Q&A: George “The Stress Reliever” Willborn

George WillbornGeorge Willborn, comedy’s “Stress Reliever,” is a stand-up comic and a radio personality who hails from Chicago, IL.  He was born on the west side of Chicago at Cook County Hospital, but was raised on the south side at 66th and Ingleside.  He attended Alexander Dumas grammar school, the same school as Mae Jemison.  He first stepped on stage in 1987, and his straight-forward comedic style has won him legions of fans worldwide.  Whether he’s on stage, television or radio, he keeps the audience entertained and full of laughter.  He achieved great recognition as the winner of Bill Belamy’s show, Who Got Jokes, as well as hosting Family Reunion and co-hosting Baisden After Dark.  More recently, he was co-host of the nationally- syndicated The Michael Baisden Show.  Unfortunately, that show ended in March of 2013, after Baisden and his radio syndicator, Cumulus Media Networks, reportedly had a major falling out.

Currently, he is the co-host of The Doug Banks Radio Show. He also has his own radio program Willborn’s World on WHUR’s Sirius XM, Channel 141, H.U.R. Voices.  He not only writes comedy for himself, he’s also written for the Oscar-winning comedian Mo’Nique.

In 2010, George was in the news, but it wasn’t a laughing matter.  He and his family were victims of housing discrimination.  He filed a $100 million lawsuit.  Being a Chicagoan, he was aware of the city’s segregation and discrimination, but he never imagined that it would hit home.

There’s so much more to George Willborn than being the funny man…the Stress Reliever!

SoulTrain.com: Were you funny as a kid?

George Willborn:  Yes. Well, it’s not that I was always funny…yea I was funny, but I wasn’t like a jokester.  I wasn’t the class clown.  I had to be serious in school because my sisters were very, very smart.  They got scholarships to Roycemore Academy while in grammar school. They were very smart and I was probably half of that and then the other half common sense.  It wasn’t about me being a class clown at that point.  I just knew that I enjoyed how it felt making people laugh, I would go to any extent.  Like when the Exorcist came out you would see previews a week before it actually came out. So, before it came out, I had already saved my money, got invisible thread and rigged all of the doors in my house. My mom worked at night so I knew she would be at work and my sisters were home.  So I hooked it up and planned it.  So you know, we [were] watching a scary movie, and you know when you’re watching scary movies you gotta turn off the lights, and I just started slamming doors and my sisters ran out to the middle of the street.  I was dying laughing!  I was about 11 years old.  I knew I loved making people laugh.

SoulTrain.com:  When did you know that you wanted to pursue comedy professionally?

George Willborn:  At 10 years old I knew I had a gift. It started off with my family, though.  Every Sunday my immediate family would have family dinner.  After dinner we would all play dominoes.  One day I had stacked all of my dominoes up to look like a Chinese block of ice and I was just staring at these dominoes.  Everybody was taking their turn and laughing and talking.  Nobody noticed that I wasn’t saying nothing, just staring.  So then it got to my turn and they said “Come on Butch, play,” and I ain’t say nothing.  Then, I just hollered out and slammed my head down on the dominoes, like I could split them.  The whole family fell out laughing, everybody!  I mean dominoes all over the table, my momma on the floor, my sisters in tears. I just loved that feeling.  Now, there was a trickle of blood, but that’s the price I had to pay to make all of them people feel really, really good for that moment.  That’s when I knew.

SoulTrain.com:  Tell me the story behind how you got the name the “Stress Reliever.”

