The host of the critically-acclaimed Thug Notes web series shares the backstory of “Sparky Sweets, PhD” and the series as an educational tool.
Comedian-actor-writer Greg Edwards
Tavis: So here’s a description to challenge you. This character is called a “tatted-up harpooner.” Got a good guess? He’s Queequeg from “Moby Dick.” The description and many more are performed by Greg Edwards, an Internet sensation for his videos, called collectively Thug Notes – love that – in which he portrays a professor named Dr. Sparky Sweets, who redefines the world of just about every literary giant. Let’s take a look at a clip from Thug Notes.
Tavis: I feel you. (Laughter) And you’re speaking truth. Can I just tell you I love you?
Greg Edwards: Oh, thank you, Tavis.
Tavis: Man, I love you.
Edwards: Oh, I appreciate it so much.
Tavis: I love you; I love what you’re doing. I thought the PBS audience might love –
Tavis: – getting exposed to somebody who’s taking all of this wonderful literature and making it understandable, making it embraceable, making it usable. I say to my friends in the Academy all the time, a lot of bright friends in the Academy that it don’t mean nothing if your intellect isn’t usable.
If you’ve got a brilliant intellect and it’s not usable for everyday people, then what difference does it make? How did this get started?
Edwards: Well actually, it started from this production company called Napkin Note Productions. It’s two guys, it’s a guy named Jared Bauer and Jacob Salamon, and Jared just thought of this idea of interpreting classical literature into a dialect that’s more comfortable for students to understand, and most Americans, really.
I don’t really feel like this is street vernacular. I hear Black people speak like this, Asian people, Indian – everybody talks like this. So we just wanted to break it down and use it for the classroom, so teachers can use it and students can use it.
Tavis: What kind of response you been getting to this?
Edwards: Oh, it’s huge. “New York Times,” Huffington Post –
Tavis: I saw the piece. The “Times” piece was very nice.
Edwards: Great piece. “New York Times,” Huffington Post, I’m doing interviews from people from Poland, Switzerland. (Laughter) It’s great, I love it.
Tavis: Give me some sense of how you all go about choosing the material. There’s so much classic literature out there, how do you figure out what has a storyline to it that can be translatable in your style?
Edwards: Well the producers – actually, we have a list of school literature for high school students and college students, and we just go through book by book by book.
We try to incorporate with holidays, like Valentine’s Day we’ll do a certain book that talks about love, or “Romeo and Juliet.” Sometimes with movies that are coming out. We just put it all together.
Tavis: Yeah. How often are you guys shooting new episodes of this?
Edwards: We shoot once a month and we shoot five episodes in one day.
Edwards: Just cranking them out.
Tavis: Yeah. What’s been the takeaway of the wild viral success of this for you? What do you make of this?
Edwards: For me it’s great. I’m a stand-up; I’ve been doing comedy for 12 years. Doing stand-up, it’s a rough road, it’s a long dedication and a sacrifice, so this has helped me get out more, it’s helped me put my face on the Internet. It’s getting me more bookings; it’s just helped a lot for me, yeah.
Tavis: What do you make of the opportunity you now have to do comedy that is smart comedy? I don’t think that smart comedy has to be preachy comedy. Nobody wants to hear that. We come see you, we want to be entertained, we want to laugh.
But if you can make us laugh and make us think, then that’s the double bonus to me.
Edwards: I think so. It’s plenty of smart comedians out there. I feel like sometimes Black comedy gets the reputation of saying these words or having this point of view.
But there’s plenty of comedians out there – Patrice O’Neill, God rest his soul, he was an awesome dude that really could relate to the people and do something else very intellectual.
Dave Chappelle, Chris Rock, and then there’s new guys out there like Hugh Moore, Hannibal Buress from Chicago. There’s plenty of comics. I feel like it’s our responsibility to push the environment and make people think.
But like you said, not be too preachy about it. Just go about it the right way and just open up the doors for more people like us.
Tavis: Given how difficult – you’ve already laid this out; you live this every day, so you know it – given how difficult it can be to make a living as a comedian, why’d you choose to do this? Or maybe you didn’t choose, maybe it chose you.
Edwards: No, actually, this came to me in a very weird way. Jared Bauer, the producer for this, worked on “Totally Biased” with W. Kamau Bell, who’s a mentor of mine who really helped me –
Tavis: Great comedian.
Edwards: Great comedian, awesome guy, good family man, good husband. He helped me out so much in San Francisco; put me into the right relationships and the right clubs.
