Two years ago, a group of comedians pulled an epic prank on one of their friends at the Arlington Improv. Comedian George "Redd Speaks" Rojas got arrested on stage.
Rojas says he was in the middle of a set before a packed room and just as he was about to deliver a punchline on his "bushes and beards bit," a man identifying himself as a police officer approached the stage telling him he had a warrant for his arrest
"When you're on stage, you can't see anything because those lights are bright and all I saw was 'Police' on his shirt," Rojas says. "I didn't fight it. I was thinking about running but I'd rather be the comedian who got arrested on stage than the comedian who got shot on stage."
Rojas calmly put the microphone down and his hands behind his back while the cop slapped on the cuffs. The audience was eerily quiet for a stand up club crowd; they weren't sure if they were watching a comedy bit or a real arrest. Rojas didn't know either, until he got into the hallway and the handcuffs slipped off his wrists and he saw his friends and fellow comedians Flo Hernandez and Joel "Jungbug" Runnels laughing hysterically while filming him.
"I turn around and there's a bright light and this big old camera and everyone's laughing," Rojas recalls. "It really weighed on me the next few days. I didn't want this to really happen."
In a 2018 article, Rojas told the Observer that he didn't have any serious charges on him and he thought the onstage arrest was just related to some unpaid parking tickets. That wasn't true, Rojas says. He was a wanted man. Tarrant County officials issued a third-degree felony charge and warrant after he left the county after being served with a charge for driving while intoxicated and a charge for "felony repetition" from DWI cases he committed more than 10 years ago, according to Tarrant County criminal court records.
"There was a select few people who knew I was on the run and I actually got into comedy because I went on the run and I felt like I had nothing else to lose," Rojas says. "So I went into stand up and I didn't know I was going to do so well. I didn't know I was going to do so well in nine months."
The week that followed the prank gave the comedian time to think. He could stay out of Tarrant County and rack up a longer sentence if he got caught — making it harder to travel and do comedy — or he could turn himself in immediately. He chose the latter.
"It really weighed on me the next few days," Rojas says of the prank. "I didn't want this to really happen."
Rojas turned himself over to Tarrant County officials a week after the prank in June of 2018. The following month, he was sentenced to four years in prison.
"I was like what the hell am I doing?" Rojas remembers thinking to himself when he realized that turning himself in would mean actual prison time. "I should have listened to my family who said to just take the probation. Do I really love comedy that much?"
Rojas says he decided to go to prison to save himself and his comedy.
"There's a relief because you're on the run for so long," Rojas says. "I'm done. I'm done with all the shenanigans... I'm done with this thing. I'm gonna get through this thing; I'm gonna spend my time wisely and I know I'm gonna be better when I get out and I'm gonna put it all behind me."
Prison life was tough at first. Rojas says inmates are surrounded by violent people in tense, hostile situations where fights can happen at any time. Even if you're not the instigator, Rojas says, all inmates involved get punished for it. He was attacked in one of his classes and was transferred to an even tougher facility. He says he spent 10 days in solitary without a chance to even take a shower.
"It's a very stressful situation to be in because it's a very violent atmosphere you're in and there's nothing you can do about it," Rojas says. "It doesn't matter who started the fight. You're both in trouble."
Shortly after his transfer at the Formby Prison in Plainview, Rojas received an invitation for a special prison entrepreneurial program (PEP). Rojas says the program is only offered to 1% of the state's prison population and only half of those inmates actually graduate.
PEP provides intensive training and business classes for prison inmates who meet its high criteria standards. The hope is to give inmates who are finishing their sentences a chance to find or make a career to keep them out of prison.
"Without a job or a home, as many as 50% of released parolees become homeless and resort to living on the streets," according to the PEP website. "Unemployment, homelessness, and incarceration become an inescapable cycle, and with few real options, many men return to a life of crime."
Rojas was accepted to the program and transferred to a facility in Waco near Baylor University. He decided to continue his comedy career — even if it was behind bars. He wrote new material and performed in prison talent shows. He also read up on how to improve his performances with books like Mastering Stand Up by Stephen Rosenfeld, a producer and founder of the American Comedy Institute in New York, which has trained and mentored some of the most famous comedians in the world.
Rojas wrote a letter to Rosenfeld asking for more information on the institute and telling his story about doing comedy in prison. He was thinking that, at best, he'd get some brochures back. Instead, he got a personal letter from Rosenfeld offering him a spot in his training program while he was still in prison and an offer to help him convince the warden to let him stage comedy shows for inmates.
"He helped structure my jokes and teach me how to do it professional," Rojas says of Rosenfeld. "He listened for hours."
Rojas made parole and finished half of his sentence at the end of March, just before the coronavirus outbreak turned into a full pandemic. Since then, he's gone straight back to stand up, staging open mics and shows with the proper safety precautions, giving himself and other comics places to work on their material while the world is still largely in lockdown.
Rojas says he made the right decision by turning himself in, even if it was the most frightening option.
"I regret everything and I'm glad I did my time because I took that time to realize how extreme and how stupid it is to get behind the wheel after drinking any type of alcohol," Rojas says. "I was in there with people who had DWIs who actually killed people. I think I made the right decision and I grew from that."
Serving time in prison didn't just make Rojas a better comedian. It made him a better person.
"Things are happening the way they're supposed to happen and what's going on in the world right now... it's messed up, but things gotta get bad before they get better," Rojas says. "And it's gonna get better."
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