Perched behind the gleaming keyboard of his Roland JV-30 electronic piano, the high-flying stand-up comedian and Hollywood comic actor Craig Robinson ’94 is about to bring the entire house down.
He does it setting up an opening joke with his signature deadpan glare.
“Before I begin,” says the Chicago-born comic before a huge Def Comedy Jam studio audience, “how many people out there have seen [fellow-comedian] Chris Rock’s HBO special? Give me a hand-clap if you saw it.”
The New York City comedy-clubbers respond with loud, exuberant applause. Robinson glares back at them, his features frozen into a glowering mask. For the audience, it’s like gazing into the stone face of thousand-year-old Easter Island Statue.
“Okay,” Robinson said in a lifeless monotone. “There goes that material.”
His fans roar while he remains stone-faced, hunching gloomily over the keyboard. He’s waiting. As the laughter subsides, he continues a monologue that includes an Entertainment News bulletin: “Did you hear that the man who wrote ‘The Hokey Pokey’ died? It was all very sad and very embarrassing. At his funeral, they couldn’t get him into the casket. They put his right foot in. . . .”
This is vintage stand-up for the 41-year-old TV and movie comic from the Windy City, who bangs away on the keyboard while firing off one-liners. He drones on until suddenly he’s on his feet, walking off stage to roaring applause as he laments: “I can see you’re not gonna be serious about this!”
Welcome to the wild comic world of television and Silver Screen actor Craig Phillip Robinson—the ISU music major who discovered his natural gift for comedy while “cracking one-liners and imitating Richard Nixon” for his pals on campus.
He went on to TV stardom as the glum-looking, affectless Darryl Philbin on the smash-hit comedy series The Office. It was 2005 when he joined the wildly popular sitcom as the poker-faced warehouse manager at Dunder-Mifflin, a Pennsylvania paper supply company.
NBC’s highest-rated scripted series, The Office was created as a parody of modern American office life that delved into the lives of the workers. The popular show earned numerous prestigious television honors, including an Emmy for Outstanding Comedy Series and a Television Critic’s Association Award for Outstanding Achievement in Comedy.
While The Office comes to an end this spring, Robinson’s career continues to soar. He is building on success gained while a regular on the hit show, during which time he appeared in several successful Hollywood comedies including Knocked Up in 2007, Pineapple Express in 2008 and Shrek Forever After in 2010.
Robinson’s jet-powered showbiz career continued climbing in 2010 with the release of Hot Tub Time Machine, a madcap futuristic spoof that featured Hollywood standouts Rob Corddry and John Cusack. He is now set to star in the lead role of the movie Peeples, which will be released in May.
Cast as Wade Walker—a hapless, whacked-out children’s entertainer whose rollercoaster romance sets a new standard for hilarious hijinks—the Lions’ Gate feature film seems likely to boost Robinson into the comic stratosphere.
“I think it’s pretty clear by now that Craig has arrived as a film star,” his agent Nicole Chabot at Re:group Entertainment said while rhapsodizing about the “amazing comedic vibes” Robinson generates in Peeples.
“He’s got a huge natural talent for comedy, which became evident during his seven years on The Office. It’s no surprise to people in the industry that he’s about to star in his own vehicle. I think he’s going to be around for a long, long time.”
Ask Robinson to account for his remarkable gift as a comedian and he’ll respond in typical, low-key fashion. “Really, I think comedy chose me,” he often tells interviewers. “From as far back as I can remember, I’ve always been able to make people laugh.
“Really, I always had this urge to be silly that I couldn’t control, know what I mean? Even as a child, when I told the story about ‘The Three Little Pigs,’ I’d have one of the pigs put on his gym shoes and run away before the house blew down! For me, trying to get laughs is about as natural as breathing or eating or sleeping.”
Robinson brought his quick wit to the ISU campus in the early 1990s. The son of a Chicago attorney, his mother taught music for many years in city schools—which he said probably accounts for his talent as a singer and keyboard artist.
After deciding to major in music, he soon discovered that his gift for one-liners was the key to instant popularity. When taking time from his classes and appearances with ISU’s Interdenominational Youth Choir, Robinson dropped by high-octane, Chicago-area comedy clubs, including the famed Second City venue and Chicago Improv.
“At first, I didn’t really believe I could get up there and make people laugh,” he remembered with a gleam of nostalgia. “But several of my buddies on campus were telling me: ‘You’ve been cracking me up for months. Why don’t you take that stuff on stage and see if you can make it with a live audience?’”
He took their advice. His first few comic forays went well, yet he wasn’t fully convinced that he had the talent for a showbiz career. In a burst of unexpected prudence, he settled down and earned a master’s degree in music education at St. Xavier University, then wound up teaching music several years at Chicago’s Horace Greeley High School.
But the stand-up comedy bug had bitten him deeply while at ISU. By the late 1990s, he was wandering the country and appearing frequently during open-mike sessions at clubs in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and elsewhere. When he won several regional competitions for comedians, he wound up as a guest on Comedy Central and such popular TV shows as Real Time with Bill Maher and Jimmy Kimmel Live.
A series of small parts on TV sitcoms followed, including Friends, and in low-profile comedy films. Then came his major breakthrough as a regular on the increasingly popular sitcom with superstar Steve Carell.
The show’s conclusion will not derail Robinson, who is still armed with his trademark deadpan demeanor. With his knack for playing snap-crackle-and-pop melodies on the keyboard while delivering his low-key monologues, he seems destined to become a household entertainment brand.
But if asked to speculate about his future in showbiz, Robinson will answer in typical joking fashion while revealing he dreams of the chance to become a member of Barack Obama’s cabinet.
“What I really want,” he’ll say without a trace of a smile, “is to become the next Secretary of the Department of GDB: Get Down and Boogie!”