Wil Sylvince used to doodle as a kid. He would collect piles of his new drawings of superheroes and action scenes every Monday morning and lay them out on his desk for his classmates to coo over. One morning, he brought forth a particularly mighty image of Spiderman fighting The Hulk. Young Sylvince, a skinny Brooklyn-born Haitian-American, watched his cool factor soar as his peers gathered around him to get a good look at the drawing.
At that moment, a fat, brown cockroach crawled out from the depths of his desk, followed by a few of its babies, all of them dancing across The Hulk’s snarling face. Someone shouted, “He got roaches!” Panic ensued. Kids scattered. The girls shrieked and ducked beneath desks. The boys called Sylvince “Roach Boy,” a name that would stick for a solid month. Young Sylvince was humiliated.
Now a 35-year-old stand-up comedian, Sylvince uses such tales of personal humiliation to get laughs. Stories of schoolyard embarrassment, teenage awkwardness, petty squabbles on the street and failed love and sex are all ripe for potential material. “Comics, we take horrible stuff and try to make light of it,” says Sylvince on a hot Friday afternoon at New York’s Olive Tree Cafe.
The Greenwich Village eatery sits atop the legendary basement comedy club The Comedy Cellar, where Sylvince has been making people laugh a few nights a week since 2004. When his regular fifteen-minute time slot begins, Sylvince is a fireball, employing wild facial expressions and gestures to animate his delivery. He pops his eyes out of his skull in moments of surprise, picks up and grips random objects and deliberately embraces silence, sending fixed stares into the audience to emphasize particular jokes. He’s made use of such moves performing on Comedy Def Jam at the historic Apollo Theater in Harlem, as a contributor on Chappelle’s Show and on cross-country tours with comedians like Damon Wayans.
Though few topics have ever been off-limits for Sylvince, it took a while for him to tap into what is now one of his primary sources of inspiration. Before 2004, he never took to the stage with jokes about being a skinny Haitian-American boy, about the parents who raised him or about his culture. Despite joining the New York comedy circuit 30 years after his idol Richard Pryor broke the mold and debunked stereotypes of “The Hood,” he was still reeling from years of harsh language directed toward Haitians. As a comic, how do you find the humor in a part of your identity you’ve spent most of your life trying to overcome? For Sylvince, the answer came through loss, time and the ultimate realization that sometimes the best way to embrace your roots is to laugh about them.
“Back then, it wasn’t cool to be Haitian,” Sylvince says as he waits for his cup of hot green tea to cool. “When I went to a new high school, from the tenth grade on I lied about who I was.”
The warm drink is an odd choice, as he’s just come from a boxing session. His dark features are still covered in a sheen of sweat as he drops a backpack strapped to a biking helmet strapped to a pair of gray and blue boxing gloves on the ground next to his chair. Sipping on tea and discussing his culture in a steady, quiet voice, Sylvince seems more like a student of Tai Chi than a stand-up comedian.
Part of his composure comes from growing up in a Haitian household. His parents, Solange and Maurice, left Haiti for New York in their 20s. The couple raised Sylvince and his two brothers in Brooklyn with a strict hand, eyeing more practical career paths for their three children. “Their motto was go to school, get a college degree, get a job with benefits,” says Sylvince. “Then, get married and have kids, and take care of your parents. With the arts, whether it’s music or drawing or comedy or dance, they were like, ‘What is that? You’re not a clown. You could do that at the house to entertain the family.’”
Sylvince spent a good part of his youth cringing at his parents’ cultural quirks. His father insisted on wearing the same pair of pants most days so as not to waste money. His mother took teenage Sylvince and his brothers along for errands, bargaining tough at grocery stores and Macy’s as if on the street at an outdoor market in the Caribbean. Sylvince would hover toward the cashier to pass himself off as a bag boy. “I just work here,” he remembers once muttering to others watching his mother’s spectacle at a supermarket. “I was hired to pack the bags, I don’t know who this lady is!”
He couldn’t understand his father’s thriftiness or his mother’s “mountains of coupons” or her loud chatting with other Haitian women in the street. He hated the way she forced him to stay warm, even if it meant donning outfits made up of mismatched gloves, orange socks, red pants and purple jackets. “It was difficult to be Haitian and American at the same time,” recalls Sylvince. In the house, I have to be Haitian, but outside, I can’t be in Haitian in the streets. They’re gonna kill me.”
Sylvince tries to hide the tinge of bitterness in his voice as he recalls what it was like to be identified as a Haitian in the ‘80s and ‘90s. He points in part to America’s sore relationship with Haiti that resulted from Reagan linking immigrants from the small island nation with the proliferation of AIDS in the U.S. Sylvince remembers the jokes thrown at him and other young Haitians as lifeless yet cutting: “What do you call a Haitian on rollerskates? Roll-AIDS. What do you call a Haitian music band? Band-AIDS.” Sylvince’s father taught his children a nifty trick to skirt fears of discrimination or deportation: pretend you’re Jamaican. Everybody likes Bob Marley.
