“How are you, Mr. Gregory?” I asked the Funniest Man in America as he walked into the club.
“Buddy, you call me James, okay?”
“Deal,” I said. “Glad you stopped by. You’re one of Birmingham’s favorite visitors, you know.”
“Well, I love Alabama, and I love Birmingham especially. I come to Birmingham for shows twice a year, in May and in November. My first show outside of Atlanta was in Birmingham.”
“I was going to ask you if you remembered the first time you performed here.”
“Oh, yeah. It was June, 1983. Back in those days, I was the opening act. You may not know this, but…let me ask you what might seem like an unusual question. How old are you, Buddy?”
“I asked because I wasn’t sure if you were old enough to remember, but prior to 1982, there was no such thing as live stand-up comedy anywhere in the Southeast. Before that, the only time you could see a comedian perform at a comedy club would have been in New York, Chicago, L.A., or maybe Boston. The industry got started elsewhere after that.”
“And you got your start at The Punchline in Atlanta, I believe, right?”
“That’s right. I had been a fan of comedy but never thought I wanted to be a comedian. Shows in those days ran Tuesday through Sunday, and every Tuesday was open mic night. I would go to the club not to be a part of the show but as a customer.”
By this time, we were seated at a table in the dining room, and Currie had appeared with plates for both of us. Mine contained chopped steak on a bun topped with sautéed mushrooms, while on the comedian’s was chicken fried steak with a side of mashed potatoes. Both were floating in gravy.
“So how did you end up on stage?” I asked.
“Some friends dared me to, one amateur night. I was bad, ignorant, and stupid, but if right now you were talking to Jerry Seinfeld, Jay Leno, Chris Rock, or Bill Cosby, they would all tell you the very first time they were on stage, they were awful. The first time you do it, you’re not supposed to be good. It’s just a start. You live and learn. It turned into a great career for me, and I’m happy about it.”
A Georgia native who has become a perennial headliner at The Stardome and frequent guest on The Rick and Bubba Show, Gregory has been called the most successful comedian you’ve never heard of. He has a hilarious knack for finding humor in such diverse areas of American culture as eating habits, animal rights, technology, and longstanding traditions.
I added ketchup to my burger. “Some of the characters you do in your routines…I hear what you have them say, and I think, ‘That was my Grandmother Lucille,’ or ‘That was my Aunt Judy,’ and probably everybody else in your audience is thinking the same thing. Do you feel like that gives your comedy a lot of its appeal?”
“Yeah, one reason I think I’ve been in the business this long is that my comedy is based on reality. People can relate to that. Everybody has a grandpa or a nephew or a high school teacher who used to say those things or act that way. Even if I’m making it up, there’s a credibility factor to it.”
“I would imagine the fact that you work clean also has something to do with your longevity.”
“Well, I never did blue or X-rated humor. I would use what I call ‘Baptist language,’ if you understand what I mean – certain words that over time have just become part of the vocabulary — but as time went on, I got rid of that too. I also started to work theaters more than clubs, and a theater is not like a night club in that there are no age limits. I have kids as young as age 8 at my shows, and often a fourth of the audience is under the age of 15. When I do a show, I want people to enjoy it and not have to regret coming or bringing their family to it. If it’s a couple in their 30s with two kids 9 and 11, they can sit there as a family, enjoy the show, and laugh a lot.”
“How does your Southern brand of humor go over in places outside of the South?”
“I’m glad you asked that,” James said after a sip of iced tea. “This May was 32 years that I’ve been out there doing shows, and in the course of my career – and this may sound to you unbelievable – I have never, never, not once on stage mentioned the word ‘Yankee,’ ‘South,’ ‘Southern,’ ‘redneck,’ ‘grits,’ ‘coon dogs,’ or ‘chewing tobacco.’ You may think you’re hearing that, but you’re not. You’re hearing a Southern accent. And if a comedian has a Southern accent, people think he must be doing a Southern show.”
Admitting that he tries to schedule most of his work in the Southeast – “especially if the money is the same” – he points out that he’s performed in 38 states and all the Canadian provinces, but the act stays the same regardless of the region, and he gets as many standing ovations in Kansas City, Rhode Island, and New Hampshire as he does in Atlanta and Birmingham.
“You may have heard the routine I do about tornadoes and mobile homes. Everybody assumes that’s a Southern thing, but that’s not so. Watch the weather on the TV news. There have been tornadoes in Utah; there have been tornadoes in Texas. Connecticut. Nebraska. And there are trailer parks in all those places. So if the listener wants to assume I’m talking about the South, that’s their problem.”
It’s something that used to bother him more than it does now.
“The media used to frustrate me for years, then I got over it. Most comedians work in places other than where they were raised. For example, if you go to the Stardome, most of the headliners there are from other parts of the country. So if a comedian who was born and raised in Brooklyn, N.Y., does a show in the South, it’s obvious he has a Brooklyn accent.
“All right. No one has ever referred to that guy as a Northern comedian. He could go on stage here and have a routine about the subway. Well, we don’t have subways here. The only Subway we have here is the sandwich. But not one journalist would refer to him as a Northern comedian. If I were to be on stage above the Mason-Dixon Line – or even here, for that matter – I’d still be referred to as a Southern comedian.”
“Are you constantly updating your show with new material?”
James’ reply was one I didn’t expect. “Do you know who Kenny Chesney is?”
“I’ve known him for a lot of years, which is beside the point. He puts on shows to huge, huge audiences. His average song is three-and-a-half minutes long, and he’s on stage for at least an hour and a half. But when he shows up, the audience isn’t expecting something new. They expect Kenny Chesney to sing his classic songs.”
“Is it the same with comedy?”
“That’s right. For example, when I come back to Birmingham in November, I won’t have a whole new show. It will be a lot like the one I did here six months ago. I will do a few minutes of something the audience hasn’t heard before, and I rearrange some of my old stuff, because that’s what they want to hear. There are some routines I can’t take out of the show.”
“I’ve been doing a routine about my fear of flying for 30 years,” James said, spearing a piece of steak. “It’s not the same word-for-word routine, and there’s always something new I can add to it. You remember four or five years ago when that U.S. Airways plane crashed into the harbor in New York?”
I didn’t. Should have, but I didn’t.
“Captain Sully was the name of the pilot, and he had to land in the water after the airplane was hit by a flock of birds. The good thing is that nobody got hurt, but it became a joke in my show about how that’s one reason why I drive everywhere. If a bird hits my car, I don’t have to worry about ending up in the water.”
“Anybody that makes me laugh. As the years have gone by, there are fewer and fewer funny people. There are a lot of comedians who are only funny for 10 or 12 minutes out of a 45-minute show. A lot of comedians are jaded or cynical. But I’m kinda happy about that because it weeds out those who should not be on stage to start with.”
“What I find off-putting,” I observed, “is when I see a comic — and I’ve seen some wannabe comedians like this lately — who doesn’t respect his or her audience.”
James drank tea and shook his head. “You’ll never see me doing that. I have a great respect for the public, and I think comedy is an art form. There is only one purpose of comedy, and there is only one thing an audience expects of a comedian. They expect to laugh. They’re not expecting drama or a sermon. You can say anything you want to say as long as the audience is laughing.”
“Any idea how many shows you’ve done?” I asked as Currie placed a generous portion of pecan pie in front of James.
“In my career, probably over 6,000 shows,” he said, cutting a bite from the ice cream-covered wedge. “I don’t do as many as I used to, probably about 150 a year now, but unless I win the Powerball, I think I’ll be around for another 20 or 25 years.”