Blake Griffin’s passion for comedy is no joke

MONTREAL⁠—About an hour before he’s set to perform under the bright lights in front of a large audience, Blake Griffin is talking about the adrenaline rush he gets from having a great performance. The six-time All-Star isn’t talking about the Slam Dunk Contest he won in 2011 or the time he outplayed Tim Duncan in the first round of the 2015 NBA playoffs. He’s talking about stand-up comedy.

“You finish a good game, you get the text from people, you talk to people that were there, you feel this certain energy that’s riding above everything else,” Griffin says. “It’s the same when you have a good [comedy] set. I haven’t had many of them, but you definitely feel this higher energy.”

Griffin is at Montreal’s Just For Laughs comedy festival as host of the third annual comedy. by blake show, a charity event sponsored by Red Bull to benefit the Team Griffin Foundation, where he has gathered an All-Star cast of comedians⁠—Neal Brennan, Michael Che, Jim Norton, Jeff Ross, Jimmy Carr and Sam Jay—to each perform a 10 minute set.

Comedy has been a part of Griffin’s life since before he was even allowed to watch Saturday Night Live in his living room growing up in Oklahoma City, thanks largely to his father, who Griffin says was “always up for a joke” and would allow him sometimes to sit in to watch Richard Pryor do stand-up. As he grew up, Griffin fell in love with Eddie Murphy and Chris Rock, and would take to Napster to download their comedy tracks.

Drafted by the Los Angeles Clippers in 2009, Griffin landed in the epicenter of entertainment to start his NBA career. At the 2014 ESPYs, he filmed a sketch with host Seth Meyers and his head writer Neal Brennan, co-creator of Chappelle Show, one of Griffin’s favorite comedy shows.

The two soon became close friends. Brennan played a mentor role to Griffin, who would follow his friend to his stand-up shows and was eventually inspired to start writing down his own jokes. In 2016, Griffin did a 10-minute set at Just For Laughs in Montreal.

A video of his set still exists on YouTube. The performance is very much athlete trying to do comedy. The delivery, the punchlines and general rhythm of the set leaves much to be desired. However, Griffin is aware of this and he is taking the craft very seriously.

“During the basketball season, I watch basketball every single night,” Griffin says. “It’s not because I have to watch the games, it’s because I’m a fan. Comedy is the same way for me. Putting in the time, going about constructing jokes, constructing a set the right way, it’s important to me. I don’t want to be this hack who only gets the low hanging fruit.”

There’s also a reason why he’s always played host at his comedy shows. Griffin would rather not use his celebrity status to take up a comedian’s spot. Still, many of the audience this evening has come to see Griffin, including a fan sitting front row in his Clippers jersey. Griffin doesn’t disappoint, delivering a 10-minute opening set that is much more natural, fluid and confident than his set from three years ago. He looked comfortable with the mic in his hand, delivering punchlines about his presence at a comedy festival (“It would be like taking a friend to a basketball game and hearing the PA announcer introduce Kat Williams as the starting power forward”) and interacting with the audience, at one point asking someone to guess his race. The audience member answered “mixed,” allowing Griffin to play up his frustration at the response and launch into an entire bit about the encounter.

Although Griffin confirmed he won’t be in Space Jam 2 (“I wasn’t invited,” he told the crowd during the show), he has built up a strong IMDb portfolio and has the comedy chops to try this alternate career on a more permanent basis. Yet he insists there’s no end goal to his occasional forays into the comedy world. “Honestly, there’s not,” Griffin says. “I’m not doing this to one day have my Netflix special. It’s just something I enjoy. To me, it gives me a chance to give back.”

There’s an unlikely place where Griffin gets a lot of his comedy material: his day job. Like many fans who follow the league, Griffin finds a lot of the off the court drama in the NBA to be hilarious. “To the NBA’s credit, they’ve allowed it to happen,” Griffin says. “A lot of sports is so dedicated to tradition… the NBA has done a great job of growing with people. It’s a sport, but it’s entertainment.”

Blake Griffin
Blake Griffin has a lot of material to draw from. (Benoit Rousseau)

Griffin is well-known for his disagreements with refs, but he says that’s actually where some of his funniest interactions occur during a game. “There are refs that are really funny,” Griffin says. “You can even talk shit to them like ‘Wow, you fucking blew that one.’ And they’ll give it right back to you when you mess up. Those are the refs that are well respected and are fun to be around. The only thing is the refs who act like they never make a mistake and you can’t talk to them.”

On the day prior to Griffin’s comedy show, his former team, the Clippers, formally introduced Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. The press conference, which doubled as a sort of fan rally, was highlighted by owner Steve Ballmer’s through the roof energy. “That’s his schtick,” Griffin says. “You go to dinner with him, it’s not what you’re seeing when you see him at a rally. I don’t know if anybody is the same at a dinner as they are at a rally. I would say he’s into it, for sure. That’s his thing.”

A central theme came out of the press conference: the Clippers were turning a new page and ready to finally be relevant next to the Los Angeles Lakers. Of course, this seemed to ignore the success the Griffin-Chris Paul-DeAndre Jordan teams had, even if they never made it out of the second round of the playoffs.

“We ultimately didn’t accomplish anything,” Griffin says. “In sports, that's how you get measured… If they succeed, they’ll be the ones who really turned the franchise around and actually solidify them as not the same franchise that it was back in the day.”

Griffin doesn’t have a gripe with the Clippers, even though they organized a mock jersey retirement ceremony as part of their free agency pitch two summers ago, convincing Griffin to re-sign for five years, before trading him six months later to the Detroit Pistons.

“I didn’t want the [free agency] pitch anymore than anybody else did,” Griffin says. “To me it wasn’t about the fake jersey retirement, that’s not when I was like, ‘oh yeah, I’m signing back here.’ It was the best decision at the time for me. At the end of the day, the only thing that I wish happened differently was I wish they had given me the same respect like some teams give to guys when they say, ‘hey, we’re gonna go in a different direction and we want to make this work for everybody.’

“I went in and asked somebody in the front office on the day of. It was tip-toed around. [They said] you’ll be the first call, that didn’t happen. I completely understand if a team wants to go in a different direction. I just wish I had been privy to the information before everybody else was.”

Griffin’s trade to Detroit is a perfect recent example of why the discussion of the player empowerment era and owners seemingly wanting to take back some of the control over the movement of players around the league requires nuance.

“At the end of the day, people are coming to watch us play,” Griffin says. He also disagrees with Steve Kerr’s recent comments that Anthony Davis’s midseason trade request resulting in him being traded to the Lakers this offseason was “bad for the league.”

“Teams can do the exact same thing [to players] and nobody ever stopped being fans of the team because of that,” Griffin says. “Ultimately the Raptors won a championship and the Clippers are in a great position to be one of the top teams for awhile and nobody stopped being a fan of the teams. But sometimes when players do what they do, people stop being a fan of the players. I don’t care who you are, you can’t look at that situation and say that’s fair.”

Even though it wasn’t what he had initially wanted for his long-term basketball future, Griffin is happy to be in Detroit, and says it aligns with how he spent the first 19 years of his life in Oklahoma City and gets him out of the limelight and long list of social obligations in Los Angeles. “During the season, every night all I want to do is sit and watch basketball and chill and relax,” Griffin says. “Michigan is a great place to do that.”

As for who he would want to roast in the NBA?

“Give me everybody,” Griffin says, laughing. “I’ll take on whoever.”

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