When it comes to comedy, the most timeless bits come from comics gleaning from their real-life experiences. This notion doesn’t only pertain to subject matter, but it also reaches to the various personas that comics take on. Jail bids have accented the lives and acts of some of the most notable comedians to tell jokes, such as Richard Pryor, Patrice O’Neal, Mike Epps and Tim Allen. Looking to add his name to this rank is up-and-coming funnyman Felonious Munk. Before being featured on right-wing media broadcasts (i.e Glen Beck, Don Imus, Don Lemon) and acting as a regular contributor to Comedy Central’s Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore, Munk was knee-deep in the streets and facing 32 years in Virginia correctional institutions for a shooting and carjacking. Munk remembered, “In my mind, I was thinking I’m gonna go home, then I realized, I got 32 years. Twelve of them is guaranteed, like I can’t do anything but try to get good time off this. That’s when it kind of hit me like, yo, this is real, you’re not getting out.”
Munk’s life as an underworld figure started in the early 90’s, at the age of 19, while attending Norfolk State University. Like many college students, Munk (born Dennis Banks) spent a lot of time cutting class in the Student Union. After communing with dudes from the New York/New Jersey area, Munk made the transition from student slacker to trap travel agent, providing VA dope fiends with trips out of reality with a selection of drugs from up north. “I started off with crack. I was out in Oceanview, VA and there you had mad crackheads,” he explained. “The quality wasn’t really that good, because you had a lot of a lot of military guys, oddly enough, that was getting high. We was just, basically, giving them trash. We wasn’t even buying soft. We were just buying hard, off rip, and reselling it. Then, you start getting a little money and you’re like, I’m not taking these chances no more. Then you go back up and you get the numbers on the soft, get a decent number on that, then you come down and change your clientele up. Then you kind of advance from there, and somebody comes to you and asks, ‘You know where I can get this?’ Then you go and get that. Then you have a little bit of everything.”
Munk came up in the dope game by being a cerebral hustler. He developed his superior intellect as a child, with a grandmother who gave books as gifts and a mother who stressed education. The knowledge he had helped him as he maneuvered through the VA trap. “In the streets, if I was smarter than you, then I had an advantage. If I knew some words you didn’t know or an idea you didn’t know, I could get over on you,” Munk surmised. “All of the streets is psychology. No matter what, if you’re organizing people into a group, if you’re trying to take over a block without a gun, there are different tactics you can use. If you’re trying to convince a dude that you’ll pay him for the one thing, but need three more, it’s not just fast-talking. It’s not just what you wearing. It’s still some psychology to it, and sometimes you gotta learn to be humble, but it’s hard to be humble when you 19 with a pocket full of money.”
Munk’s one admitted weakness was project chicks. While visiting a young lass in unfamiliar territory, he encountered his first street beef, an instance which would change his life forever. He was robbed by one of the locals. “The cat sees me. I guess I look like food. This is his neighborhood and he’s never seen me before. I’m out here to see a chick. He comes up behind me and pokes the shottie in my back and says, ‘Run ya pockets,’” recounted Munk. He came up off $600 he had in his pocket. Luckily, the bulk of his cash was in the glove box of his 5 Series BMW.
The situation escalated when Munk spotted the dude who robbed him outside of the Riverdale Theater. He figured he would take the opportunity to not only exact revenge, but send a message by clapping at him and stealing his car. “It was one of those things when you’re 19 and gunplay is coming into the game for real. In the mid-80’s is when gunplay really came into the dope game. This is like, ‘91, so once these things start happening in the early 90’s, we’re not gonna scrap it out. I’m not gonna box you and there’s no council to take you in front of. When I see you, it’s gotta be on sight or I’m food forever. That’s how I thought the rules were,” said Munk. “I’m protecting this image that I got as the dude who has everything. If I’m weak like that, you can run up in the house and get the brown and the white, if that’s your next step. You need to know there are consequences.”
For his actions, Munk was sentenced to 30 years behind bars, plus two years for the gun, in 1992. However, thanks to Munk’s attorney filing an appeal and his nemesis testifying that he had previously juxed him, 20 years of the sentence were suspended. Now, down to 12 years, Munk had to watch his moves. Every day of good behavior counted as a day stricken from his sentence, but he still had to stay thorough. “I’m going in here as a 19-year-old, maybe 145 pounds, no ratchet, no crew,” Munk remembered. “I can fight, but I’m also dealing with dudes who have been in for ten years, and they benching 400-450 pounds. I’m still in that cowboy, livewire mindset. I gotta box somebody early. Soon as I get in, I put the soap in the sock and hit a dude for something small. All I’m doing is, really, escalating the situation. Me and you might have a disagreement over a game of cards and I gotta hit you in the mouth. All I’m doing is trying to make people hesitate before they run up on me. Somebody’s gonna want to fight me regardless, but I’m just trying to make them think before they do it.”
