Edutainment: That’s what Parallellogram founder Johnny Gray hopes to achieve this weekend with his first multimedia standup gig, Comedy Slideshow.
“[It’s] been a dream of mine for a while,” Gray says. “My favorite comedy shows are the ones that not only make me laugh but also enlighten.”
Referring to the politically slanted “The Daily Show” and “Colbert Report,” which much of today’s generation depend on for their news, Gray has invited local comedian Cliff Cash and national touring comedian Tom Simmons to join him in delivering a night of laughs centered on current events. More so, they will be using sketch comedy, too, as a video screen of a host will show interaction with the comedians onstage. “It won’t be a news-desk type of show though,” Gray assures. “[It will be] like a TED Talk, only funnier.”
Gray got his start in the comedy circle when he joined local troupe The Other Side in 2004 before moving on to Changing Channels. A little more than two years ago, he did his first standup gig. He finds most of his content politcally riled, and like many people who depend on Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert to hand it to ‘em straight—in the most absurd fashions, of course—Gray, too, appeals to that same audience.
“You see a lot of Republicans and Democrats arguing about issues on the TV news,” Gray says. “It’s weird to see them argue so much when they agree on so many things. They both agree they should make $174,000 a year; they agree that they should get awesome, cheap health care; and they both agree it should be as hard as possible for a third-party candidate to get elected.”
Gray, a well-known Ron Paul supporter, has never been shy to express his own views. In fact, he says he broached comedy because it gave him a positive outlet to express his angst in a creative way, rather than merely complaining about it.
“It’s too bad [a third-party] choice isn’t presented to us more often,” he clarifies, “because I feel like choosing between a Republican and a Democrat at this point is a lot like choosing between Coke or Pepsi: You might think one tastes better than the other, but they’re both fucking terrible for you.”
Cliff Cash can relate to Gray. He, too, focuses on contemplative topics. He even runs an environmentally conscious company, Green Coast Recycling, which services various businesses, like bars, churches, and neighborhoods, outside of city limits. Still, he manages to do 10 shows in seven days across six cities and three states. Refusing to take the easy way out, Cash notes how skits and jokes surrounding political and social mores often are the hardest to pen.
“I have some material that touches on dogma, politics, and social issues,” Cash says, “but sometimes it’s a tough balance to achieve thought-provoking and funny. Sometimes you end up with three low-hanging, fruit-type jokes for every thought-provoking one.”
The balance is something he attempts in order to keep the interest of the audience, without bogging them down. “The soft ball jokes keep the whole crowd on board,” he remarks. In fact, mastering that equilibrium often challenges comics the most and keeps their jobs all the more worthwhile. “I like pointing out some absurdity in our culture or mind-set that hopefully makes the crowd think,” Cash continues.
The comic knew funny at a young age. Wherein some kids looked toward football or music as an escape, he always wanted to be laughed at and with. “To me, being funny was way more valuable than most other things I could’ve aimed for,” he states. “Now, I’m not sure that was true. I mean being a neurosurgeon would probably be more valuable at this point, but here we are.”
Inspired by the nightly laugh-fests airing on Johnny Carson, his parents always enjoyed funny movies and TV shows. A shared family value evolved in its glee. “I can make my mom laugh to tears at a moments notice,” Cash says. “I love doing that.”
Though the idea of becoming a comedian felt about as attainable as if someone told Cash, “You should join the NBA,” three years ago he took the stage at Nutt Street Comedy Room (which announced last week its re-opening in the old Firebelly Lounge location downtown at 265 N. Front St.). Overcoming his pounding heart and sweaty palms, Cash only had to do one show before he was hooked. Thereafter, he began opening for nationally touring comedians at Nutt Street on a regular basis.
“It was a huge part of that growth period,” Cash says. “I owe a lot to Nutt St. [owner] Timmy Sherrill. There’s no way I would have developed as quickly had it not been for those experiences.”
Since, Cash has done standup to sold-out audiences from Charlotte’s Comedy Zone to Boston’s Wilbur Theater. He did a Comedy Central show that got re-aired on XM radio. “But there’s just nothing like having a killer show for a sold-out crowd at Nutt St.,” he tells. “I think I’ll always feel that way. The place just kind of had a magic to it.” (Cash has a gig already lined up in their new digs for May 30th).
Joining Cash and Gray will be somewhat newly minted Greensboro native Tom Simmons. Having released numerous comedy albums, Simmons won the 2009 San Francisco International Comedy Competition, and has gone on to perform on BET’s “ComicView,” Showtime’s “White Boyz in the Hood,” and Comedy Central’s “Live at Gotham.” Simmons’ schtick involves top headlines and relevant issues surrounding our society. Although, he also often refers to his life as a dad and husband.
Simmons first became turned on by comedy when he heard his first joke on a school bus: “What rhymes with trucker?” “When I told it in the living room that night, I got my mouth washed out with soap,” he tells.
Standup has come easy for the comedian in that he caught a few breaks along the way in booking gigs. He scribbles setlists in notebooks, marking his thoughts and opinions from the world at large.
“Everything is fodder for the show,” Simmons states. “I talk about my thoughts and life experiences onstage; that is sorta why I do comedy.”
For Friday’s show, Simmons will tackle topics on climate change, energy, disasters, violence and nonviolence, government surveillance, and the conspiracy of money. “All wrapped up with a cute story about my son being born,” he quips.
Living in NC has provided no shortage of politically inspired rants and raves. Just two years ago after the passing of Amendment One, Simmons began going to church to collect his content and live Tweet the services.
“The absurdity I saw during the run-up to the Amendment One vote … I felt like I had been transported back in time to a dumber place,” he says. “I heard preachers saying things from the pulpit like, ‘We need put all the homosexuals in a giant fence, then they’ll all die off. Cuz I’m against it, God’s against it…’”
However, Simmons tailors his shows as need be. If racism is the brunt of jokes and doesn’t connect with the crowd, he’ll pull out the parent card for a sense of universal connection. In the end, it’s the freedom to wing it and have fun throughout his run.
“If I am engaging with people, reading, and journal-writing, the jokes just come naturally in my reactions,” he says. “The hard part is making them work on the stage or page”
Comedy Slideshow will take place at Bourgie Nights on Friday, April 11th, at 8 p.m., during our city’s biggest soiree of the year, Azalea Festival. And, yes, folks can expect a few mentions about the springtime event. “Because, as we all know, there’s only one way to celebrate a flower as beautiful as the Azalea,” Gray states. “You gotta get a lot of people generating a lot of trash on our downtown streets and recycle none of it.”
April 11th, 8 p.m. • Tickets: $10
127 Princess Street • 910-763-5252