Alex English has always been funny.
This isn’t a cliché opener to a story about a comic, it's a statement based on the fact that I’ve known him since high school.
When we speak, the stand-up comedian has just wrapped his first year as a writer for Saturday Night Live. It’s a job that took him three submissions to get.
“In my situation, the third time was the charm,” he says. “SNL does this thing where they’re pushing that they’re looking for new writers. I submitted a packet pre-pandemic and didn’t hear anything back, it was a wash. The second time around was during the pandemic, I made it to the interview process, I was one of maybe three, but they only hired one of us. The following year, which was for this season, I submitted the packet yet again, and that third time was the charm for me.”
English has been working hard to establish himself as a comedian for about the last decade. His writing and acting credits include HBO’s That Damn Michael Che, Netflix’s The Fix, National Lampoon Radio Hour, and Pause with Sam Jay. English’s aspiration to become a comedian was a childhood dream that faded as he grew older and felt the goal was unattainable.
“The choice to go into comedy faded as I became a teenager, and it faded because there’s no direct pathway,” he says. “No one’s looking at a kid and telling him, ‘He’s going to be a comedian one day.’ Everybody wants to be a rapper or basketball player, people want to go into politics. No one is telling you that you could grow up to become an entertainer, especially from where we’re from.”
Born and raised in Detroit, English had a regular childhood. He was educated at Bates Academy and Renaissance High School, before eventually graduating from Central Michigan University with a degree in communication and dramatic arts.
After graduating from CMU, English packed his bags and left the Motor City for the Big Apple. Although one would think he left to pursue comedy or because he had a grand plan for his future, English says he left so he could grow into who he needed to be.
“I love Detroit, and I will defend Detroit with everything in me, but I left Detroit to be gay, that’s the plainest way of saying it. I didn’t think that I would be able to grow as a person, or truly find myself if I stayed in Detroit,” he says. “Being from Detroit is what kept me in New York, that spirit and mentality of Detroit is how I managed to navigate New York.”
Being in NYC, Alex English decided to relight the flame that was his childhood comedy dream. He began by performing at open mic nights at comedy lounges and even finding comedy gigs through Craigslist. In the early part of his career, he still performed under his birth name, Alex Newell. But as luck would have it, there was another Alex Newell who was shining bright on Fox’s hit television series, Glee. Initially, Alex English thought both could co-exist in the same way Michael Jordan and Michael B. Jordan do, but that idea was cut short after a standup mishap.
“I saw an ad that was seeking a comedian to host a breast cancer awareness event, and I booked it. They never asked me for a headshot, and I didn’t think about it,’” he recalls. “When they sent me the flyer for the event, there was Alex Newell with a monocle and top hat, just looking fierce as hell. I emailed the organizers who then told me the flyer had already been mass produced and distributed. I skipped the event and decided then I had to change my name.”
While the name change might have been annoying initially, English says it served as a blessing in disguise because it allowed him to move freely, holding jobs during the day and doing standup at night.
Though comedy might come naturally to him, it took some time for English to find his groove discussing his life as a gay Black man. In the beginning, he said he steered away from those jokes because he hadn’t gone through much as a young, adult gay man, yet. As time went on, and life was lived, he began to include more jokes in his set, almost forcing them in. It wasn’t until fellow comedian, mentor, and friend Sam Jay told him the fanfare was unnecessary.
“I would get on stage, and I would do something I thought was funny and announce to the audience that I was gay,” English says. “One day, Sam was like ‘You don’t have to do that. It would be much funnier if you were just gay, talking shit and telling jokes. You don’t have to say it, just start talking, they’ll understand.’ It worked out much better that way.”
Now that SNL has wrapped for the summer, Alex English says he plans to get back into doing more standup comedy. Ultimately, he would like to have his own filmed standup special.
“I’m comfortable enough now, that I can confidently go focus and pursue standup in a way that gets me to the point where I feel like I am ready to film something,” English says. “I’ll go wherever life takes me if it looks good.”
Alex English will open for Colin Jost on Sunday, June 5 at The Fillmore, 2115 Woodward Ave., Detroit. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. Tickets begin at $35 and are available on Ticketmaster.com.