Munk chose to pursue hobbies to stay out of the mix. Even peeking his head into another building could get another week added onto his sentence for unauthorized entry. He also had more time to bolster his knowledge in philosophy, politics and religion, by reading books. “I ducked as much as I could. You gotta stand up for yourself and make sure nobody’s gonna try you, but at the same time, I’m getting older in there. I’m 21, 22, and I’m seeing 15 and 16-year-olds coming in and I’m noticing how reckless they are. I’m going, yo, these kids is making real bad decisions. So, I start looking at myself,” said Munk. “You can’t do that kind of time, if that’s how you are. That’s a Hell of a drain on your energy. Every day you’re getting up wondering who you gonna smack, knowing one day you’re gonna smack a muhfucka and he’s gonna smack you back harder and there’s nothing you can do about it. There’s always somebody with a bigger gun. That’s how I always looked at it. If your answer to everything is violence, just know there’s always somebody that’s willing to take it a step further than you are.”
After six years, Munk was a free man. While inside, he earned a certificate in wastewater treatment and found a job, but was fired after 90 days, due to a hating supervisor. From there, he got into computers and became certified in Microsoft and Cisco. With those credentials, he began doing IT work for AT&T in Washington, DC, but his criminal record installed a glass ceiling on that career. The bosses wanted to promote him, but his charges made clearances unattainable. At the behest of his girlfriend at the time, Munk got a job at on a car lot as a salesman. He had a knack for it and got nice, eventually moving up to manager, then ascending to finance director. Just a few years out of prison, Munk was more than comfortable, making $180,000 per year in Newport News, where the cost of living was low.
However, after the recession hit, approvals for car loans dried up. The $180,000 per year plummeted to around $40,000. Before Munk knew it, he was back hustling in the streets, after about a decade of clean living. He was up to his old tricks for close to a year before he caught another gun charge in 2010. With five years minimum looming–and possibly having to eat some of that suspended 20–Munk was encouraged by a close friend, to try his hand at comedy in Virginia Beach. “Not to sound super religious, I knew the second I stepped on stage, I said…man,” Munk said of his first time on stage.
Bitten by the comedy bug, Munk decided to leave the streets alone for good. He dismantled his 12-pound press and flushed the rest of his work. However, he still had the gun charge to deal with. Two months later, he found himself in court again. Munk described the charges he was facing, “They had actual possession or constructive possession. Constructive possession was that the cop has to prove that you knew that a weapon was there. Not so much that you could have [known]. The old was, if the gun was in there with you and it was in plain sight, they didn’t have to prove that you saw it. All they had to do was prove that you was the only one in the car and you were the only one that had control over it.” His saving grace was a kid who was standing on a gun in 2010. When he moved his foot and the cops saw the gun, the kid said he thought he was standing on a tree root. Using this precedent, Munk was able to beat the case.
That same day, Munk’s first comedy video, “Stop It B! OBAMA PAY YOUR &*%$#% BILLS,” an articulate AAVE-laced diatribe against the Obama administration’s failure to pay down the national debt premiered on Wolrdstar Hip Hop. From there, the calls started coming. Munk ended up doing the news in New York City for Channel 11 and playing various clubs in the city. The rest is history.
Though not recommended, Munk sees his experiences as a hustler and an inmate as beneficial to his grind today. For one, he deems his experience as a primer in self-discipline and restraint. “The same way I can go on the street and go from, yo, I got $125, let me go get that 8-ball and a couple weeks later, I’m up to $900, because I knew how to discipline myself. I would take that, flip that and go back and get something else,” he explained. “Instead of going out to get a pair of shoes or taking a chick out to eat, I knew how to hold my re money and keep my profit and go back and take advantage of that. I would basically stick my head in the ground, for however long it took, to get to whatever number I was trying to get to. No flashy, no talking shit about what I was doing. It was just focused.”
