The Funniest Man in America: James Gregory wants to stand up and be counted for clean, quirky comedy
|by Daniel Goldberg|
Comedian James Gregory’s material is considerably more complex than a standard “knock-knock” joke. But if it weren’t for knocking on several hundred doors, Gregory would not have the unique stage perspective that allows him to make a living selling jokes.
“I’ve sold encyclopedias, I’ve sold stainless cookware, I’ve sold those big $600-$700 over-priced vacuum cleaners door-to-door…” Gregory says. “Over the years, I was in and out of different things.”
Now billing himself as “The Funniest Man in America,” Gregory has taken those experiences – drudgery that allows him to relate to the average American in a way that most lifelong comedians cannot – and turned himself into a cottage industry. The comedian has written books, recorded comedy albums and performed for more than 300 corporate clients.
“I got my first job when I was 11 years old. I had the same job from when I was 11 until I got my high school diploma. When I as 12 and 13 years old, I was working 37 hours a week and going to high school. So I’ve had one type of job or another for 43 years; so I have something to talk about.”
And if Gregory’s good at anything, it’s talking about things. He talks about the opening of The Punchline comedy club in Atlanta in 1982, a life-altering experience for a man who was selling furniture at the time. Gregory and friends would go out to the club for amateur night, and pretty soon, after his buddies convinced him to step up to the mike, a new career was born.
“I never thought I would be a comedian. It’s not something I thought about as a youngster or a teen-ager or even in my 20s. That’s why I didn’t get started until I was 36; I kind of stumbled in the business.”
The comedian paid his dues, stumbling about the country, talking about everything from cholesterol to UFOs, making $300 a week for six nights of work. “You either have to have courage or just be an idiot,” Gregory says of the drastic change. “I don’t know which one it was.”
Those experiences in life and on stage are now invaluable to the veteran comedian, who bases the vast majority of his material on “something I’ve heard, read or seen.” He sees a lot of struggling comics in need of similar seasoning.
“The reason I think some of these guys are not that hilarious is that they’ve lived no life yet. They can’t talk about life yet…
“Looking back, I have mixed emotions about getting started so late in life, I wish I had started younger, because I think if I had, I would have been so much further along now. (But) I’m glad I waited and didn’t start young because I think that’s one thing that helped me. I was old enough to appreciate the work ethic, to know what work is all about and to realize this is just another business that I’ve got to work hard at. And I think a lot of the younger guys look at this as just a joke or party time.”
Although Gregory says he’s worked harder at comedy than any job he’s ever had, there are still some things working against him. A native of Lithonia, Georgia, a small town just east of Atlanta, Gregory speaks with a distinct Southern accent, a characteristic that leads many critics to automatically categorize his as a Southern comedian. He feels limited by this assumption.
“If you really analyze my material line by line, it’s really not Southern. It’s just that you can’t put my drawl out of your mind as you’re listening to it.”
Gregory says that the media is largely responsible for this misinterpretation., pointing to a double standard in the way reviewers interpret performances.
“Let’s say a comedian is born in Brooklyn, N.Y. The minute he opens his mouth, we know that’s aBrooklyn accent. That comedian can come down to the Birmingham Comedy Club in Birmingham,Alabama, go onstage and talk about things in New York, like the subway and Central Park. And nobody in the media will ever refer to him as a Northern comedian. I can go onstage and talk about the dangers of nuclear war now…and somebody will call me a Southern comedian.”
Another thing within the comedy industry that doesn’t sit well with Gregory is the use of salty language to create laughs. The only thing Gregory swears by is keeping a clean show – which means limiting the exclamatories to an occasional “hell” or “damn.”
“I’ve never understood why…they refer to that as ‘adult humor,’” he says of comedians and critics rationalizing the use of the F-word and others. “It should be the opposite – I think that’s juvenile humor.”
But for a former door-to-door vacuum salesman, the killer punchlines of comedy far outweigh the duds. Gregory has no regrets about stepping to the mike that Tuesday back in 1982. He’s still keeping the comedy industry clean, but now the customers come to him.
“My problem will never be that people recognize me and want to talk,” Gregory says of the fans who approach him in public. “My problems will be when people recognize me and don’t care.”