“I want to give a special shout out to my O.G., Tony Woods,” Dave Chappelle said upon accepting the Mark Twain Prize at the Kennedy Center in 2019. “You were the first person I ever saw do it absolutely right. You were fearless and you told the truth.”
Indeed, Woods has dominated the local standup scene for decades, a streak he looks to continue this Saturday night at The Birchmere in Alexandria, Virginia.
It’s his first show back since the coronavirus pandemic shut down comedy clubs.
“Except for doing like friends’ backyards,” Woods told WTOP. “It starts out as karaoke, then it’s always like, ‘Hey, Tony, you should tell some jokes.’ But just for like friends and family, which is not the show that you do at a club … with no 2 year olds.”
Typically, his routines aren’t overtly political, but this year is different.
“I’m not like a Jon Stewart or Trevor Noah,” Woods said. “If it comes up, it comes up. … I focus more on funny and relative, but right now, what’s relative is important. There’s no escaping it. … It’ll be more on the social climate than the political climate, which seem to be combining themselves these days. 2020: even vision in both eyes.”
Born in New York and raised in North Carolina, Woods moved to D.C. when he was 10 years old and spent his teenage years in Aspen Hill aka Silver Spring, Maryland.
“I’ve always been a big fan of WTOP,” Woods said. “My first car was what was Audi 100 LS and it only had AM radio. … WTOP is on FM now, but [the transmitter] was on Georgia Avenue. When you cross over the line into Silver Spring on Georgia Avenue, then you go under the bridge and, boom, WTOP was right there.”
While WTOP fed him the news, local comedy clubs sparked his interest in comedy.
“The comedy club was right there on Connecticut Avenue and Calvert Street,” Woods said. “I used to think, ‘What do they talk about in there?’ Because they had pictures of like George Carlin and Richard Pryor and stuff like that, but in my mind, I thought I can go in and see them guys, but nah, comedy clubs just put up the famous comedians.”
Still, his real comedy idols were his uncles.
“I had two uncles named uncle Jimmy, one of my mom’s side, one of my dad’s side,” Woods said. “I just figured everybody named Jimmy must be super hilariously funny.”
All joking aside, he listened to comedy albums by all the greats.
“[I admired] Jonathan Winters,” Woods said. “When I was 11 or 12 was when I found out that stand-up comedy was an art form. … The albums that we had were Bob Newhart, Flip Wilson, Redd Foxx, Richard Pryor and Bill Cosby. … Every blue moon somebody will say, ‘Anybody ever tell you that you remind them of Bob Newhart?'”
At age 23, he debuted at the Comedy Cafe on K Street between 15th and 16th.
“That’s where we all met,” Woods said. “Wanda Sykes started there, Tommy Davidson … Martin Lawrence started there, Dave [Chappelle] started there, Lewis Black used to do comedy there, Patton Oswalt, all of the D.C. comics. Everybody had a desire.”
He left to serve in the military from 1989-1991 during Desert Storm.
“I’d done active duty before that, so when I got out, I was just in the ready reserves and I was like, ‘Wow, this is easy money,’ until they said, ‘Guess what, dawg? It’s time to pay the piper, fool,'” Woods said. “So I was in Camp Pendleton out in California … Cherry Point … Bahrain, the ‘Paris of the Middle East,’ they say. … It shapes you.”
When he returned, all of his old D.C. comedy friends had moved on.
“I got back and seems like everybody just zoomed out on me,” Woods said. “Warren Hutcherson and Dave moved to New York and things were just popping for guys. I took the road less traveled. I started doing international stuff. … I did the Edinburgh Festival … a whole bunch of stuff in the United Kingdom, Australia, Germany, all over Canada.”
While he enjoyed his travels, he wonders if he should have stayed stateside.
“I probably should have just headed straight to Los Angeles,” Woods said. “I got to see the world, but just imagine you get a hit TV show and become an action hero like I wanted to be, then I could have just went there on vacation. Then again, I wouldn’t have been able to experience it as a regular guy. … It’s a double-edged sword.”
Imagine the posters — Tony Woods cracking skulls while cracking up comedy clubs.
“I still could be an action hero, baby,” Woods said. “I’m ready.”