Joe Marshall speaks the language of sinners. As an artist, he is drawn to discussing and unpacking what is deemed off limits. Growing up as — and still — an active member of his church community, Marshall’s parents hoped he would be a preacher.
“My parents are pastors,” Marshall says. “I’ve been trained in ministry, and my parents thought maybe I would be a preacher too. I think I am a minister in a way, though. My language is just different.”
Whether creating films, writing, acting or performing standup, Marshall takes entertaining seriously. He understands the power comedy has to convey messages. Born and raised in D.C., Marshall uses his art to launch discussions about tricky topics such as gender and race.
“I used to just like telling jokes, but then having a cause to explore and educate myself and others led me to tackling taboos.”
In 2019, he produced, wrote, directed and starred in the “Middle Ground,” a short comedy film series focusing on topics surrounding dating and gender, which appeared in multiple film festivals including the National Black Film Festival. Now, he is changing gears to standup, occasionally modeling with his fiancé Alex Undone and working with his longtime best friend as part of D.C. creative collective Studio Sonic.
District Fray: You are a busy person involved in many different creative projects and ventures. What would you describe as your title?
Joe Marshall: I just call myself an artist, which was a journey to say that with confidence. Growing up, I would look at artists as these cool, mysterious superheroes and didn’t know [how] to become [one]. As I started growing into myself and diving into the things I’m into, I realized it’s hard to put myself into just one box. I’m a consumer and a pursuer, and a creator of art. I have different languages of art that I use to communicate. Each art form is a way to express my spirit.
What was your first venture into becoming an artist?
In high school, I knew I was into writing, and I realized writing came naturally to me. I enjoyed creating different worlds with a pen, so I went to University of Maryland College Park and was a journalism major. But then I realized I hated the news. It sucked out the fun by taking out my adjectives and flowery words. Around my junior year, I took a magazine writing class and the restraints [were] off. They let me be creative again and use my humor to insert my personality.
How did you make the switch to comedy screenwriting?
I’ve always been very active in my church. I would write comedy sketches that we would perform. In my junior year [of college], I knew I definitely didn’t like the news, but I did like writing and being funny. So, I decided to make my own little web series for my church. I called it “The Church.” The concept was like “The Office,” except instead of the Michael Scott character, it was a pastor played by myself. That was my first venture into exploring my art. That’s where I learned how to write.
You then went on to create “Middle Ground.” How did the idea come about?
It was the first project I did that explored my voice outside of the church realm. I always wanted to talk about things we are scared to talk about. I came to “Middle Ground” with that mindset while in college. The Me Too movement was starting to ramp up, and I was realizing a lot of things about what it’s like to be a woman in this world.
What made you want to focus on exploring the tricky dynamics of sexual relationships between men and women in our current climate?
One person that helped me get there was my ex-girlfriend, who I was in a relationship with during college. I was able to talk with her, and hearing her experiences opened me up. At first, I avoided tough conversations because I felt they would always turn into an argument. But as we continued to talk, something just clicked in me. I finally tapped into a different level of empathy, and I wanted to share that experience through my art.
How has your art changed or evolved since starting in 2019?
The pandemic made me double down on standup comedy, because I felt lost for the early part of it. All the theaters were shut down. I had a standup show that I produced and got to do early in January 2020. At the same time, I was doing “Fences,” at Virginia Repertory Theatre, and then I had just booked an understudy role at Studio Theatre. They were performing a play called “Passover,” another race-related play about these kids on a neighborhood block dealing with police brutality. Ironically, that was before everything that ensued. But that show got canceled. Everything I was doing came to a screeching halt.
I was meeting my fiancé at that time, which was great because she was an anchor and something to pour myself into. But creatively, I was unmotivated. I didn’t know what I was doing. I was writing the next iteration of “Middle Ground,” but I was losing inspiration. I decided I needed something to put my focus on, and I decided on comedy. That’s when I just really started to dig in and study and learn. Then when the race stuff came, that gave me a whole other motivation — when George Floyd went down and everything that followed. I’ve always been Black, and I’ve always been about the cause, but that was a huge turning point in my heart. I realized I had no choice but to speak for us. It reminded me, you can’t get away from this. It was my responsibility as a Black artist to speak for my people and to these injustices. It was from that point on, trying to figure out how I can do that from the writing standpoint, from the comedy standpoint and from an acting standpoint.
