The comedian Earthquake, in conversation with Kevin Aldridge of the Cincinnati Enquirer, described his style of comedy as “up front, straight to the point, and without limitations.” One of the quickest wits in the business, Earthquake rarely prepared material in advance. He could be outrageous at times, but shock was never the point of his routines. Instead, he has specialized in sharp one-liners and brutally honest observations on various topics, often drawn on his own experiences. After several years of success in urban comedy venues, Earthquake began to break into the wider worlds of television and film in the early 2000s.
Born in 1963, Earthquake was a native of Washington, D.C. His birth name was Nathaniel Stroman, and his longtime friends still call him Nate. He took the stage name Earthquake because it was easier to say than his real name. Earthquake grew up poor in a tough southeast Washington neighborhood and often didn’t have enough to eat. “You can’t have dreams when you’re hungry,” he pointed out to Aldridge. “That’s why when I was in school I used to get F’s in my first four classes before lunch.” Earthquake was a class clown but had no real idea that he could make comedy a career. He later bemoaned the fact that no teacher or advisor had ever pointed him in the direction of performing.
Joined Air Force
Steering clear of crime and drugs, he enlisted in the United States Air Force the day after he graduated from high school. “Shoot, my mother argued with me, hollered at me, and I wasn’t getting a check, so how hard could basic training be?” he explained to Matt Ehlers of the Raleigh News & Observer. He spent eleven years in the Air Force, spending time at bases in Florida, California, and the Japanese island of Okinawa and rising to the rank of sergeant. At one point he entered a talent show called Tops & Blues and discovered more of his gift for standup comedy. Earthquake’s military career came to an end, however, during the Gulf War of 1991 after he refused to participate in fighting in Kuwait and Iraq. “I didn’t want to go over there and fight for oil,” he told Daniel Neman of the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
Discharged from the military, he moved to Atlanta. For a while, at the suggestion of a military doctor, he saw a psychiatrist. “I paid $50 an hour to tell him my problems,” Earthquake told Neman. But Atlanta’s open mic nights offered him another outlet for his feelings: “I could go to a comedy club and they would pay me $50 an hour to tell my problems.” So, he explained to Neman, the beginning of his comedy career “was economic.” In the early 1990s, Earthquake honed his skills in small clubs in Atlanta and elsewhere. By 1993 he was not only performing but also booking shows at the Uptown Comedy Corner in Atlanta’s vibrant Buckhead entertainment district. Later he opened a club of his own, Earthquake’s Comedy Corner II.
The early years of Earthquake’s career involved some hard times, like the night when the comedian tried out a racially themed routine in front of an all-white audience in a small south Georgia town, only to look out and see an audience member who had put on a white hood. He kept going, finished his routine, and collected his pay. In 1997, Earthquake got his national break when he was asked to join the Russell Simmons Def Comedy Jam Tour, a spinoff from a popular though controversial comedy program on the HBO cable television channel.
Relocated to Los Angeles
Things grew from there. At an appearance at the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen, Colorado, the veteran film comedy star Whoopi Goldbderg picked him out of the crowd as a rising star. Earthquake moved to Los Angeles to be closer to the center of television comedy. Appearing frequently on the BET channel’s Comic View program in the late 1990s, he rubbed elbows with rising stars like D.L. Hughley and Cedric the Entertainer during what some saw as a new golden age of African-American comedy.
Earthquake did his own one-hour special on BET and then began to take on gigs for which the audiences weren’t predominantly African American. He appeared on Comedy Central’s Premium Blend and then in his own special on the channel, on VH1′s The List, and on HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher, where he became the first performer in the show’s history to receive a standing ovation. A fixture on the national comedy club circuit by this time, Earthquake drew large audiences with repeat appearances in such markets as Houston and Cincinnati.
Encouraged by Steve Harvey
His comedy was quick and fully improvised; Neman likened him to a tightrope walker working without a net. Earthquake agreed, telling Neman that “I never say the same thing the same way. We don’t go that way. I think true comedians come straight from the heart, complete with imperfections…. You have general ideas of jokes, but you don’t put it in no order. I don’t have jokes. I have visions of what I want to talk about.” He credited his improvisational style to the influence of comic Steve Harvey. “He showed me how to do it,” Earthquake told an HBO interviewer. “I was like, I’m writing this joke. And he said, Man, why are you writing that joke? It was come out already…. Just express your views. You’re a comic.”
In 2002 Earthquake married, telling the Florida Sun-Sentinel that marriage was like “having cable with just one channel.” He and his wife and young son made their home in Los Angeles. Marriage and family played a large part in his routines, but some of his material was political in nature. The former war resister now backed the Iraq war and had become a conservative, drawing some of his themes from the Fox television network’s O’Reilly Factor talk show hosted by commentator Bill O’Reilly. Earthquake attributed the poor showing of Republicans among African-American voters to “a bad image. It’s like if the KKK had a bake sale. No matter how good the cupcakes, black people still wouldn’t go,” he told Mekeisha Madden of the Detroit News. He was an equal-opportunity satirist, however, frequently poking fun at President George W. Bush and criticizing him as the chaos in Iraq deepened. As for terrorist mastermind Osama Bin Laden, Earthquake told National Public Radio interviewer Travis Smiley, “Child support’ll find him. That’s who you need to put on the case.”
The next step for Earthquake was to follow his late-1990s contemporaries into television and movies. Signed by the ABC television network to develop a comedy, he came up with Earthquake, in which he was set to star as a struggling father of four. The sitcom didn’t make it onto the air in the fall of 2004, but Earthquake kept at it, working on another series deal with HBO and performing in his own 30-minute One Night Stand HBO special in August of 2005. He appeared with Arnez J and other comics that summer as part of a Super Stars of Comedy tour, and he ventured into film (Getting Played, opposite Vivica Fox) and theater, playing a principal in a play called Listen to Your Woman. He had, he told Kevin Aldridge, big plans for the future: “Hopefully, my TV show gets picked up and then I get caught in a scandal where I cheat on my wife with Beyoncé and Janet Jackson, only to get left by both of them and marry Oprah. But after I slap down Stedman [Graham, Oprah's boyfriend] and change my name to Harpo.”