Last Saturday I was performing at the Radisson/Star Plaza Complex outside of Chicago in Merrillville, IN. The comedy club is located inside the hotel, but the main focus of the complex is the big theater located on the grounds. It seats over 3000 so pretty much every musical act who draws at this level, performs there. Now for standup, there are maybe 10 acts who draw enough to perform in a room this size. On Saturday, Ron White was on the calendar.
A lot of comics have been very negative about the Blue Collar Comedy Tour. I’m not one of them. I’ve felt that Jeff Foxworthy was like the Jerry Seinfeld of the South. Larry the Cable Guy is a funny character that has a lot of funny one-liners which hit the audience on a base level. There are plenty of stuff in his act I would love to have. Ron White has always been my favorite of the Blue Collar guys. Bill Engvall would be a great act to follow…
I’m friends with Ron’s opening act, the incredibly funny Robert Hawkins, so my feature act this past weekend (Dave Waite) and I sat around the hotel pool during the afternoon shooting the shinola with him. Ron happened to walk-by and we talked comedy stories for awhile. My best moments with comedians are doing this. Ron invited us to his tour bus before the show, so we did some more chatting and drinking before the show.
Even though we both standup in front of people and say funny things into a mic, this is where our lives diverge. I do not have a massive, beautiful tour bus. I do not have a private jet. I was performing to 70 people that night. Ron was performing to a sold-out show of well-over 3000 people. I’m not going to pretend that I’m not bitter about some comics success, but I don’t begrudge most because almost everyone who is a big draw brings something very unique to the stage. Since his show started at 7 and mine didn’t begin until 9, I got a chance to watch his show. He is the single best storyteller I’ve ever heard. His timing is pitch-perfect and his material is pretty damned close to as good. For all you haters, the guy is truly a great comic.
I toured with Frank Caliendo, so I know what it is like to play the type of theaters that Ron White does. It is a different experience, as stage presence becomes even more important. You might think you need to be bigger than life in this situation, but in truth, you have to more deliberate since the acoustics are not as good as in a small room. Unlike a comedy club where a lot of the time people are just there to laugh and have no idea who the comics are, when you open for a big act like Caliendo or White, all the people are there for them. They are just counting the minutes until the person they shelled big bucks out for hits the stage. Your goal as the opening act is to be really likable and keep them focused for the 20-30 minutes you are up on-stage.
As I mentioned, my show had about 70 people. Both nights when I hit the stage, there was no energy in the room. I went into the audience and tried to bring some kind of church revival feel to them, which kind of worked. All the black people in the audience were in the back. I mentioned to them that nearly 50 years ago, Rosa Parks was told she had to sit in the back of the Birmingham Stardome and she said no. Let’s respect her memory and sit a little closer to the front next time. As I’ve discovered when I address race and specifically when I’m performing for a mixed audience, the Black people like it and the White people are extremely nervous. It is my theory that most White people could give a shit about Black people’s opinions on any subject, except when they are at a comedy club. In this situation, White people strain to see if they are allowed to laugh. It’s a tightrope that most comics don’t like to explore, but I find it a rush to see how far I can take things. So far, so good.
I felt pretty awesome that Ron came over and caught some of the end of my show. It wasn’t the perfect situation for me to show-off for him, but he was very kind with his words for me afterward. We all hit the hotel bar after the show and let me just offer that the whole party-lifestyle Ron White espouses is no facade. The guy is the real deal off and on-stage. It was a great night. He makes in a week what I make in a year, but we both are making a living doing something we are passionate about, so maybe our lives aren’t as dissimilar as I originally thought.