Sylvince’s father lost a battle with cancer when Sylvince was 13, long before he could explore any interest in a comedy career. Though a mixture of fear and respect kept him from joking around with his father, Sylvince leaned on both of his parents in coping with life’s heavier matters. “Because of my father, I know what working hard looked like,” says Sylvince. “My parents didn’t have a perfect relationship, but when they went to that darkness, they came out of it best friends.”
With his parents’ practical outlook in mind, he decided to study mechanical engineering in college. But the words of Richard Pryor and later favorites like Louis CK, Tony Roberts, Jim Norton, Robert Kelly and Sylvince’s late roommate Patrice O’Neal became too seductive. He began to hop around New York clubs doing stand-up, keeping his career path a secret until his mother and a few of her Haitian girlfriends spotted him on his first late-night TV gig at the Apollo. He finished his set with a particularly raunchy joke: I was dating this girl who was really, really dumb. One day I saw her walking down the street with her titties hanging out. I said, girl, your titties hanging out! She said, Oh my goodness, I left the baby on the bus!
Seeing Sylvince performing in the wee hours, his mother jumped up and pointed at her TV screen, shouting to her friends from the couch, “That’s my son!” Of the boob joke, she later cried, “That was my favorite!” Sylvince went slack-jawed at her words when he came home that night after the show’s taping, facing the woman he had never even cursed in front of and finding her happy with his choice.
But Sylvince’s life took a grim turn shortly after his first TV appearances. In 1998, his mother suffered a stroke and passed away nine months later. He fell into a depression that he dealt with by overeating, slacking off and bouncing from girl to girl. Worst of all, Sylvince was unable to write new jokes. He found less and less of himself in his cycle of zingers on eating massive McDonald’s meals or one-night stands. The stories of his mother, his father and his family that most often filled his head remained unheard.
Part of his failure to experiment with personal storytelling of the Haitian kind was trading in sure-fire laughs for material close to his heart like his father’s silly English and his mother’s afternoon chats with friends. “Most of us don’t like change, because it’s the unknown,” he says. “[There’s a] fear.”
Sylvince credits an old favorite for turning his life around: Richard Pryor. At New York City College of Technology, he and his buddies chuckled at their desks to Pryor’s jokes when his grittier material began to take off. “I remember Richard Pryor would talk about the ghetto and the hood, and it would be an all-white audience,” Sylvince says. “So I’m like, I just gotta find a way to communicate. People don’t have to know Haitians. They just have to understand the story. Have you ever seen My Big Fat Greek Wedding? You don’t have to be Greek to freaking laugh at that movie.”
In 2004, Sylvince decided to tell some Haitian stories. For the next three years, constructing narratives about his family was challenging and intuitive at the same time. Most of it didn’t even need to go down on paper. Sylvince took on his father’s Haitian accent and his mother’s loud tones, shedding light on the everyday Haitian household. Haitian viewers began to reach out to him and became part of the growing crowd he faced in café gigs and on TV specials.
Friends and fellow comedians began to notice the change in his material. “I knew he was Haitian, but he didn’t start talking about his Haitian material till later,” remembers Sylvince’s friend Grooms. “People loved it. It was so funny. It was a peek into his family.” Shortly after embracing those stories, Sylvince caught the eye of the Comedy Cellar and soon began a regular schedule of stand-up and emcee gigs at the legendary club that hosts some of the most popular comics working today.
At times, though, Sylvince still feels like he’s fighting an uphill battle as a minority trying to make it in the entertainment industry, especially now that issues of race, culture and ethnicity regularly find their way into his material. “I still think we have a long way to go,” he says. “The Cosby Show was one of the biggest shows that came on in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Back then, I thought, wow. It’s gonna be on by 2000. And it’s not. It’s not at all.”
But Sylvince hopes to make up for the time he lost trying to neglect the pains of growing up Haitian. He visited Haiti as a comic for the first time in 2006 with Stand Up For Haiti, which brought fellow comedians down for charity acts that worked to fund Haiti’s reconstruction. The same year, he created Short Cuts, a short film festival to help people of color break into the entertainment industry. He eventually took on a new title that he still goes by: “That Haitian Dude.”
There were no Haitian-American faces among the comedy, drama, sci-fi and horror finalists of Short Cuts in 2013, but for Sylvince, the possibility that there will be some in the future is enough. “I remember when he said he was going to do Short Cuts and I was like, shut up Wil, beat it!” says friend and comedian Keith Robinson. “Next thing you know, it’s full blossom. What I like about him and his determination is, whether you believe him or not, he’s gonna get it done.”
These days, Sylvince is working on a drama film about a Haitian man who comes to America to become a boxer. He named the character Maurice, after his father. His next goal is one of his loftiest: stop cursing onstage. That one might be for his mother.