The streets also taught Munk diplomacy, in a way. “I didn’t make enemies. It’s not about kissing people’s ass. It’s not about biting your tongue. It’s just, yo, if me talking shit to you doesn’t benefit me, why am I doing it? So, I never made enemies out there,” he said. “It’s kind of the same thing in comedy. A lot of people have helped me. Like, oldheads who have been in it for 15 or 20 years, they didn’t need to help me out. I might be taking their opportunity, but they reached out and played fair, because they saw something in me. That was on the street and here. You got 50,000 muhfuckas in America trying to do comedy, and only 5,000 of them will make it, period. By ‘make it,’ I mean you don’t even know 4,900 of them, but they just eating enough to pay they bills and do comedy. It’s a Hell of a grind for you to give somebody else a hand. What I learned is, if you really want to make it in this thing with this kind of competition, you can’t have enemies, you can’t stop working, and you can’t really rest on whatever you did before, because there’s somebody else that’s out there grinding harder than you right now.”
Munk’s time in the trap and in the slammer also instilled a fearlessness in him, which is vital to being a comic. “If you see a man knock another man out, drag him to his cell and rape him; if you’ve seen a dude swing a toothbrush with a razor blade at your own throat; if you’ve been shot at; if you’ve been hungry out there and you starved, a bunch of strangers out there don’t really intimidate you,” he explained. “I’ve been in rooms with 250 people and bombed before. When I walk off stage, they still can’t whip my ass. The first time I went up, I had that nervous energy, but I’ve never had stage fright. Not one time have I ever gone onstage, no matter how big the crowd was, and felt like, oh shit, what if I don’t have it? I’ve been through way worse. I’ve seen way worse. It’s a number of times I’ve thought, I’m cornered, these dudes is shooting or the police is coming. In 2010, I thought I was going to jail for five years. The threat of me bombing is just, I bombed. I can get back onstage tomorrow and fix that. Sometimes I can get back on the same night and fix that. The worst thing that can happen is these people don’t like me anymore. The consequences ain’t bad enough for me to have stage fright anymore.”
Furthermore, Munk found that reading gives him an advantage over others, especially in the comedy world. “There’s a certain number of things that some comics can talk about and then that’s it. I know cats who grew up in Brooklyn, for example. As dope as Brooklyn is, they never went outside of Brooklyn. They’re funny as Hell. For people in Brooklyn, they have mad references, but they don’t realize, outside of Brooklyn, nobody gets those references. Same thing with DC or Philly. These are big cities and you can get a big audience from there, but you gotta get outside of that comfort zone. The best way to get outside of that comfort zone, without spending a whole lot of money, is to read a fucking book! The more you read, the more topics you have to talk about and that’s the best way to separate yourself from these other comics. Every comic got a story about Big Momma. Every comic got a story about Raisin Bran that looks like cockroaches. Every comic got the same material. It’s comics that talk about stuff that nobody else is talking about that catch your attention and the only way to do that is to know shit other people don’t know.”
Lastly, a crucial revelation for Munk was that being the authentic you trumps the masquerade every time. “One of the things I learned to do early on was to not act like something I wasn’t. When you act out of character, nobody trusts you. How do you trust a dude, if you know he’s a livewire? I remember my man Kareem from Newark once told me, ‘Yo, I wanna fuck with you on this money shit, but you a livewire. I can’t trust that you gonna be the same dude you are talking to me when you out in the streets,’” he reflected. That’s what standup is to me. I can’t go on stage and act. I don’t have a character. Felonious Munk is the same guy [as Dennis Banks]. I got felonies, that’s a true story, but any time I stand on the stage, I’m trying to say something that hits you. I got dick jokes and vibrator jokes, but I might have a joke later on that’s got some meaning to it. I’m gonna always try to sneak some of that in there. Being in the streets, the dudes that do the best, the dudes that have the most money, the dudes that have the most success, are the ones that are most honest about who they are; the real niggas. Onstage, at the end of the day, I’m just a real nigga talking about what I know.”
In a few months, Munk plans on moving back to New York with his wife and daughter. The family is expecting to grow with the birth of a son in August. In the meantime, Munk is in Chicago, where he co-headlines a weekly comedy show at The Revival Improv Comedy Theater. He is also constantly on the road, taking his act from city to city. He is looking to enhance his role on the Nightly Show, but is also in the process of pitching his own weekly show, in his attempt to “take it from behind bars to the small screen.”
As a word of advice to anyone trying to make it out there, Munk says (using comedy as the example), “If you can quit and be OK with quitting, quit. It’s just like hustling. If you can walk away from hustling, then quit, you don’t have to do it. Same thing with comedy. This requires you to give up so much of yourself. Your partner has to be the perfect partner. My wife has to let me go out of town for a week at a time, and then come back and go right back to work that night without complaining. That’s a Hell of a burden. If you gonna take on that kind of pressure for very small reward and very small chance of making it, you gotta love this shit. If you know there’s another job you could do if comedy don’t work out, go do that shit. Don’t get into comedy. You in the fucking way. I can’t stop doing this.”