There are a of couple things about Gerald Harris that remind you of Eddie Murphy. Not the reformed, Shrek-voicing, kiddie-loving Murphy, but the red-leather-pants scorched-earth-walking Murphy who swaggered unapologetically across the stage to superstardom with his stand-up shows in the mid-’80s.
Murphy’s 1987 concert film Raw opens with a fictionalized scene from the comedian’s childhood, where he entertains a living room full of geriatric relatives who don’t quite get his off-color humor.
Harris has similar memories from his own childhood. He remembers his ability to impersonate any family member at the dinner table (Klumps, anyone?) and how his rendition of a certain drunken uncle usually blew the top off his Tulsa, Okla., home.
“It’s been natural ever since I was a itty, bitty kid,” said Harris (25-4), who fight fans know better as the UFC-jilted wrestler competing in the World Series of Fighting’s inaugural show Saturday in Las Vegas. “[Comedy's] kind of like fighting. You can get into it and train really hard, but there’s no guarantee that you’ll be good at it. There’s something inside of you that you have to have for comedy. Either you have it or you don’t.”
Harris doesn’t know where it came from (Murphy had his part-time comic father to emulate), but he’s always instinctually known how to make people laugh. And like Murphy, he’s never wanted to stop doing that. As a teenager, he graduated from the dinner table to the local comedy clubs, sneaking in past the doormen to steal a few minutes onstage.
It would seem that New York City would be only a Greyhound bus away for Harris once he finished high school, but there was just one other thing. Harris was also an athlete, having wrestled since the days of his pee-wee program at the local YMCA.
A two-time high school All-American, Harris’s wrestling was good enough for a full ride to Cleveland State University, where he competed all four years for the Vikings, qualified for nationals three times, and finished with 118 career victories — making him the “winningest wrestler” in the college’s history.
Harris was always clear about what wrestling meant to him. It satiated his competitive fire, but it was also his route through college and (hopefully) to a better-paying job that would keep him and his family afloat (Harris’s first son arrived during his freshman year) while he pursued comedy on the side.
Throughout college, between weight-cuts and dual meets, Harris promoted his own shows in the area and built up a strong following. Since he was an NCAA athlete, Harris couldn’t charge admission, which meant he was basically paying to perform. It was worth it, though.
“[The shows] were selling out,” said Harris. “I was breaking records in Cleveland. I got voted top comedian, top newcomer, top promoter — I got like four awards in one year.”
In the early going, Harris didn’t have much time to write and polish his material, so he’d wing it. On the circuit, the other comedians called him “Improv.”
“I’d literally get onstage and start asking people questions to figure out what to talk about and I’d make up a whole set on the spot,” said Harris. By his own admission, Harris “barely graduated” in 2003 with a bachelor’s degree in history.
“[History] was by accident because I didn’t know what a college major was. I wasn’t really going to school,” said Harris. “I didn’t know what I was doing, so I just took a bunch of history classes.”
Harris briefly enrolled in graduate school, but returned to Tulsa to help take care of his son in 2004. He taught high school history for two years until his certification ran out and he went from making $30,000 a year to $10 an hour. With two kids and another on the way, Harris needed to find a new income stream quickly.
“My car broke down and I needed $200 fast to buy this raggedy old Mustang,” said Harris. “A friend told me he had a way I could make the money and I thought it would be something manual like cutting grass or something that would take a lot of time. When he said fighting, I said, ‘Hell no.’ I hadn’t been in a fight since the sixth grade.”
Harris cautiously took a local fight and was surprised to learn that his wrestling background made him more than a passable fighter out of the gate. As long as he kept smashing his opponents into the canvas, the money would keep flowing. Harris also found some enjoyment in MMA and when it came time to take the next step, he dove into learning striking and the other disciplines he’d need to make MMA’s higher pay grade.
In 2007, with a 7-0 record, Harris was picked up by the International Fight League and that led to a stint on Spike TV’s The Ultimate Fighter 7 in mid-2008. Harris was eliminated during the reality show’s second round, but later leveraged his appearance into a UFC contract.
