Cross: Drew Whitney Morgan, The Verdict is Comedy
November 2, 2016 (Fault Lines) — Ed. Note: Scott Greenfield and David Meyer-Lindenberg cross former Miami public defender turned stand-up comic, Drew Whitney Morgan, described as “Mark Twain on acid,” who’s currently touring the country with Trae Crowder and Corey Ryan Forrester on the sold-out WellRED Comedy Tour, hjs co-authors of The Liberal Redneck Manifesto:Draggin’ Dixie Outta the Dark.
Q. You’re a Tennessee redneck and, at least at first, you didn’t stray far from your roots: you were a high school jock who went to local Maryville College, where you were an award-winning football player and an excellent student. You majored in government, and it’s not a huge leap from there to law school, but what led you to pull the trigger? Was it always the plan? Were you bored? Restless? Tired of all the adulation from cheerleaders? Were you going to save the world?
A. I guess first of all I’ll say that I’ve always identified as more of a hillbilly. Growing up, “redneck” was an insult. But meeting other southerners, I learned it was often vice versa, and that all those words – redneck, hillbilly, hick, white trash – were insults invented by people who weren’t like me to put us down. At first I ran away from that entirely. I guess that sort of answers the second part of your question.
Where I’m from doesn’t have a lot of jobs or things to do. I went to law school because I wanted to see more of the world and get a “good job.” But I also wanted out. I had good grades and got a good LSAT score and thought, like so many young people, law school would be a good way launch myself upwards away from being “redneck” while still figuring out what I wanted. That was very naive.
Clearly, I’ve circled back to being redneck. To hell with that being an insult.
Q. You went to Boston College Law School, class of ‘10. This was at the height of the Great Recession, when professional opportunities for new lawyers were nowhere to be found, but the message hadn’t yet filtered down to law students, who would find themselves jobless after graduation, heavily in debt and without the future promised by the glossy brochures. Were you aware of the risk you were taking by attending law school? Boston College does significantly better than average in terms of bar passage rates and employment outcomes for its grads, so were you somewhat insulated from what your peers at other schools were going through? More importantly, did you like it? Was law school living up to your expectations? Did you ever freak out and say to yourself, “what was I thinking?”
A. I hated law school. But I’m so stubborn I didn’t realize it until I left, which is the most lawyer thing about me I supposed- I can’t ever be wrong.
I’m not sure what my exact expectations were, but they were probably unfair. Because of that, no, law school did not live up to them. I’m sure I was insulated some from those issues but I had no frame of reference. BC is a good school, but my grades we mediocre because for the first time I didn’t give a shit about most classes.
I absolutely freaked out over the job issue. I also remember being angry at realizing that I’d been lied to. Not just by the school, but it felt like by everyone. Education is put on a pedestal in this country as if it is a magical tool that automatically qualifies you for the American Dream. ESPECIALLY a law degree.
I, again naively, thought a law degree was versatile and I could do anything with it. My parents also believed this. Turns out, law school is basically a trade school for type A’s. When those loans go from an abstract idea to an actual bill, and you realize you can’t get any other jobs, it’s a hell of a thing.
The world had lied, my parents were fallible and I was ignorant. This all hit at once and it was scary. But I’m glad I learned all those lessons relatively young.
Q. What made you choose criminal law? It couldn’t be economic, since criminal lawyers, especially public defenders, aren’t likely to get rich. So why? Were you dead set on being a defense attorney, or did it just happen? Firebrand liberal that you are, was there a political motivation? Was there a burning desire within to perform, before a jury if no one else?
A. It was always gonna be trial work, for sure.
My father is a preacher and my mother is a teacher, so service has always been important to me and my family. I came to law school looking for ways to serve. I started out volunteering for immigration law projects. It was too bleak for me, honestly.
I kept looking, and yes, politics had something to do with it. I wanted to try trial law and just couldn’t see myself ever prosecuting a man. To stand up with righteous indignation and wielding the power of the State was so fucking strange to me. I still can’t wrap my head around the folks who do it. Don’t get me wrong, we need good prosecutors and I’ve met quite a few (some shitty ones too, of course). But I couldn’t see myself doing it.
With public defense, I felt like I could wrap myself up in people’s stories, rather than some “cause” or political ideal. I liked having clients. Then when I got into it and realized the awful shape our justice system is in, I wanted to pursue it even more.
