Comedian Craig Robinson was a guest on Ebro’s Morning Show on Hot 97 earlier this year and the DJ introduced him thus: “You were always the black guy I never saw before. I was like yo, where did this guy come from? And why is he getting all the big white comedies?” It wasn’t that eloquent a statement, but it does describe the sideways trip Mr. Robinson – who plays Thursday night at the Chumash Casino – took into popular culture.
TV viewers best know him as Darryl Philbin on “The Office,” and that successful role led him into the Judd Apatow repertory company, starting with “Knocked Up.” From there he got roles in “Walk Hard,” “Pineapple Express,” “Zach and Mimi Make a Porno,” “This Is The End” and “Hot Tub Time Machine” and its sequel. But he also did a solid turn as James Brown’s put-upon partner Maceo Parker in “Get on Up” from last year and ran from CGI dragons in the South Korean action film “D-Wars.”
But not many know that his standup is musical, and previous live shows have featured a live DJ and a small band, while Mr. Robinson takes center stage behind a keyboard for an evening of songs, some covers, some new songs, all pushed through his absurd comedy filter.
“It’s musical,” Mr. Robinson said in a 2009 interview for A.V. Club, describing his set. “It depends upon if I have my band with me or not. Usually it’s me at a keyboard cracking jokes, being flirtatious, and telling some stories. I like to keep it organic. My main goal is to connect with the crowd. I leave room for improv. Whatever happens, happens. When I bring my band with me, it turns into the Craig Robinson comedy dance party.”
Chicago-born, Mr. Robinson remembers a childhood of improvising comedy and making his parents laugh, but never thought of that as a career. His mother was a music teacher, and for a while that’s what he became as well, just following the same path, teaching at an elementary school.
He got into comedy to impress a girl. Egged on by a friend, he told her he was going to do an open mic that week – he didn’t tell her it would be his first – and found that he loved it. “Even though I couldn’t read my notes, I was comfortable,” he said in a Comedy Central interview. “It was an out of body experience.”
Now his early years as a teacher are fueling his return to television after the finish of “The Office.” Next month, NBC premieres “Mr. Robinson,” where Craig Robinson plays a variation on his real life persona. Co-starring alongside the comedian is Peri Gilpin (Roz in “Frasier”), Brandon T. Jackson (“Tropic Thunder,” “Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lightning Thief”), and Amandla Stenberg (Rue in “The Hunger Games”).
“This is me playing a character named Craig Robinson,” he told Crave Online. “It’s based on when I was a music teacher. Music is in everything I do. So I’m a band leader in real life. I have a band called The Nasty Delicious. So it’s me being in a band and going to teach at a school, and not really caring about the teaching until they give me a music class to substitute. Then I’m like oh yeah, it’s on.”
Where: Chumash Casino Resort, 3400 East Highway 246, Santa Ynez
When: 8 p.m. Thursday
Information: (800) 248-6274, www.chumashcasino.com