Atlanta comedian garners laughs from 'different' source of inspiration

Atlanta comedian Hank Denson explores the changes in society, family and communication nearly three years after the COVID-19 global pandemic in his new stand-up special, "PanDifferent," now streaming on Amazon Prime. (Courtesy of Hank Denson)

If there’s one secret that comedian Hank Denson has learned about comedy, it’s that the best material isn’t based on a punchline from a book of jokes or a cliched line from a generic sitcom character but rather on real-life experiences that most audiences are able to relate with —  something that Denson certainly hasn’t been short on within his career.

Denson, who has made appearances on BET and in the feature film “Barbershop 3: The Next Cut,” gained national recognition in 2016 for his viral video describing his frustrations chaperoning his children during a field trip to the Georgia Aquarium and urging for raises for public school teachers.

The success of the video, which topped over 10 million views on Facebook, led Denson to leave his medical career as a pediatric orthopedic and dedicate himself full time to comedy.

With his newfound fanbase and performance offers throughout the country, Denson never imagined that some of his most innovative material would end up coming from the confinement of his own home, when the COVID-19 pandemic caused a national shutdown on live events and performances.

Quarantining for months with his wife and two children — a then-21-year-old daughter and 13-year-old son — Denson realized firsthand how differently his kids saw the world around them.

“Between me, and my daughter, and my parents, it’s a different way of survival,” he said. “This was the first time in which we were all seeing so many lives affected so fast.”

These realizations led to “PanDifferent,” Denson’s most recent stand-up special, which was released on Amazon Prime earlier this year. The Atlanta resident describes the special as observations of the impact that the unexpected 2020 pandemic had on his family, as well as the rest of country.

“When you’re in a situation where you are sharing a space with people who have different minds and opinions and ideas, you can… actually learn a lot, even from your children.”

“It is a time where we all sit back and take in the humor of how the pandemic has changed us,” said Denson. “It’s a real life look at what we’re dealing with in today’s society, before and after.”

Denson notes, for one, that the emotional sensibilities of the country have shifted, particularly within the realms of ‘cancel culture’.

“We are really, really emotional now,” Denson said. “Before [the COVID-19 pandemic], it would take a lot for people to respond to something that they didn’t understand or didn’t like. As soon as something (controversial) comes out… everyone’s sharing it, everybody’s got comments. It’s like, when did we all become professionals and experts at everything?”

One of the more beneficial aspects that Denson believes that the pandemic helped to accomplish, specifically among families who were at home together, is a stronger form of communication and bonding that typically went untouched before March 2020.

“Lockdown was the first time of me actually being inside of my marriage… the first time where you actually raised your kids,” he said. “Before, you typically spent four hours day raising your children, possibly ten hours in a week, due to work and the commute. When you’re in a situation where you are sharing a space with people who have different minds and opinions and ideas, you can actually stay and learn a lot, even from your children.”

One of Denson’s favorite moments of the special comes from an excerpt based upon an emotional encounter he had with his 24-year-old daughter, who came out to him as a member of the LGBTQ community several years prior to the pandemic.

“Before [COVID-19 lockdown], we had never really talked about it. There was no real back and forth conversation… particularly about gender,” he said. “During the pandemic, we were able to sit down and I was able to have a real dialogue with her…and to let her know I don’t have a box to alienate or put her in. One of my favorite jokes from the special comes from that experience… ‘I love you regardless, so whatever gender you want to be that day, just still come outside and help me put down this mulch.”

Denson says the lockdown also shifted about the way that business within the entertainment industry operates, with more performers taking on opportunities to create and produce their own content than ever before. “PanDifferent” is the comedian’s first self produced project, and, as he emphasizes, certainly not the last.

Despite a fleet of new projects in development, including an upcoming podcast putting a humorous twist on the world of sneaker culture, Denson will always be thankful for the impact the pandemic has had on both his career and his family.

“It taught me that I had everything I need,” he said. “My son constantly entertains me, my wife is funny and smart, and my daughter is talented. These are the people you’re sewed into, and you don’t even see it most of the time because everyone’s so distracted. Some people live their whole lives and can’t find themselves at all.”