Harris went 3-1 in the UFC, winning two knockout bonuses (for $30,000 and $75,000) along the way. In 2010, Harris lost a controversial decision in the fourth fight at UFC 123 to Brazilian Maiquel Falcao and was unceremoniously dropped by the promotion. To this day, nobody understands why UFC promoters Zuffa LLC dismissed Harris, as his body of work inside the Octagon certainly didn’t merit it.
Harris doesn’t know why either. There weren’t any backstage tiffs between manager and promotion or any other kind of issue that could shed some light on Zuffa’s decision. Harris said he got dressed, went home, and simply wasn’t invited back. For the last two years, Harris has gone 4-1 in mostly regional promotions. He even fought overseas in Japan’s Dream promotion last year before it went belly up.
Throughout his fighting career, Harris has continued to perform comedy. He’s been all over the country, from Florida to Las Vegas, and has even played at recognizable venues like Planet Hollywood.
“My funnier material is the dirty material. I can do clean shows and dirty shows,” said Harris. “I prefer dirty shows because I just get to be myself, not that I’m a dirty person, but I think everybody’s got a dirty mind.”
The largest crowd he’s ever performed in front of was for 12,000 irate fans that came to see a rap concert and got Harris as their opening act.
“They booed me before I even got on the stage,” he recalls with a laugh. “They didn’t want comedy at all.”
Harris’ prank calls are just twisted enough to make Sal and Richard proud. In one call posted on You Tube, he continuously rings a movie theater on a busy afternoon, pretending to be a patron with his son who’s witnessing a couple having sex, sending attendants into a tizzy.
Harris dedicates as much time to his stand-up as he would a new move at the gym. There’s a rhythm to comedy, says Harris, that can only come with repetition. Harris can feel when he’s losing a crowd and needs to punch it up or when he’s got them eating out the palm of his hand. When he reaches those moments, Harris said the high is greater than anything he can get from fighting.
“To me, it’s a work of art because I have timing with my [material],” Harris said. “If you tell me to do fifteen minutes onstage, I can do fifteen minutes without looking at the clock. That’s the science behind it.”
On the comedy circuit, most people don’t know Harris is a professional fighter and those that do know really don’t care. Harris will come to clubs with black eyes or in arm casts and the audience won’t give him a second glance. Harris said he’s recognized more for his comedy than his MMA career, and he prefers to keep the two separate.
“I don’t really talk about fighting because a lot of the people in my audience can’t relate,” he said.
Since age 19, Harris believes he’s promoted close to 100 comedy shows himself. His “Chocolate City Comedy Show” has toured nationally and runs once a month in Tulsa. Harris also performs on the road in-between.
“I pay the comedians, I pay the venue, and at the end of the night I count the money that’s left over and pray I’ve made something,” said the 32-year-old Harris. “It’s kind of like being a car salesman. You have to get people in the door and my show has to keep them coming back.”
Harris takes his comedy seriously. He never smokes or drinks before sets — a common crutch for comedians — and still somehow finds the time to work on new material while juggling MMA training and being a stay-at-home dad to his four kids, ages 2-12. Harris’ father, a former pro boxer, gave his son the nickname “Hurricane” as a youngster, but the moniker more aptly describes his whirlwind life.
Fighting might provide lump-sum payments (some better than others), but Harris’s heart belongs to stand-up. It’s admirable that he’s willing to hustle for a dream realized in childhood, but achieved by so few. This is where the parallels between comedy and MMA cross again, says Harris, who hopes his career trajectory reaches the level of an Eddie Murphy or a Kevin Hart some day.
“It’s all about exposure and the biggest thing is just being out there,” Harris said. “There’s a lot of fighters out there who can be world champions, but nobody’s heard of them. Same thing in comedy. You can perform well, but if nobody knows who the hell you are, you’ll stay in the small clubs and make small money.”