the Lucas Brothers

Did you hear the one about the twin corporate lawyers from New Jersey?

An interview with the Lucas Brothers — playing seven Just for Laughs shows this month — about transitioning from law to comedy, co-writing Judas and the Black Messiah and more.

The Lucas Brothers were well on their way to promising legal careers when they realized they were miserable and would much rather spend their time together making other people laugh. The world is a better place for it.

(Author’s Note: Where and when possible, every effort has been made to identify which of the Lucas Brothers is speaking, though due to the free-flowing conversation that ensued, as well as spotty phone reception, this was not always possible.)

Taylor C. Noakes: How did you get into comedy?

Kenny Lucas: Kenny here. It was serendipitous. We were in law school and we weren’t doing very well. I don’t know if it was us or if it was law school, but whatever the combination, we weren’t doing very well. I was in New York and I went to school right across the street from the Comedy Cellar, which is a pretty prominent comedy club. And I’d go there and watch comedians and was blown away by it. And so one year I decided to get up on stage in New York, and I was not very good at it but I loved it. I called my brother up and said, “I think this is our right career path” and the rest is history.

Keith Lucas: Keith speaking. I thought Kenny was insane. We never thought about being standup comedians, ever. So when he proposed this idea, I was very skeptical. But we got on stage in December of 2009 and it just felt right. We didn’t even get a laugh — we got zero laughs — but it wasn’t even about the laughs, it was about being on stage with my brother, about creating something with my brother. It changed me. That was the thing that convinced me that we should go into standup together.

TCN: It’s one thing for an individual to make up their mind to go on stage, but quite another for two people to make that decision together. How did you convince each other to get into comedy as a brotherly act?

Kenny Lucas: There were a number of factors but we were always drawn to the duo act. I did a couple of gigs by myself and it just didn’t feel right. I would say something and I’m like, ‘this is inauthentic, what am I talking about?’ I didn’t grow up as a singleton — singleton is a slur we use to describe a single person (laughs) — but I didn’t grow up as a singleton, I grew up as a twin, so I have to get on stage with my brother because that is my authentic self. And as soon as we stepped on stage together, it felt right.

Keith Lucas: Kenny had to convince me. I was extremely skeptical. For about a week or two, he was like, “Bro, you don’t love the law, you don’t want to be a lawyer for the next 20 years, you might make some money but you’re going to be miserable.” And he kept reinforcing that this is something that we can do together, as opposed to me working for a firm, and him working for a firm some place. So after a couple of weeks, I was convinced. I quit law school and moved back home to New Jersey, and we started at the very bottom — in Jersey — and let me tell you, those were some horror shows, but you got to start somewhere.

TCN: What kind of lawyers were you going to be?

Kenny Lucas: Kenny here. I was at NYU and was pretty dead set on doing tax law.

Keith Lucas: This is Keith speaking. When you go to a Top 10 law school — Kenny went to NYU, I went to Duke, they were both in the Top 10 — but when you go to a Top 10 law school, I’d say 99% of them prepare you for a life in corporate law. Mergers and acquisitions, tax, I was doing bankruptcies, which was very lucrative at the time — this is back in 2008, 2009, so all these companies were failing. That’s what they prepare you for: how to be a corporate lawyer. And it stifled our creativity.

Kenny Lucas: I think we always felt like artists. Both of our parents are artists, and when I was in the environment of the law, it was diametrically opposed and antithetical to what I felt spiritually. When you’re offkilter spiritually, you start to feel anxiety and sadness, and so I had to ask myself, you know, ‘do I want to go on this journey where I do law, or do I want to explore somewhere, something that might make me happier?’