George Willborn:   A couple of people named me that years ago when I was doing All Jokes Aside. I was the host. This guy, early in my career, came in.  I think we were on Wabash at that time, down the street on the other side.  This was before the famous location.  Jamie Foxx performed there.  So, I was doing the show.  I think Jamie Foxx or somebody else was on that show and it was packed.  We didn’t have any liquor license, but people had already heard that black folks had live comedy.  We had big round banquet tables for 12.  People would just sit together.  You didn’t even have to know the people you were sitting with.  The show was off the chain and going great.  I brought the featured act and another act up and then I went in the bathroom.  When I went in, this guy was balling, just crying his eyes out.  The first thing that I did was just grab him and I’m like “Dude, whatever you going through, it’s gonna be alright and you’re gonna be OK.”  He was like, “My family had been trying to get me to come out for the last six months.  I just couldn’t come out.  Tonight, they dragged me out and you made me forget about why I couldn’t come outside.  You were a stress reliever for me but the guy that came on behind you reminded me why I ain’t been out.”  Come to find out, the guy after me, the featured act told a Jeffrey Dahmer joke and he didn’t do it well.  It had just happened and this guy’s brother was the first victim identified.  His family could not get him to come out because he was so close to his brother.  So, finally they said, “Look you gotta come out, you gotta get your life back together.”  He came out, he saw me, I made him laugh.  The next guy that came up on stage, made him remember.  That’s when I realized just how powerful what I do is.  After that day, I understood what he meant,  me being the stress reliever for him.  That’s why I never take for granted any audience that’s there.  I don’t know if someone is going through a death or a divorce or if they had a miscarriage.  So it won’t be me just picking on you or nothing like that.  Some comedians will just come up and talk about you, but I don’t know what this person is going through.  That’s the first time someone has ever asked me how I got that name.

SoulTrain.com:   When you were first starting out as a stand-up, can you recall any positive instance that stood out the most?

George Willborn:   I have tons of them.  You gotta remember that I came up in a very wonderful time. I came up with my brothers and sisters like Bernie Mac, Adele Givens and Sheryl Underwood.  We all used to go to open mics together and carpool, three or four days out of the week.  If I wasn’t at Bernie’s house, he was at mine.  So there were always moments.  We were just growing together and saw things. We saw some of the funniest stuff and we went through it together.  Chicago is close-knit, even this new generation. So for me to just pinpoint one moment would be virtually impossible.

SoulTrain.com:  On the flip-side of that, what’s the worst memory you have when starting out?

George Willborn:   I remember I did a show in a Paragould, Arkansas, population of 1500, or something like that.  But, it was a small town and I had just started and the club had told me, the family had owned the club for 30 years and one of them had been working there for a gang of years.  He said the he had only seen two black people in the whole town his entire life.  It was like two [blacks] had gotten kicked off a train. But he was right, it was all white people.  It was early in my career, so I didn’t have a lot of material to talk about, just stuff I knew about like my mother shoutin’ in church, which wasn’t a big hit in Paragould, Arkansas.  But, they didn’t boo.  They just kind of just sat there staring and smiling and thinkin’, ‘This is a different kind of Negro, or that elusive Negro that we heard about.’

SoulTrain.com:  How has the landscape of comedy changed since you first started?

George Willborn:   You have more avenues.  I’ve been doing this 26 years, so I was a part of all of it.  I watched it evolve from when people would just go to live comedy and it didn’t matter who you were.  I was the host and comics like Steve (Harvey) and Ced (The Entertainer) and Bernie (Mac) and Mo’Nique, all of them came through.  No one cared who the headliner was.  They were just comin’.  There was no Def Jam, there was no BET Comic View.  You couldn’t just wait and see and say, I’m gonna wait to see my favorite.  You would just go and try to get in All Jokes Aside, if you could get in.  There were always long lines and for months and months people couldn’t get into that place.  They turned away a hundred people per night for a few years in a row.  But, that changed once television and Def Jam and all these different shows came.  You could stay at home and watch the black comedian.  Now you can pick and choose who your favorites are.  Then it changed from that.  Then, you had to have mainstream comics like Whose Line is it Anyway and are you gonna be non-threatening enough to be on television and get opportunities.  So, the landscape continues to change and evolve.

SoulTrain.com:  Who are some of the people that you admire in comedy?

George Willborn:   Some of the people I named and some that people may or may not have heard of.  My favorites are Tony Roberts; he’s a true friend of mine.  I’m blessed to have friends that I enjoy watching and that are hilarious to me.  I enjoy watching Corey Holcomb, he’s hilarious to me.  As harsh and brash as he may be, so was Yul Brynner.  There were a lot of people who were extreme and still extremely talented and funny.  There are a lot of under-rated comics like Damon Williams, Leon Rogers and Tony Sculfield that I have a lot of respect and camaraderie with.

