Exclusive: Chris Sullivan’s Beatbox Brand of Comedy

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Chris “Shockwave” Sullivan, beatboxer and comedic improv powerhouse, is a busy man: his schedule includes showcasing his talent in Freestyle Love Supreme, a monthly show every first Monday at Comix, in addition to starring in a PBS children’s show called The Electric Company (a revival of the ’70s classic which he explains is a “hip and funky kind of way to make reading fun”). After the jump, we chat with Sullivan about the importance of hip-hop comedy right now, the relationship between jazz and improv, and the story behind how he got hooked up with the In the Heights crew.

“The show encompasses singing, but I wouldn’t classify myself as a classically trained singer. I’m really a beatboxer,” says Sullivan of Freestyle Love Supreme, an improvised mish-mash of foot-stomping jams, audience participation, and freestyle rap. The show, which boasts two of the creators from the Tony award-winning In the Heights, has come a long way from its basement origins at the Drama Book Shop. Like In The Heights, its reach spans all ages (“from ages eight to eighty bobbing their heads to our performances”) and speaks to all races and genres. “It’s kind of a universal enjoyment for all,” says Sullivan.

So how did he come on board? Lin-Manuel Miranda and Bill Sherman (who both will be at Comix tonight) were brewing up what now is Freestyle Love Supreme in between rehearsals for In the Heights. Sullivan met them after seeing an early incarnation of the show and suggested they add a beatboxer to the mix. “After a while on the comedy circuit performing solo, a couple friends told me I should check them out at the People’s Improv Theater,” he remembers. “I did and was blown away. I met Anthony after the show and I rehearsed with them a couple weeks later and debuted as a guest soon after. I replaced their CD instrumental tracks during the live show and became a permanent fixture. Together, under the direction of Thomas Kail, we structured the show into what it is today.”

Freestyle Love Supreme was inspired in part by John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme. “Coltrane was a tremendous jazz musician that was able to ride chord changes with material off the top of his head in much the same way we ride the structure of our show and the suggestions of the audience completely spontaneously,” he explains. “A Love Supreme is a very appropriate album to draw inspiration from, as we direct our energy in a positive light — telling stories, playing characters, sharing experiences and making each other and the audience feel good.”

For all you anti-participatory peeps, no need to fear and run for the nearest exit. “It’s funny because part of the structure lets the audience in. But we don’t put them on the spot,” says Sullivan. “You can’t volunteer your friends.” But joining in is definitely part of the fun. Participants who share their day to day witness it translate into magic in the hands of these madly creative talents on the stage. “If people walk out of the show feeling better than when they walk in, I’m happy. It’s definitely a show that despite all these words I’m using to describe it, needs to be experienced. And it’s never the same twice, so seeing it twice is recommended. We’ve expanded our crew to about a dozen and for me the ultimate goal is to continue expanding… our unique brand of hip-hop comedy is one the world could really use more of right now.”

If you live in New York, catch Freestyle Love Supreme tonight at Comix at 9 p.m.; click here to grab tickets.