I first met Wills Maxwell in a quiet coffee shop on Wrightsville Avenue. He wore a dark, short-sleeved polo and shorts—a combination that, in the middle of January, might seem misinformed if we weren’t in southeastern North Carolina, where a casual 72 degrees can be the norm on the coast. I briefly regretted my usual choice of jeans and a sweater, but before I gave it much thought, he spotted my table and walked over. As we shook hands, he cracked a wide, friendly smile. We sat down, and I set up my phone to record the interview.
“This is actually what I use to record my shows,” he says, laughing. “I’ve never been able to afford an audio recorder, so if you check out any of our videos on YouTube, the audio is my phone on voice recorder thrown into the rafters a minute before showtime.”
Though his budget may be humble, Maxwell’s talk show, “Late Fear,” has consistently brought excellent comedy, music, poetry, and entertainment to the Dead Crow Comedy Room. On February 2, after two and a half years at Dead Crow, Maxwell moves his comedy talk show to its new digs at TheatreNOW. He hopes a larger venue will provide enough space for Late Fear to grow into the show he always imagined.
“Originally, it was a grand idea that, as we started, became more and more intimate and more functional,” Maxwell says. Dead Crow’s basement residence works well for smaller acts, such as stand-up and group improv, but the schematics of fitting a late-night talk show in the space proved complicated. “I basically tried to create a show that was too massive,” Maxwell admits.
At Dead Crow he and other comedians crafted sketches and improv games that worked well for both a talk show and limited stage. One—inspired by the game “Party Quirks” from “Whose Line is it Anyway?”—invites local comedians to join Maxwell onstage in the personas of celebrities. Maxwell, as the only person who doesn’t know each comedian’s impersonation, interviews them as guests on his show to decipher who they portray. Sticking with the talk-show structure, each episode opens with a monologue from Maxwell, which takes a humorous angle on current events and news.
“I usually write the monologue the day of the show, just so it can be as up-to-the-minute as possible,” he says. “We used to do the show every two weeks, but now we do it once a month. So there’s no point in writing a monologue and then the news has changed or the news is old. I usually spend six hours or so before a show furiously writing.”
In addition to the troves of original content Maxwell creates for “Late Fear,” he also airs stand-up comedians, musicians and poets. He has shared the stage with local poet The 5th Horseman and singer-songwriters Jared Michael Cline and Griffin Limerick. Dave DiMuro also provided Late Fear with music as the bandleader. For the future shows Maxwell hopes to expand, among other things, the show’s musical capabilities.
“We have a musical guest or a poet on every episode, and our musical guests will usually just be one person,” he says. “We were in a brick basement with low ceilings. You can’t have a full band in there. It’s too loud. Should a band want to come on [at TheatreNOW], we’ll be able to accommodate them better than before.”
Along with bringing in full bands, “Late Fear” will feature a new bandleader, Tim White—aka D&D Sluggers. White, the band’s creative force and sole member, has created all new, original music for “Late Fear.” As D&D Sluggers, White channels video-game and comic-book culture into what he calls “dance pop with crunchy chiptune beats,” with influences of rock and soul.
The talk show’s expansion doesn’t stop with music, though. Maxwell has plans to add pre-taped video segments—one which tackles the question, “What if Denzel Washington was a Pokemon trainer?” It comes complete with Maxwell’s best Denzel impersonation and a cast of local comedians in head-to-toe Pokemon makeovers. Seeing as TheatreNOW is a full-blown theater, Maxwell hopes to include the theatre community in the show.
“What I’d like to do before the year is out is to promote a play and get the company in to perform a scene,” he says. “That’s something we’ve never been able to do before on a square box in a basement.”
Though Dead Crow may be a tight fit for “Late Fear,” Maxwell was first inspired to create the show by the vibrant community at Dead Crow and in Wilmington as a whole. “I went to UNCW and I’ve been here for six years, and this town blew my mind,” he explains. “This small town has so many incredible musicians and amazing poets and funny comics. The thesis of ‘Late Fear’ was to create a show where I get to achieve my goal of doing a late-night variety show, but more importantly a show where I’ll get to show everyone how insanely special Wilmington is.”
Maxwell moved from Raleigh to Wilmington after high school. In the local comedy scene, Maxwell has established himself as a talented performer: He won UNCW’s Last Seahawk Standing contest in 2010, placed twice as a finalist for Port City’s Top Comic, and now hosts a weekly comedy news segment on WWAY’s “Good Morning Carolina.” It wasn’t until his senior year of high school, though, that he finally decided to try his hand at stand-up.
“Literally the last day of high school, we had a talent show, and that was my first time performing comedy, in front of the senior class of 500 kids,” Maxwell says. “It was fun. It was the first instance in my life of, ‘Oh, this is what I’m supposed to do.’”
His transformation from a self-proclaimed anonymous marching-band kid to stand-up comedian didn’t happen overnight. Watching David Letterman and “The Flip Wilson Show” from a young age inspired Maxwell to write his own jokes. It took him years to finally share them on a stage, but once he did, the experience was profound. “It was like anything you’ve ever seen in a movie,” he says, laughing. “It was like every happy ending in a John Hughes film.”
On Thursday, February 2, at 8 p.m., “Late Fear” debuts its show at TheatreNOW. Guests include musical favorite Griffin Limerick, stand-up comedian Brian Piccolo and Cedric Harrison—founder of the Support the Port Foundation, an organization that uses art, philanthropy and scholarship to cultivate community ownership and excellence.
“It’s a new challenge,” Maxwell says. “We have more seats to fill, so the show’s just going to become a little more ambitious. We’re going to try more and, I think, achieve more.”