SoulTrain.com: As a comedian, how important is it to you to stay relevant in regards to community affairs and/or youth involvement?

George Willborn:  It’s everything.  I have a 16 year old son, he’s in high school.  He’s an honor student.  I’m proud of him. He’s a junior and he’s been on the varsity basketball team since he was a sophomore.  So I’m proud of him and I have an obligation, because 40% of all honor roll students were gunned down last year.  So my obligation doesn’t stop because I have an honor student.  I have to increase his odds by helping these other brothers that no one cares about.  For each one of those that I help, that raises the odds for my son not getting shot by a stray bullet.  So it’s essential for me.

SoulTrain.com:  You have a diverse and multi-cultural audience.  Over the years, have you ever experienced any racial tension, prejudice or discrimination while performing?

George Willborn:  You know I have!  Wait a minute!  Now, I see what you tryin’ to do.  You did so good at first, Pierre.  You made me feel comfortable and now we slipped right into the lawsuit.

SoulTrain.com:  We’re gonna get to that, too, but how about just while performing on stage.  Have you experienced any racial tension and hecklers?

George Willborn:   On stage?  Here’s the deal with me and hecklers.  I’ve never really had any.  I don’t have the type of show that has hecklers to be honest with you.  It’s not that I’m some badass or nothing like that.  But generally, when you see my show, I control my show.  It’s an experience.  I take you on a George Willborn experience, and I say that humbly, not as an egotistical guy. But, I’m telling you to sit back, relax and go on this ride with me.  So, I don’t need you yelling out and I don’t need you helping me or any of that.  Nor am I gonna tolerate it because you’re not the only one that paid. I’m gonna protect these people’s rights to entertainment.   So, I don’t really have a big heckling crowd.  As far as racially, not since many, many years ago when I was doing some stuff on college tours had I experienced that professionally.  I think that there is a great deal of prejudice just in our society.  I think that there is a difference between that and racism, though.

SoulTrain.com:  Ok, as you eluded to earlier, this brings me to the much-publicized housing discrimination lawsuit you filed with the United States Housing and Urban Development (HUD) in 2010.  It involved a home that was for sale here in Chicago in the Bridgeport neighborhood, a neighborhood known for being prejudiced against African Americans.  You were the highest bidder and you were refused the property after being told that, “We would rather not sell to an African American.”  Tell me about that experience.

George Willborn:   Here’s the deal with the discrimination suit.  It’s settled and it took a few years.  It was about principle, which some people got that.  Here’s why I am so careful.  I have children, minors and I’m expecting a son in August.  So, as a parent you want to be responsible,  even with things that have happened in the past. You want to be responsible, especially if you are in the public’s eye.  You want to protect your family.  You want to protect your children.  It was something that was settled and that, in due time, I think that I will be able to express how I feel.  But, since I have young children now, those are feeling that I would rather reserve for a later time.  I think that is a good thing though, not speaking now because it keeps things at a fevered pitch, where it should be.  There are things that I won’t even share with my 16 year old because he has things that he should be concentrating on as opposed to some grown-up issues.  His mind is not developed enough at this time.  I feel that is our job as parents to shield our children from adult problems.

michael baisden and George willborn

Michael Baisden and George Willborn.

SoulTrain.com:  I respect that and that is understandable. You were co-host of Michael Baisden’s syndicated radio show, The Michael Baisden Show, which lasted for more than 10 years.  How did you make the transition from stand-up comedy to being a radio personality?

George Willborn:   There was none.  I never pursued radio. I never sent in one tape or entered one contest.  I was doing fine with my stand-up comedy and I did a show for these guys and one of them was a sales rep, Curtis Cooper, who worked for V103.  I did a really good job.  I think at the time I was working at All Jokes Aside hosting that.  The program director came and saw me and brought the whole sales team. Then he came back the following night by himself and he asked me if I would be interested in doing radio.  I said as long as it didn’t interfere with comedy, television and film.  Even though I was doing it yet, I still wanted to make sure they understood that eventually I wanted to do that and that radio wouldn’t interfere with that. Then I would do it.  But, I came as George Willborn, not some persona or some character that I had to remember.  So there’s no character.  My whole radio career is parallel with the people who follow my stand-up.  What you see is what you get!

