Chicago-based stand-up comedian Shawn Banks is making an appearance at the World Comedy Expo. This talented performer is sure to have audiences rolling in the aisles with some quick banter and hot takes on life at the Laugh Factory on March 25.
Banks is originally from the Washington metropolitan area before moving to the Windy City to pursue a career in comedy. Identifying as gender nonbinary and currently using he/she/them pronouns, Banks is one of 20 LGBTQ+ artists at the Expo this year.
Windy City Times: Are you from Clinton, Maryland?
Shawn Banks: Technically, I was born in the southeast side of Washington, D.C. I lived there until I was 6 years old, when I moved with my family to Clinton. I lived there until I went to college.
WCT: When did you arrive in Chicago?
SB: I landed here in March 2020. I did comedy in D.C. for a year but wanted to pursue it in a bigger city so moved to Chicago.
WCT: What were the challenges of a comedy career during the pandemic?
SB: I didn't perform at all in 2020, other than online shows. That was a challenge because this is reactionary entertainment. Comedians thrive off of people and when it is on a computer it dehumanizes it. Comedy is about connecting with other people and that aspect was lost.
When vaccines were rolling out and we could finally perform in person, it was still challenging because people weren't comfortable going out. There was an element of danger to be in an enclosed space with strangers. As time went on it was a lot easier!
WCT: How do you describe your comedic style?
SB: It is equal parts sassy and stupid. I am a relatable homegirl just talking about my life. I talk about what I see in the world and what interests me. My point of view is always really gay and Black! [laughs] Those are the two things that I like.
My comedy is a love letter to Black women because I was raised by a single mother. I was always around strong women growing up. Luenell, Mo'Nique and Wanda Sykes were comedians that I have watched over the years. When I would see them walk on the stage I wanted to be them!
It didn't make sense until I came out as gay in high school as to why I connected with these women. RuPaul was another one that watched when I was young on Drag Race. A Black man who becomes a Black woman inspired me and my sense of humor.
WCT: I saw on a past video of yours that you predicted Symone to be the winner of Drag Race season 13 way before other people.
SB: The minute she walked into the room I just knew it. I did a fantasy league with some of my friends when that season was airing and I won!
WCT: Is Symone your favorite from Drag Race?
SB: No, Bob the Drag Queen is. Bob is such an activist for queer, non-binary and trans people.
WCT: Speaking of activists, are you able to add activism into the material of your stand-up act?
SB: Yes. If you are not a white, cisgender male in any field then you go in with a disadvantage and it is the same in stand-up comedy. When I first started I felt pressure to be the stereotype of what people thought I should be. Some people think Black, queer people are all sassy and quick. It is because we have only been shown as a hairdresser on the Real Housewives of Atlanta or the funny friend in a movie. Those things are facets of who I am, but not all of who I am as a person.
Stereotyping is common in the field and people like to pigeonhole artists. I was doing a show in Washington and the comedian after my set said there were no Black, gay comedians, but he was wrong, there are many like Jaboukie Young-White, Solomon Georgio and Dwayne Perkins. They are doing well out in the comedy world and are just simply not known because they don't fit the norm of what a gay, Black person would be. I want to go out and show people there is not one specific way that Black, queer people behave, not just with Black people, but any queer person of color.
I go onstage and I am my authentic self. That is activism and will sometimes shock people. Both on and offstage I show people that I am more than a preconceived notion. There is a lot more to me and other queer, POC performers.
WCT: So what happens if you were performing comedy in a room full of straight football players?
SB: Already with me being Black I know how to talk around white people and being gay I know how to talk around straight people. I realized a long time ago that I wouldn't always be in a room with people like me. My mother once said, "You are going to have to be twice as good to get half as much as other people." She was talking about being Black, but being gay on top of that adds another layer to the experience.
People who have felt oppression on some level understand what it is like to speak with anyone. I can't say the same for a lot of my white friends. A lot of my white friends don't know how to speak in a room full of Black people or go to a neighborhood that is not predominantly white and still feel comfortable. It is because they don't really have to.
At a young age, I learned how to "grace the room" as I say. Clinton was more of a poor neighborhood in Maryland, but not a bad neighborhood. I then had the juxtaposition of going to a private university in Arlington, Virginia, which was the complete opposite of my high school experience. I shifted from being surrounded by people of color to a 98 percent white school and that taught me to be around all types of people. I have a lot of straight friends. I feel like an ally! [laughs]
At the end of the day, regardless of your gender, sexuality or pronouns are, we are all people. We just want to connect with others and be respectful towards each other. I just want to get to know people, now if someone proves they are the stereotype then we will go from there. I try to give everyone the benefit of the doubt!
WCT: For the World Comedy Expo your set is at 11 p.m. How do you stay awake?
SB: I have done late shows before and I usually have a fair amount of caffeine throughout the day. I also have natural ADHD so that keeps me up and going!
I like going on later because people have already enjoyed their night and are less apprehensive about what they will see. Hopefully, people have had dinner and some drinks, so they are ready to have fun. I am excited about it!
WCT: Do you have anything already planned to talk about during your set?
SB: I plan on talking about recreational substances and my personal experiences.
I am single now and was in a toxic relationship in the summer of 2021. I have had a lot of time to discover myself and who I am as a person. I have gotten into the idea of polyamory so will be talking about that. I am a lot more open to the world!
WCT: Sounds like you are going to continue to push the envelope and not hold back with your stand-up routine.
SB: Definitely! Especially after last year and taking on emotional baggage that I can finally drop figuratively and literally. I have learned a lot!
Visit WorldComedyExpo.com for tickets to the show and listen to Banks on their podcast cohosted with best friend Fernando Fernandez called Ish Please!