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Sergeant Nathaniel Martin Stroman was a “terrible soldier.” He’ll tell you so himself. From half-heartedly participating in battle simulations to constantly questioning authority, the former U.S. Air Force member, better known as Earthquake, regularly deploys jokes about his time in the service in his stand-up routines. But after more than three decades in the game, the comedy veteran says it’s “About Got Damm Time” for his salute.
In his new Netflix special, Legendary, Quake—as he’s called by real fans—delivers blunt musings on being a single father of three, dark humor on mortality, and strikingly profound commentary on health within the Black community. Delivered in an unmistakable “Souf-eas” D.C. accent, Quake’s comedy style feels like cracking jokes with your uncle at a family barbecue in Rock Creek Park. It’s that down-to-earth authenticity and effortless connection with his audience that reverberates most in this special.
“My fans already know what I am,” Quake tells City Paper. “You’re dealing with something that’s subjective … I tell comedians all the time, ‘[There’s] always gonna be somebody that finds you not to be funny. They’re not gonna like none of your jokes. You just hope all those people don’t show up that night.”
In Legendary, Earthquake recounts going to the doctor’s office for a prostate exam, reenacts how he would have handled the Jan. 6 insurrection as a Capitol Police officer, and complains about friends and family who scoffed at him for getting the COVID-19 vaccine. As he slides across the stage telling the crowd how his physician “seductively” took off his medical gloves post-test or why he wants a woman who’s as devoted to him as a Trump supporter, he delivers his signature aftershock line, “These Ain’t Jokes!”
Quake clarifies: Jokes are fiction. “I make real-life events funny.” That includes calling out friends who blame chronic coughs on “allergies” or invest more time in their appearance rather than checking their blood pressure. Quake jokes in Legendary, “You got brothers out here been wearing a mask straight for 18 months, ain’t seen a dentist in 18 years.”
The legend of Earthquake began on Condon Terrace in Southeast’s Washington Highlands neighborhood in 1963. It was there that a young Stroman tried to find his voice among his four, equally funny siblings.
“When [you’re] in a big family, when you talk you gotta make your words count or you’ll never get to talk again so you gotta get to the point,” he says. “When a mother has five kids, she don’t have no time for you to go all around the [mulberry] bush.”
As a student at “big, bad Ballou” High School, Quake got a glimpse of the spotlight while hanging out at venues like the Maverick Room and Howard Theatre with members of the then up-and-coming go-go band Rare Essence.
“Little Benny, Dave, Footz, DC—all of them was my classmates and they was like the Jackson 5 so I hung with them and went to all the go-gos and stayed till 4, 5 o’clock in the morning,” he says.
Years later, he still incorporates D.C.’s signature sound and musicians with local ties into his live act. The aptly named Wale song “Legendary” sets the tone for Quake’s special, in which he approaches the microphone smoothly rapping along with the D.C. hip-hop artist’s lyrics, “You keep praying on your break, I hope you got a sling/ Shot for all them shots coming out them beaks.”
“D.C. got the hardest people in the world, you hear me?” he tells City Paper. “D.C. [loves] their entertainers, but they’re the last ones to shell out the flowers for them.”
He made sure to not only bring the heat in Legendary but also put on for his city. “I want to come home and see how it is,” the comic, who now lives in Los Angeles, tells the roaring crowd at Bethesda Blues & Jazz Supper Club, where the special was recorded. The audience was filled with his friends and family. “And goddamn it, I’m feeling good,” he concludes.
But when he got the call to do the show from the president of Netflix himself, in winter 2020, Quake thought he was the one being played. Ted Sarandos told Earthquake that fellow D.C. comedian Dave Chappelle wanted his number to formally ask to produce his special. Five minutes later, the phone rang. Legendary is one of four Netflix stand-up specials produced by Chappelle.
The two comedians first met in the ’90s when Earthquake owned several comedy clubs in Atlanta, one of which booked a young Chappelle. The rest, as they say, is history.
Quake found himself in Atlanta after being honorably discharged from the Air Force for refusing to fight in the Gulf War after 11 years of service. He chose the Georgia capital after watching a CNN story that said Atlanta was the best city for Black people to prosper. Quake sharpened his comedy skills at clubs in the South, but it wasn’t until he was rejected by what he deemed the “premier Black comedy club,” Comedy Act Theater, that he sought a new avenue to success. A little guidance from his mother helped Quake get the last laugh.
“She said, ‘Well, get your own comedy club,’ and that’s what I did,” he says. “I found some investors, got $750,000, built out the club in Buckhead, Atlanta. It became the most successful comedy club in Atlanta. Closed the other club that denied me to step on stage, closed them down.” Quake accomplished that feat within six months of living in Atlanta.
Although he owned the club for 10 years, the itch for what he calls “the make it bag” (a successful career in stand-up that becomes an eponymous TV show that parlays into a blockbuster movie career, etc.) grew stronger. He performed on national platforms, including Def Comedy Jam, BET’s ComicView, and HBO’s One Night Stand, but that glimmer of mainstream success always bafflingly eluded his grasp. Eventually, like many greats before him, Quake figured he’d shake up the comedy scene in LA.
In the early 2000s, between stand-up appearances, he had roles on the sitcom Everybody Hates Chris and in movies such as Clerks II and The Longshots, but still wasn’t a household name. The stand-up to TV and film strategy worked for Martin Lawrence, Steve Harvey, Kevin Hart, and countless other comics. Why not Earthquake? Was he too niche? Too “Souf-eas”? Whatever the reason, he doesn’t dwell on it. His mother’s philosophy that “you can’t get mad at anybody for not doing something that you can’t do for yourself” won’t allow him to look at his path with any regrets.
Now, 30 years later, the kid from Condon Terrace who couldn’t break into the mainstream has cemented himself among the stars, and he’s just getting started. These days, he has recurring roles as barbershop owner Que on CBS’ The Neighborhood, Booker on the Bounce TV show Johnson, and Mr. Leroy on the HBO Max series Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty.
His publicist, Ava Medina, confirms that due to the success of Legendary, Quake will go on a 20-city comedy tour starting this summer in Chicago with fellow D.C. comedian Donnell Rawlings. He’ll return to the DMV on Sept. 10 when his tour stops in Columbia.
“Oh, I’m hot over here!” he quips. “I’m fish-grease hot over here. People sliding in my DMs talkin’ ’bout, ‘Hey big head.’ I’m cute! I’m handsome!”
On top of acting and touring, the “comedian’s comedian,” as he’s called by his peers, also hosts “Quake’s House,” a comedy show on Hart’s Sirius XM station Laugh Out Loud Radio. Every week, Quake discusses hot topics of the day with other comedians, such as Cedric the Entertainer and Mike Epps.
Yet, no matter how high Quake’s profile climbs, making his hometown fans erupt with seismic laughter will always be a priority. “If you can make them laugh, you can make anybody in the country laugh.”
Editor’s note: This article previously said Earthquake was dishonorably discharged from the Airforce but has since been updated.