After 26 years in comedy, Dante has accumulated several impressive records. He was the first white comic on BET’s Comic View. He was a finalist on season five of Last Comic Standing. He even holds the honorable distinction of performing for the United States Military more times than any comedian other than Bob Hope.
But perhaps most impressively, the versatile veteran comic has managed to keep his brand alive for more than a quarter century in a business that lends a notoriously short shelf life to its practitioners.
Along the way, he’s been able to count himself among the few comedians who have established themselves as mainstays in the lucrative — and traditionally separate — niches of both African-American and gay comedy.
He’s had a lead role in a BET ensemble show, created one of the largest and longest-running comedy contests in Southern California and, somehow, cultivated a healthy and happy long-term romance with his touring feature act — all while juggling fatherhood.
America’s Comedy spoke with Dante from his hotel room in Denver, where he reflected about love, life as a comic and his own perseverance.
AC: You’ve crossed over as a comic into two niche categories. You’re wildly popular in the gay community as well as the black community — two audiences that have often been mutually exclusive. How did that happen?
Dante: I feel like any time you’re afraid of an audience, that’s the audience you need to play to. In the 80s there were gay one-nighters I would play and, you know, it was tough for a straight guy to play in gay clubs… I think you just have to understand every culture… I found that if you do material about the audience that you’re playing to and you don’t do it maliciously, you can get away with anything. I think sometimes even going in and making fun of that crowd, but not in a way that’s hateful or hurtful, they accept you immediately.
AC: You were on BET in your early years at a time when very few white comics had ever performed on that channel, right?
D: At the time, I was the first white guy ever on a show called Comic View on BET… By the end, there were probably 20 white guys who had done the show, but I did it for like a decade, I ended up winning the most BET comedy awards for Comic View and then I even got a sitcom, an ensemble cast sitcom, called The Blackberry Inn.
AC: Gay is very “hip” right now, but you were out in front of this issue long before it was chic or even politically acceptable.
D: Here’s the thing: people are people. I’ve never had — I only have problems with people who give me trouble. Two men loving each other doesn’t affect my life, good or bad. I think I’ve also, luckily, been able to do a lot more for the gay community since I got together with Rebekah (Kochan). My girlfriend is the star of about 10 gay comedy movies and is a gay icon. So she and I play a lot of gay venues together … Each year we’re asked to go to Gay Prom in West Hollywood and Gay Pride parades around the country.
AC: You and Rebekah just celebrated your five-year anniversary. Now, the old cliché for comics is always date a civilian, never date a comedian. You’re dating someone who not only is a comic, but a comic who you tour with and perform with on almost a nightly basis. How do you pull that off, working together, living together, traveling together?
D: First of all let me say this, I am one of those people who preached, never date a female comic, they’re all nuts. But what had happened was, I had gone through a divorce, and I felt like, I kind of woke up one day and realized that there were five main things I wanted from a relationship, and I felt like I always wanted those but you give up some, you settle, because someone has four out of five or three out of five and you think, “Well, I’ve already put a year into this and she’s three out of five” or “Maybe she’ll come around on the other two” and when I met Rebekah, she pursued me immediately, she and I fell in love instantly, and I told her what those five things were and she’s made a real effort to keep those up. Then, separate the romance part to the business side, I think it’s smart for us to go on the road together and make both incomes. It also builds the romance because at the same time we travel all over the world together as a couple so it’s like we’re constantly on vacation.
AC: You had a resurgence with Last Comic Standing. What did that do for your career?
D: When I got Last Comic Standing I’d done standup for 21, 22 years and I’d had plenty of fame and felt it, especially in the black community. But when you’re on NBC for four months in the summer and it’s a popular show that probably 10 million people are tuning into, it changes your level of fame… You get more power. When you call a comedy club and you say it’s Dante from Last Comic Standing, your phone call goes directly to the booker or the owner. They don’t say, “Send us your package,” they say, “What dates would you like.” It’s a life-changing thing.
AC: You’ve performed for the troops more times than any comic other than Bob Hope?
D: I started in San Diego and I grew up before that on a military base called China Lake out in the middle of the Mojave Desert … There’s a lot of military bases there and they always wanted comedy and, I mean, I was probably performing at military bases once a week when I lived in San Diego, and that was so rewarding and I never wanted to give it up, and I contacted the USO and other USO-style shows and luckily for 26 years I’ve performed for US troops all over the world. It’s been a real education… It’s probably been the most rewarding part of my stand-up career. There was a base that Rebekah and I had performed at before, but the last time we were there, we performed in front of 10,000 troops — all in full guard in 120-degree heat, carrying machine guns and standing in the desert — while she and I did stand up up on a flatbed truck. These men and women were all seeing the show right before they deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, like we were their big last hurrah show, and sadly, you look out into the crowd and go, some of these people aren’t going to come back the same or maybe not at all. It’s rewarding, man. I recommend it to every comic.
AC: Is comedy ever not rewarding?
D: The only tough part about me being a stand-up comic is I have a daughter, her name is Willow, and my ex has custody but I get to have her every other weekend. As a comic, you’re a bit of a slave to the comedy club’s schedule. If they only have one date available in October and it happens to fall on her weekend, but that’s my bread and butter, I have to take the job — and that kills me because she is my whole world. That’s my only complaint about stand-up comedy.
AC: How do you wrestle 25 years out of a business focused on immediate success?
D: For one hour a day I’m telling jokes, for the other hours a day I’m promoting myself and building up my fan base and booking gigs. No one who goes into show business wants to do all those things, but it’s called show business. It’s the business of show, and if you forget that then you’re going to be forgotten. It’s up to you to keep your fire alive.
AC: And to be funny.
D: I used to open for Richard Pryor, and I remember sitting in the office of The Comedy Store — and it was just me and him, I think Paul Mooney had just left — and I said, “Richard, can I try a joke on you?” And he says to me, “Have you done it?” And I said, “Yes.” And he says, “Do audiences audiences laugh?” And I said, “Yes.” And he said, “Then what the fuck are you asking me for?” And I said, “Because you’re the master.” And he said, “It doesn’t matter. Our only job is to make people laugh. It doesn’t matter what you do, as long as you make them laugh.”
For Dante’s videos, schedule, full bio and more, visit www.comicdante.com. The Funniest Comic in LA Competition, produced by Dante, is entering its 10th year, and accepts submissions from both headliners and novice comics.
About the Author: Andrew Lisa is a stand-up comedian and writer living in Los Angeles. Originally from the East Coast, he has performed at virtually every major club in and around New York City, and was one of the youngest syndicated columnists at the largest newspaper syndicate in the country. He's currently a finalist in the Funniest Comic in LA contest, as well as a regular at the Garrett Morris All-Star Show at the Downtown Comedy Club.