SoulTrain.com:  That gig abruptly ended in March of 2013.  Can you explain what happened?

George Willborn:   Sure.  I’m a private contractor, which means that I work directly for the client, in this case Michael Baisden.  Whatever deal they work out with radio stations is their business.  My business is with them.  So, once he didn’t fulfill his contract, for whatever reason it was, once he decided that he wasn’t gonna go back on the air, I was out of a job.

SoulTrain.com:  You can’t keep a good man down.  One month later you bounced right back to radio in April of 2013.  You landed a sweet position as co-host on The Doug Banks Show.  How did that come about?

George Willborn:   Was it that long? The day that Michael announced that he wasn’t signing his contract, that was on a Monday or Tuesday, I think that came out on the wire or the news or something at about 9:00 or 9:30 that morning.  By noon, I had three offers on the table.  The whole proverbial “when one door closes, God opens two more,” that happened.  I really do believe if you are doing the right thing and living the right way and an opportunity ends, it doesn’t mean that opportunity is gone.  It means another opportunity has prospered and blossomed and you’re ready to move on to that.  So, I picked Doug because I would be able to stay here in Chicago and be on syndicated radio.  I grew up to him and I think that he is a living legend and one of the best in the business. So why wouldn’t I want to do for Doug’s show what I did for Michael’s?  I didn’t save Michael’s show.  He had a successful show when I got there but I certainly made it better.  I enhanced it. He was number one in a lot of markets and he did a lot of good things.  He has a mentoring program that went all over this country and raised the awareness and importance of mentoring.  You have to look at a person’s body of work and not just a couple of things that you may disagree with.

SoulTrain.com:  Knowing that you and Doug grew up together explains why you have great chemistry.  How is it working with a friend?

george willborn doug banks and dede

Doug Banks, Dede and George Willborn.

George Willborn:   Doug and I have known each other for over 20 years.   At least on one occasion, he and I have talked about this happening.  So for me, well for both of us, it is something that we wondered and longed what it would be like.  For me, it’s really cool.  I take friendship very, very seriously.  Believe it or not, I don’t have a great deal of friends, but Doug is one of them and one of the great things in doing business with a true friend is that it frees you up to let you be yourself.  There are no guards up.  If you’re in business with someone, there are certain things that you are going to be careful with or say.  The more vulnerable and honest we are, the better our show is gonna be.  Being with a friend allows DeDe and me both, because DeDe has been knowing him and working with him for about 17 years, to be ourselves.  It’s knowing that I can disagree with you and not worry about there being repercussions.

SoulTrain.com:  If I were to ask Doug to describe you, what would he say?

George Willborn:  Oh wow. Loud!  He would say that I was honest, crazy.  I don’t know. I don’t really know what other people think about me and that bugs some people that are close to me.  It bugs some of my management.  Maybe that has something to do with why it has taken me a little bit longer or taken a different path.  I don’t know how people see me.

SoulTrain.com:  You have your own radio program, Willborns World, on WHUR’s Sirius XM Channel 141, H.U.R. Voices.  For those that may not be familiar with the show, when is it on and what can they expect?

George Willborn:   That’s the Sirius XM channel 141 show.  It’s a floating schedule.  I have been doing it for almost 3 years now.  It’s a 30 minute show. I do comedy bits, I have entertainers on, I have my friends on or I may have experts on. Hopefully after this article everyone will be tuning in and blowing it up.

It only takes grinding.  Everyone has a different path.  Everyone’s time doesn’t happen the same way.  I grew up with all of them Ced (the Entertainer)…me and Chris Tucker sat up all night until the sun came up, talking about what we were gonna do and how we were gonna do it.  Maybe about eight months later, his career was gone and he blew up.

Oh, I’ve got to mention this.  The guy that believed in me most and the guy that gave me raw advice was Rodney Winfield. He was an older guy who headlined years ago. He’s a part of the older era.  Richard Pryor was his mentor and Richard thought that Rodney would be a phenomenal star.

SoulTrain.com:  You’ve dabbled in television as well.  What’s next for you on the small screen and do you want to or plan to take your talent to the big screen?

