(The Root) — Since he was a kid, Shaquille O'Neal has known how to make people laugh. Whether he was coining a hilarious new nickname (the Big Aristotle, the Big Cactus and the Big Shamrock, just to name a few) or dropping one-liners at postgame press conferences, Shaq frequently displayed great comic timing.
Now retired from the NBA, O'Neal is focused on creating a comedy empire: The Shaquille O'Neal All-Star Comedy Jam Tour is in its fourth year. His latest venture is the Comedy Shaq, a recently launched YouTube channel featuring a variety of programming, including skits, stand-up and appearances from Shaq and celebrity friends such as Kevin Hart, Chris Tucker and Steve Harvey. In fact, he's one of several celebrities — including Russell Simmons, Jay-Z and Pharrell Williams — who have also recently launched their own YouTube channels.
As for his day gig, he's looking to improve on his rocky first year on TNT's Inside the NBA. "I knew I wasn't doing great, but I was a work in progress," he told The Root. "But I will be the man."
When we caught up with him on the phone recently, Shaq said he's learned from his mistakes. Plus, he let us in on how he honed his sense of humor and what it takes to make the cut on his comedy tour.
The Root: People familiar with your story know that your father, Sarge, was a disciplinarian. But what was the role of comedy in your household?
Shaquille O'Neal: It was a whole lot of Richard Pryor, a whole lot of Eddie Murphy Raw and a whole lot of Fred Sanford. My father used to be downstairs watching it so loud, so I would sit on the steps laughing my ass off — especially when Eddie said, "Goonie-goo-goo" and talked about the uncles who used to come over [to the cookout and say], "That ain't no motherf—-ing fire." I was like, "Oh, sh—, all my uncles do that."
Even though it's comedy, they was talking some real sh—. I was like, "Damn, my daddy and his brothers be doing that, fighting over the fire." That was funny as hell. I always used to watch Sanford and Son and Good Times, too.
TR: When did you develop your own sense of humor?
SO: I had to develop ways for kids to stop talking about me because I was so tall. So I was like, "Let me act crazy so they like me." I was always the class clown. My mother used to always tell me, "This is either gonna make you successful or get you in a lot of trouble." And for my brand, it worked because most 7-footers don't have personality.
When I first started coming to L.A., Monday was the Improv, Tuesday was the Comedy Store. I would go there every Monday and Tuesday and meet and support these guys. Kevin Hart, Chris Tucker, we became friends. When I saw that Russell [Simmons] wasn't doing [Def Comedy Jam] anymore, I said, "Let me try it." It's been working, and now we're the number one comedy brand.
TR: What makes a comedian a good fit for the Shaquille O'Neal All-Star Comedy Jam tour?
SO: He has to be raw. He has to be funny and know how to control a crowd.
TR: What stood out about Gary Owen? What made you think he could be master of ceremonies this time out?
SO: Gary is a white guy, but he does urban comedy. We love him. He tells us about us. But he tells us in his voice, and he is funny as hell.
TR: And you just launched a YouTube channel. What was the inspiration?
SO: You have to look where technology is going. People are on their phones or computers about 60 percent of the day. Now, if you look at some TVs — they are called smart TVs — you can go to YouTube on your TV. This is where everyone is going. I know this is where I get most of my laughs and my kicks from.
TR: Any future for Shaq in stand-up?
SO: No, never. I'm a guy who could give you one or two jokes in a row just to get your reaction, and then I'm done. Boom, bam, and I'm out.
TR: Let's talk about your work at Inside the NBA. You had a rough start. How did you improve as the year progressed?
SO: You got to get comfortable, especially dealing with Charles [Barkley], who talks a lot. You got to know when to get it out quick or when to say it. Charles will take up the whole segment.
A lot of times I didn't really say nothing. I didn't know what to say or when to say it. But as the season went on, I got more comfortable. When I got there I was in professional mode, but our show is more comedy-slash-professional. I got to be a little bit more myself and just talk basketball. It will be much better this year.
TR: The NBA season starts in less than a month. The biggest story of the offseason, though, was the Lakers' addition of Steve Nash and Dwight Howard. Does that make them the favorites?
SN: It does make them the favorites on paper, but older legs kinda worry me a little bit; Dwight's back worries me a little bit. Everyone still has to go through the [Miami] Heat. I would love to see the Heat vs. the Lakers in the finals. I know the whole world wants to see that.
Thomas Golianpoulos is a writer living in New York City. He has also written for the New York Times, Grantland, the New York Observer, Wired and Vibe.