is and where you’re not. I’m where I am at. I don’t even think about it. I’m still working; I’m still growing. When I cease to be funny, that’s when it’s over.
Going back to the health front, are your muscles regenerating?
They’re not regenerated fully, but I don’t worry about that. I’m a man! They call it toxic masculinity.’ But I just work through it. Whatever it is I’m just working through it. I feel as good as I’ve ever felt.
There wasn’t any kind of thought like, “I’m done?”
No. You know what it is? I’m delusional. And that helps. I always thought I was doing great.
And the stroke just gave you new things to explore, right, new ways to be funny?
Absolutely. It made me stay in the pocket more [to use a football analogy]. In the pocket you have to think more. I wasn’t a scrambling guy no more. Now I just go, “Look, you gotta like me for what I’m saying, and that’s it.” There ain’t too much moving, ain’t too much facial stuff, it’s just me and you. So here we go. Deal with it.
What do you see happening for yourself in 2019? Anything big planned?
I don’t look at things, like big and small. Comedy’s come under major change from when I first started.
Things are social media driven, more than anything now. Being on TV back in ’90, was like, I’m on TV! Now, it’s like, all right, whatever. I’ve had my special aired on Comedy Central, on Hulu, on Netflix, on Amazon, now it’s on Starz, and more people know me from Amy Schumer’s podcast, 3 Girls, 1 Keith. But I’m having one hell of a year.
You haven’t done a special since the stroke though.
That’s my next thing.
Any idea when that might come together?
Little Dummy, Kev[in Hart], I’m gonna make him put the money up for it. Usually, I can bully Kev. I don’t know. I can’t bully him as much now. I love Kev like a brother. I pick on him a lot. He probably shouldn’t speak to me anymore, to be honest with you.
Well, when I get this printed, maybe he won’t.
So what? Who cares? Little Dummy, he loves me. I love him. He’s a pain in my neck. I’m a pain in his neck. Wanda was my roommate, but when Wanda moved out, Patrice O’Neal moved in. When he did Elephant in the Room, he asked me, “Keith, what are they saying in the barbershops?” I said, “They ain’t sayin’ shit!” But, for real, they were talking about it. He knew he hit a home run with that one.
With this next thing, I know it’s a good one. I know there’s a good one brewing. I can feel it in my bones. This one is going to be: whoah!
Last thing: The Cellar lost one of its longtime hosts William Stephenson recently. What are your thoughts on his passing and what he meant to the club, to the community?
William had been at the game for a long time. He was an institution of his own. He was the best MC in New York. Everybody knew William was there. That’s why he’s going to be missed. He was a dependable guy. He was Iron Man. So you’re going to miss his presence, and it was a very strong presence.