TCN: I loved Judas and the Black Messiah, which you co-wrote, namely because it’s actually about something, unlike all these stupid superhero movies that seem to be the only thing Hollywood produces anymore. What inspired you to tell Fred Hampton’s story, and then why tell William O’Neal’s story? (Author’s Note: Fred Hampton was a Black revolutionary and a leader of the Black Panthers in the 1960s. At the age of 20, he was assassinated by the Chicago police on the orders of the FBI, part of a program called COINTELPRO, which aimed to undermine and disrupt left/progressive activist groups. William O’Neal was a police informant working undercover who drugged Hampton prior to his murder and indicated to police where he could be found).

The Lucas Brothers: In college, we came across Fred’s story in an African American studies course — this is back in 2005 — and we read this book about Fred Hampton and we were like “Holy shit! What a story!” Just a mesmerizing story. We were really taken with the character of Fred and we were kinda overwhelmed by his message and his personality, and he was just a beautiful soul. That was our first introduction to Fred.

We didn’t start thinking about a film until we got into the entertainment industry. We always had aspirations to be screenwriters and filmmakers, but we didn’t know the business, we didn’t have any connections, we didn’t have any resources and we certainly didn’t have any money. Around 2013, we had a little bit of money and so we decided to circle back on the Fred Hampton story — there was something there, something cinematic about it. 

So we read this book, The Assassination of Fred Hampton, and we were always big fans of crime thrillers, that’s our favourite genre. Coen Brothers, Tarantino, Scorsese… so we were like, ‘How do we make a biopic that’s not a biopic?’ This is the question we led with. And we thought, well, if Fred Hampton was a revolutionary, we need to do something a bit more revolutionary in terms of how we make this movie. So when we read about William O’Neal we’re like, ‘Holy shit! This is a crime thriller, this is espionage — these are the things we love!’ And so we realized we had to tell William O’Neal’s story in order to tell Fred Hampton’s story. We felt that contrasting both of them told a fuller story. Right? You had one guy who was very committed to his principles and was willing to die for them, and on the other hand you have this guy who wasn’t committed to anything and wasn’t willing to die, and that’s America in a nutshell — you have those who think only of themselves and those who are selfless. It made a more dynamic story.

And it also allowed us to tell the story of COINTELPRO, how the FBI infiltrated a protest movement and sabotaged it. It’s a really interesting aspect of American politics but it’s also something that hasn’t been explored in film. This gave us an opportunity to shed some light on COINTELPRO, to the point where congressmen and senators were talking about our film shedding light on this very dark chapter in American history. And that was important to us. We also realized very early on that their story was very similar to that of Jesus and Judas. It’s very biblical and it transcends the tradition of biopic tropes. We felt that it made for a richer story, and the Academy agreed. We were ultimately right in our instincts, but at the time people were saying, “You can’t tell the story of a fucking snitch”, you know, no one wants to hear that story. But we feel the best movies are the ones that have complex protagonists. Morally, complex characters are fascinating to us.

TCN: Who are your comedic influences?

The Lucas Brothers: Great question. Seinfeld, both the comedian and the show, Larry David, Wanda Sykes, Dave Chappelle, Chris Rock, Redd Foxx, Jordan Peele, Donald Glover, Tina Fey, Monty Python… there’s so many. We’ve committed ourselves not only to the practice of comedy but its study as well. It’s a philosophy, a way of life. It’s like once you step on stage and tell that first joke, all your troubles sort of disappear, for that moment. It’s spiritual, it’s a spiritual journey, a lot more than just a profession. And all these comedians we started out with — Hannibal Buress, Mark Normand, Michael Che, Michelle Wolfe — just watching them develop and become who they’ve become, there’s no jealousy because I think we all understand it’s a spiritual thing. We’re all connected to that. And it’s unreal because, we never saw ourselves as comedians when we were kids, and now being a practising comedian, it’s beautiful. I think we’re influenced by the art form itself. ■

The Lucas Brothers are playing a seven-night run at Théâtre Sainte-Catherine (864 Ste-Catherine E.) from July 20–27. For more, please visit the Just for Laughs website.

For more Montreal comedy coverage, please visit the Comedy section.