Q. After graduation, you moved to Miami, where you signed on with the county public defender’s office. You started off doing juvenile representation, but moved quickly to adult court, where carried 100 cases at any given time. Did anything in your education prepare you for the harsh reality of representing society’s poorest and most vulnerable? Juggling so many cases at a time? Were you mentored, given adequate support, or thrown in the deep end and left to swim? Were you happy with what you were doing? Were you desperate to get out? Both?
A. I don’t know about my legal education preparing for the emotional side of PD work. I don’t think it did. I’m not sure anything could have.
As for the case load, the Miami PD office is a special place and they prepared me as best they could, sending me and other new hires through a rigorous training before we got a single client. I had wonderful mentors and we were supported as adequately as possible.
However, the truth about public defense is that it comes down to you and your client(s). I liked a lot about that, but in terms of support, it’s tough. There is no money. There are no resources. There is no support system. You are the resource — you and a small, dedicated, over-worked and shared-among-many team. That being the case, being thrown in the deep end was necessary. There is no shallow end.
At some point I became both happy and desperate to leave. My time as a public defender is what I’m most proud of in my professional life. It is a hard and noble job. Public defenders are my heroes. But, it was killing me. There are no happy endings in a criminal case. Even when the outcome is “correct,” no one feels happy.
Q. Obligatory first jury trial question. What kind of case, and how did it go? In retrospect, were you the lawyer you thought you were? What would you have done differently? You tried over 40 cases during a sixteen-month stint at the public defenders, including 24 as lead counsel, which is a hell of a lot for a greenhorn. Can you even remember the individual cases? Were you burning out under the workload, the stress? Is it possible for PDs to provide adequate, even zealous representation to their clients, given the volume of cases, the pressure, the many demands on their finite time and energy? Is it all too much?
A. I can only remember the details of about five cases. One, of course, was my first, which we won on case law. I knew we would win and I was pumped about it. My kid had stood up to a bully who had kicked his friend. They fought, unfortunately at a separate location, later at school. He pled self-defense and the state failed to offer any direct opposing testimony. All they had was a teacher who saw the end of the scuffle. The alleged victim wouldn’t testify because he had his own case springing from the initial bullying. The state thought they didn’t need him. They were wrong.
The judge agreed that case law made a guilty verdict literally impossible. Motion to dismiss granted.
I was folding under the load though. Yes, I was burning out, but I didn’t know it.
I hesitate to answer the question about zealous representation. The truth is no, it is generally not possible. I know a lot of PDs who do the impossible daily, though. But, and I think they will tell you this, they also fail sometimes from sheer exhaustion or simply running out of time on any given day. I don’t wanna say PDs don’t zealously advocate – they do. But it’s not sustainable. There’s a reason most of us quit.
Q. At the very end of 2011, you moved back to public defense – Knox County, Tennessee this time. You may not have had some of the luxuries of Miami-Dade, like hallway depositions, but they promoted you up to felony within three months and you were handling a “mere” 60-80 cases at a time. Compared to some of your fellow grads, you were doing great. But after another two years in the trenches, you gave it up for life as a stand-up comic? Where did the ambition come from? What did your wife, friends, coworkers think about this? Were you burned out on the law, criminal defense, or were you desperate to pursue your craft? At that point, did anything seem like a good alternative to more public defense, or had you found your true calling? Did you think you were funny?
A. I’ve loved stand-up comedy since I was 5 years old. Jokes felt like literal magic to me as a kid. I mean my sweet and Baptist mother laughing at Eddie Murphy saying AWFUL things? That was something special.
My wife knew this and pushed me to pursue it. I did, at first as a hobby, as a release of tension more than anything else. I recall my friends and coworkers being a little surprised at it. But it also kinda makes sense. I’m a smart ass and I’d always liked performing.
When we moved to NYC, I intended to take a month off and then pursue being a Harlem Defender. During that month, I did and/or watched comedy every night and I realized that 1) I could be good at this, and 2) a comedy career is all I want.
Also, I was realizing I shouldn’t go back. I was coming dangerously close to being a bad lawyer. Instead of making legal arguments, for example, I wanted to tell judges, “You shouldn’t violate my guy on that this VOP for a failed drug test because the drug was marijuana and let’s all grow up and I got high with your bailiff last month and fuck this shit.”
That’s bad advocacy.
Q. In 2014, you and your wife, an actress, moved to New York to pursue your careers full-time. You were doing document review during the day to pay the bills and stand-up at night. “Liberal redneck” that you are, how did you like the bohemian life? How did you get your start? Did all the court appearances leave you cool facing an audience, or is it a bad comparison? Was an audience easier to face than a jury? What if they didn’t laugh? What if they returned a one-word verdict?