George Willborn:   I have incredible projects that are going on right now.  It’s truly a blessing.  I’m involved with the Peace Games, an organization that is geared with stopping the violence and there’s gonna be a documentary shot.  A lot of NBA players are involved with it, like Isaiah Thomas and Joakim Noah.  Father Pfleger is involved, too.  He’s a very dear friend of mine.  I love a respect that man so much.  I am also doing a documentary film called The Tragedies of Comedy.  I’m very excited about that and some very good people have connected themselves with the project, marketing-wise as well as directorial.  We have some really good actors that are gonna lend their hand.  It gonna show comedians in a different light.  While we are making you laugh, you’d be surprised how much tragedy we’re going through.

SoulTrain.com:  Do you have any interest in acting?

George Willborn:  I am an actor.  But unfortunately, I am an actor with not a lot of opportunities.   I wouldn’t say that.  I’ve been on stage with Jackee Harry, Christopher Williams and I’ve toured and done some plays.  I’ve honed my craft years ago with some incredibly talented acting coaches.  I’ve studied under Chip Fields, Kim Fields’ mom, Bill Duke and Rick Edelstein in LA.  I’m very serious about acting.  There will be a tremendous awakening when people see this side of me.  I’m looking forward to doing the small screen and big screen.

SoulTrain.com:  What do you want people to know most about you?

George Willborn:  I am a great father.  I love my children.

SoulTrain.com:  Is there anything that you would like to cover that we haven’t?

George Willborn:  That bag of money.  That hidden bag of money and can we split it!  Where is the location of that money?  No seriously, I’d like to cover the fact that I was married for 17 years.  I got divorced 2 years ago, my wife divorced me 2 years ago.  It was a really tough time for me and I did a lot of soul searching.  I know people say that a lot, but when you do the work you can see what comes out of it. The pain and the tears and all of the hurt and stuff, it’s not just for nothing.  I’m not the type of person that is going to get kicked in the teeth and not at least learn the lesson.  Now, I have met the wonderful woman, Ms. Riley, who is the absolute reason why you go through whatever you go through.  It prepares you for something that is evolving.  My life is still evolving.  I’m about to be a husband again and I’m going to be a better husband than I was the first time.  Although I didn’t think that I would have children again, we are.  I said if it’s God’s will, if it’s your will.  I was honest and I said that I didn’t want any more children, but if God sees fit for us to have more then we will.  So, August 14th we’ll have another child.  So now I’m 48 years old with a 28 year old wife and a new baby.  My comedy is gonna take on a new dimension as well.  So it’s a lot going on in my life.  It’s a new phase and a new part of my life, more importantly than the material.  Just the opportunity to live out another part and another phase of life is what I’m really excited about.

Soultrain.com:  You seem to be at peace and in a happy place.

George Willborn:  I am. It does have a lot to do with how low you were and how bad you felt and no one can tell you when you’re at your bottom.  Also, you know when you have cleared that low point.  If nothing else, that’s not your worry anymore.  I am well beyond that point.  Now, I’m well into my present and my future, and how bright that is.  I’m just really grateful to God and thankful for his grace and mercy. The story doesn’t have to end like that. You don’t have to be here, Pierre, asking me how my life is; you could just be writing on what you heard happened.  I’m thankful for that.

Soultrain.com:  In closing, what would you like to say to your fans?

George Willborn:   I would like to say thank you for waiting so patiently for bigger things from me.  I know how people think.  I’m grateful for all that I have accomplished because I accomplished those things because of those same fans.  So, I’m only as big as my fans allow me to be.  If you’re tired of not seeing me in movies, then maybe you know, you may need to make a little bit more noise.  I am appreciative of where they have gotten me so far and I want them to always know that I have a lot of good stuff and a lot of big things for them to continue to enjoy, especially my new white fans!

—Pierre A. Evans

Freelance Writer, Contributing Writer, Singer/Songwriter, Actor, Model, Poet, DJ, TV Host, and Owner of Pinnacle Entertainment Productions.  You can follow me on Facebook, on Twitter @Playerre, or log onto my Pinnacle Entertainment Productions website.



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