What were some of the projects?
I was able to write a comic strip called “Uncle Sam’s Fable,” which explored what it’s like when white people realize they have privilege, how they resist it, [and] how they cope with it and use it. I likened it to a kid discovering Santa Claus isn’t real. [Ed. Note: The comic strip was in Washington Informer Bridge and was part of Studio Sonic’s collaboration to take over the magazine for an issue]. It was cool to go from feeling all these feelings after George Floyd to turning art into action. I’ve been trying to write jokes that capture those moments and feelings.
As a comedian, how would you categorize your comedy?
I’m still figuring it out. I’m in the very early stages of this art form, and want to explore areas that make you feel uncomfortable and why they make you uncomfortable. I like to tackle the biggest issues in my life. Right now, I’m newly engaged, and my fiancée, her 10-year-old daughter, their dog and myself all just moved in together in D.C. So I’ve been learning how to be a husband and a father quickly. Sometimes, I use the comedy stage and the audience as my own personal therapy session where I try to make sense of all the things I’m going through.
Why did you start “The Comedy Lab” with Studio Sonic?
I’ve been able to work with Pierre [Edwards, head of Studio Sonic] my entire creative life. That dude is my brother. We’ve known each other since high school and he’s my creative safety net in a way. I started producing outdoor comedy shows with Studio Sonic over the summer. The shows are called “The Comedy Lab,” and the goal is to create a safe space where comedic artists can feel free to experiment and explore with their art. Often, as comedians, when we perform at a comedy showcase, there’s a lot of pressure to get it right and present a polished package. There’s not a lot of grace or opportunity to try out new, risky material because the cost, in the age of cancel culture, could be the end of your career. At “The Comedy Lab,” I ask one thing of myself and all the comedians who perform: Take a risk and try something new.
Returning to standup in person, are there certain things you look forward to with a live audience again?
It is a breath of fresh air to be in front of people and do what I feel I was created to do. I get a kick out of people laughing and enjoying themselves. I deal with depression. If somebody in the audience is feeling anything like that, to be able to just say something to them, even if it’s just for a second — they get like a release or a little joy that takes them out of it. Yeah, that makes it all worth it.
You also recently posed for Gap with your fiancé, model Alex Undone, and daughter Lily. Are you adding supermodel to your resume?
Modeling is so hard, mentally. It’s just believing in yourself and convincing yourself you belong there. Alex is the model. That’s what she does. That girl eats, dreams, sleeps and breathes it. She’s been working very hard all her life, and she’s gotten to that point. There would be no Gap for me if it wasn’t for Alex. The pandemic hit, and when she would get booked, they’d hire another male model to be her significant other, but because everybody was nervous about Covid, they started booking real couples. We had to do video submissions, which I have a lot of practice with as an actor. So, we were killing the video submissions and we started getting bookings. I’m super thankful for her, and I’m excited for whatever comes from that.
What can D.C. do better for the creative community?
The only thing I didn’t like about the D.C. creative community was our best and most talented people would leave. They would work and develop here, and then they would dip and give the gifts they cultivated here to New York, L.A. and Chicago. I have adopted the standpoint “Why not do it here?” I 100% believe you can make whatever you want a reality. I would like to see more people adopt that same mentality. I believe it’s time for D.C. to reap the harvest they’ve sown into us as artists.
Who are some of your comedy inspirations?
Dave Chappelle, Chris Rock, and Gerard Carmichael. The people who just have something to say and challenge the status quo.
What work are you most proud of so far?
I’m still very proud of the seven years I spent in the church making those Christmas plays. Today, I’m a grown Black man with a beard, and I love Christmas. I wanted to give that experience to other families now wanting to create memories of Christmas they would never forget.
What’s the most memorable standup show you’ve done?
I attempted to do a 45-minute stand-up set. It was ill-advised because I was very new to the game. But I think it elevated my growth — like jumping into a 12-foot pool and not really knowing how to swim, but having to figure it out.
Who do you dream to collab with for your film projects?
Sterling K. Brown.
A24 is killing it as a production company. I love the work that they choose to take on.
Hardest part about juggling so many projects?
Organization and time management.
Follow Marshall @joelummberjack and visit joemarshall.org to view “Middle Ground” and stay up-to-date on his projects. To learn more about Studio Sonic and Comedy Lab, follow @studiosonic.co or visit studiosonic.co.
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