Jay Phillips is calling in from his native D.C., where his parents still live and the oldest of his three sons attends Duke Ellington High School. He’s explaining how a shy kid from the neighborhood ended up on WXYZ’s morning show in Baltimore doing bits, kicking off the local comedy scene with Mo’Nique and developing a howlingly funny standup act.
If it works in D.C. and Baltimore, he says, “you can take it around the country and be fine around the world. I wrote jokes in different cities and took them to Baltimore, and they weren’t worth a damn. So I took them out of my set.”
Mo’Nique’s brother, Steve Imes, convinced Phillips to quit his day job and do standup full time. “He told me, ‘Until you depend on comedy to eat, it won’t matter.’ ”
These days, Phillips is eating very well indeed. An explosive performance on HBO’s “Russell Simmons’ Def Comedy Jam” ignited the comic’s career, and he kept the heat on in the latenight TV circuit.
Phillips’ humor is experiential with a societal twist, much like that of his hero, Richard Pryor.
“I like to disguise my stories the way Richard did,” he says. “If you listen to his bits, there’s always something positive in there, something social about the way people were being treated.”
Standup acclaim has led to acting gigs — recent features have included “Semi-Pro” as a teammate to Will Ferrell, and a part in “Baby Mama” alongside Tina Fey and Amy Poehler.
Phillips’ acting career may not yet be at the point where he can pick and choose roles, but he’s getting closer. “I can turn down the ones that I know are going straight to Blockbuster,” he says.