A. I think it is a fair comparison in terms of nerves, but a key difference, and what probably has a lot to do with me leaving criminal law, is that if no one laughs, it hurts your soul. If you lose a big case you should’ve won, it hurts your soul and also it ruins someone’s life.
So being a lawyer prepared me in a specific way for comedy. I was less afraid to “bomb” early on. That’s not to say I was fearless, but after you call a cop a liar in front of a court room, some drunk at a bachelorette party screaming “you suck” just isn’t that scary.
Q. Lawyers are dropping out of the profession at an alarming rate. More than a few snake-oil merchants claim the problem is that lawyers are stressing themselves out too much, not taking care of themselves, and that they shouldn’t sweat the details (like providing competent representation) if it’s upsetting to them. But then there’s you: after you decided to stop doing arguably the most grueling crimlaw job of all, you didn’t go and work at a golf course. Instead, you traded law stress for comedy stress, a “job” that doesn’t even have the benefit of a steady paycheck. And in a notoriously competitive business, you’re making a success of it. Do some people just thrive on adversity? Did your tolerance for adversity as a lawyer pay off as a comedian? Would you recommend it to other lawyers on the fence about quitting? Is “following your dreams” good enough, or do you have to be tough enough to back it up? Are all lawyers really frustrated stand-up comics?
A. I do think I (perhaps unhealthily) crave struggle. I can’t explain it. In terms of advice to other lawyers, I left the advice business a while ago. But I did write a column called “follow your dreams, pussy,” sort of as a joke. So yeah, do whatever you want.
Are all lawyers frustrated stand-up comics ? Ha! An EMPHATIC NO. Very, very few of us are funny. Most trial lawyers reading this are already getting defensive and arguing with me. I get it. You’re a hit at parties. Juries like you. And you’re one of those people who can do anything. You’ve accomplished every single goal you’ve ever set for yourself (other than experiencing deep happiness). But trust me, you’re mostly definitely not funny. At the same time though, if you wanna do anything different with your life, you gotta ignore a lot of assholes telling you what you are or aren’t, so fuck me.
Q. You, Trae Crowder and Corey Ryan Forrester – Tennessee rednecks all – just co-wrote a book, the Liberal Redneck Manifesto, where you spend equal time poking fun at your homeland and celebrating what you love about the South. Your background provides the source of a lot of your comedy, and to be fair: in a time of ludicrous transgender-bathroom legislation, it makes a lot of sense to pick on Dixie. But since you guys are not-so-secretly southern patriots, isn’t it maddening to be treated with condescension by your fellow liberals, those coastal elites who hear “southerner” and assume the worst? Is that in part why you wrote the book? Is it worth it, being a Southern liberal and perpetually misunderstood?
A. What a phenomenal question. Hell yes to all that. One of the most interesting parts of the comedy tour is interacting with fans from the coasts who sometimes overtly but accidentally commit the sins they judge the south so harshly for.
“Well I’m just wondering, with all the cousin fucking and Klan meetings at schools and third world conditions in your homeland, how y’all got out?”
I’m barely exaggerating. A woman told us she lived in the south for a year and “wanted to kill herself” and thought that would be endearing.
So it’s like “How’d we get out? We fuckin’ drove here.”
That’s absolutely the goal of the book, as well as trying to move on from the actual and very real problems of the south. And of course, it is all worth it. Being southern is the best thing about me.
Wouldn’t you rather come back into the redneck mainstream?
*I’m sorry. I for real don’t know what you mean.
Q. You’re well on your way to stardom. You, Trae and Corey are currently on tour in the wake of the successful book release, you’ve appeared at a number of comedy festivals (and been extremely well-received, we might add,) you cohost your own political comedy show on SiriusXM. Not bad. Not bad at all. Miss public defense yet? Are you sure you made the right choice? Where do you want to go from here, prime time sitcom or dancing with the stars? And where can we expect to see you next?
A. Haha. YES. I made the best choice for me. And yeah it’s working out. But I was happy with my choice a year ago, too, doing document review in a windowless office with more than few coworkers who’d given up, leaving there to go to a windowless bar and tell jokes to 3 people who didn’t care, eating shitty pizza and then waking up late and rushing to the train to do it again – I was happy. As I said, I kinda glorify struggle. I hated it at times. But it worked for me. It was the right choice then. So now that things are going well, I still of course feel I made the right call.
From here on – yes I would like to act in and write scripted comedies. But my main goal is for y’all get to see the wellRED tour get our own special. Hope that happens soon. SKEWWW! Thanks.
And what’s so funny? Ladies and gentlemen, Drew Whitney Morgan!