When he thought of this idea, he was shooting a pilot, and he asked Kamau and Kevin Avery, the head writer, who would be a good person for this in Los Angeles, and they said me.
I auditioned for it, and it just worked out. It came in at the right time, and it’s just really been a blessing. It’s been real good.
Tavis: Yeah. What’s the age range, to your mind, for the audience for this kind of work?
Edwards: Well I look at – I’m crazy with it. Like any time – we shoot once a month, and a new video comes out every Tuesday morning. I’m on YouTube looking at all the comments.
It ranges. We get kids from I’d say sixth grade all the way up to older people commenting on the videos, to out-of-school senior citizens. Everybody. Because the topics that we talk about are literature that people have read in high school, so even if it’s an older person that hasn’t read the book in a while, they see the visuals, they hear my voice with it, and it just brings back ideas. I think it makes people want to pick up the book and read it again.
Tavis: Yeah. I’ll put you on the spot here – give me an example of a piece of literature, classic literature, that you’ve already shot the piece for that people were most surprised by what they learned when they saw you do what you do.
We read all these books, but I’m just trying to get a sense of what people responded to when they heard you put your delivery on it and like wow, I never thought of it that way.
Edwards: I feel like – well “Lord of the Flies,” that was a good one. We talked about racism, we talked about how everything – well, there’s one part of the book where the kids, after they finish beating each other up and he runs to the shore and he sees a guy in the military, and he thinks the guy’s there to save him.
But he’s only really there just to spy on a war. So I feel like the analysis is so in-depth that we give people an opportunity to look at it through our eyes, and through a vision that they wouldn’t have thought about it before, and it makes them go back and read the book, like hey, they were right on this one.
And it makes them look at it like hey, this is how I think about the book, and it’s all right. It’s interpreted for anybody to have their point of view in the book, and that’s what we’re trying to relate.
We’re like kids, you can listen to your teacher, you can listen to your mom or your parents on the book, but have your own point of view of it. Yeah.
Tavis: So how much of your comedy styling do you get a chance to put into the material at the writers table when you guys are coming up with this stuff?
Edwards: Well they write the script out, but it’s a real – we have a really diverse crew. We have a guy in Texas who’s actually a Ph.D. who reads all the books. He’s a Ph.D. Sends it over to Jared, our producer. He writes the text out, sends it over to me.
I take on the slang words and put emphasis here, or if it’s certain words that I don’t think is appropriate for it we’ll change it up, flip it. And we get the improv on the set. We have a lot of fun. It’s just great, I love it.
Tavis: I was about to ask, since you went there, how much of this is improv?
Edwards: Most of it is actually scripted, but it’s certain things. (Laughter) When I got a big smile on my face, a lot of it’s improv. But it goes back and forth, yeah. We tape some and they’re like, “How you like that, Greg?” “I don’t know, I feel a little different about it.” And we’ll tape it up. Then they edit it all together.
Tavis: Right. So what do you want to do with all of this? This thing is, again, is so huge virally, but what’s the end game here for you?
Edwards: For me? I grew up on PBS with “Reading Rainbow,” LeVar Burton. (Laughter) I feel like I wanted this to be – you know, I wanted this to be the new –
Tavis: Yeah, but LeVar couldn’t do this, though. (Laughter)
Edwards: LeVar couldn’t do this, but this –
Tavis: Yeah, you ain’t going to see this on “Reading Rainbow.” (Laughter) Yeah, I love “Reading Rainbow,” but that’s not what this is, yeah.
Edwards: I want this to be like the new version. New Thug Notes. We’re not trying to – we don’t want to stop kids from reading the book and like, “This is it, you can just read this and do a test.”
No, we just want to open up doors, maybe teachers can use it. It’s hard being a teacher nowadays. You’re underpaid, you’re overworked, the classroom’s full, kids are crazy. So throw this on, and maybe it might spark one kid’s attention.
Tavis: “The New York Times,” as we mentioned earlier in this conversation, did a wonderful piece, and I want to thank the “Times” for doing that, because this is the kind of stuff I think we need to see more of and hear more about.
So now that you know Greg and you know that his work is called Thug Notes, you’ll go online and check it out, and you will be entertained, I think, and empowered by it.
But certainly if there are any kids in your life who you want to really take a different look at the stuff you’ve been trying to get them to read that they really don’t want to read, have them check out Thug Notes, and I think they might get tuned on to it. Greg, congratulations, man.
Edwards: Thank you, Tavis.
Tavis: Good to have you on the program.
Edwards: Good to be here.
Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching, and as always, keep the faith.
“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.
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