James Gregory — the iconic comedian known as “the funniest man in America” — will return to the Broad River Auditorium in Gaffney on Feb. 18 to give a performance billed as “Hilarity for Charity.”
During a telephone interview, Gregory — a two decade-plus comedy veteran — explained how he became known as “the funniest man in America.”
“It really started with an Alabama journalist and it kind of caught on,” Gregory said.
Longtime Huntsville newsman Billie Joe Cooley was in the audience of one of Gregory’s shows in the late 1980s, and in a review, Cooley wrote that he had never heard of Gregory, but believed him to be the “funniest man in America.” Gregory started to include the quote in promotional packages, and venues began to use the moniker on their marquees.
“A lot of people think I entered a contest and won, but it didn’t happen that way,” he added.
After a 10-year career in sales, Gregory eased his way into a comedy career in 1982 when The Punch Line – the first comedy club in the southeastern United States – opened in Atlanta. Gregory said he and his friends enjoyed going to the club as pure fans of comedy, but they often dared him to go on stage during the club’s amateur night.
“I kind of stumbled into it, but once that was what I decided to do, I took it very seriously and still do,” Gregory said. “After you’re in this business for awhile, you realize that it’s a profession. It’s a craft; it’s a trade; it’s a job. You kind of starve to death the first few years but looking back, it worked out good for me.”
Gregory has pounded the pavement for 28 years, performing in 37 states, Canada, Italy, Spain, Greece and parts of the Middle East. He has driven over 1.3 million miles and has flown over half a million.
“If you look at my schedule, each day is a different town,” he said. “Well, you’ve got to get to those towns. If you do shows Thursday–Saturday, sometimes that trip starts on Wednesday. You do an early morning radio show Thursday and do your show, and sometimes cover 200-400 miles to get to the next town. Many times when people see me on stage, they don’t realize that just three hours before then I was pulling into a hotel and had just covered 300 miles.”
During time spent mastering his craft, Gregory shared stages and venues with comedians who went on to become household names.
“I used to run across Jerry Seinfeld when he was touring the country in these comedy clubs – the same ones I worked – and nobody had ever heard of him,” Gregory said. “I also worked with Jay Leno back in the early 80s, and most of the nation didn’t know who he was then. He didn’t have a TV show.”
Gregory also keeps up with the next generation of comedians on the stand-up circuit.
“The funniest guy — I think — out there right now is Brian Regan,” Gregory said, about the comedian who has made several major television appearances. “He’s my favorite.”
In addition to a busy schedule of performances, Gregory constantly works at promoting his shows, participating in about 200 early-morning call-in radio interviews a year, and another 100 live in-studio interviews. He appears weekly on syndicated radio shows such as John Boy and Billy, Rick and Bubba and Bob and Tom, which has created a grass roots following that numbers in the millions.
Gregory believes one reason he is still in business is his appreciation for the ticket-buyer.
“I’m not so dumb that I’m going to hide from the people who make my house payment,” Gregory said. “The clothes I’m wearing, the car I drive and the house I live in are all paid for by the people who come to my show.”
“I don’t use a green room in these venues, for example,” Gregory added. “I’m always in the lobby before the show, and I’m in the lobby after the show. They can talk to me and take pictures if they want to.”
Gregory also attributes part of his success to the fact that he keeps his comedy clean.
“I want it to be so that it appeals to all ages,” he said. “If somebody wants to come to my show and bring their teenager with them, they can. Or, if they want to come to my show and bring their 80-year-old grandmother they can.”
Gregory also said his comedy is the kind everyone can relate to.
“Ninety percent of my act is based on reality, and the 10 percent I make up is so believable that people think it really happened,” he said.
Even though Gregory speaks with a heavy southern drawl, his show is not necessarily southern-themed.
“If you ever listen to my show carefully — on any of the four CDs, four DVDs or the live show — I have never used the word ‘south’ on stage,” he said. “Never used the word ‘southern,’ never used the word ‘redneck,’ never talked about grits, pickup trucks, rifle racks, coon dogs or bird hunting. Never have.”
Gregory often performs a routine about how news media reacts to tornados in trailer parks, and he says people often say, “I just love that southern stuff about the trailer parks and the tornados."
“I always like to point out to them that every state in the country has mobile home parks,” Gregory said. “The largest trailer park in the United States is outside Chicago and the second largest is in San Jose, CA. But the minute you say ‘trailer’ and ‘tornado’ it’s southern.”
“I could go on stage and talk about the dangers of nuclear proliferation in the Middle East, and I would still be called a southern comedian — only because of my accent,” he laughed.
In addition to comedy, Gregory is also a self-proclaimed all-you-can-eat buffet enthusiast. He mentioned that deciding where to eat is a highlight of his travels.
“I’m not one of these modern-day health nuts,” he said. “I eat the way my parents ate and the way my grandparents ate. I think that’s a lot of what’s wrong with America now. I think we’ve become a whole nation of granola-munching wimps.”
THE FAT LADY
The most-requested bit in Gregory’s act is one he refers to as “The Fat Lady.” The bit begins with Gregory pulling a chair to the front of the stage saying, “This is going to remind you of somebody you know.” Gregory then takes a seat — in slow motion — and goes into his “fat lady” character.
“It started off with me just doing one line,” Gregory said. “I would just plop down in the chair and say, ‘Lord knows I ate more than I planned to. I think tomorrow I’m going to go on some kind of diet. No, I can’t tomorrow — we’re going to Cracker Barrel tomorrow.’ Then I would say, ‘I don’t know why meatloaf lays on my chest.’”
Gregory came up with the bit as a way to ease back pain in the middle of his show.
“Year ago, when I first started doing that bit, I was having serious back problems, and in some towns I was doing two or three shows a night,” he said. “So I would use that bit as an excuse to sit down in the middle of my show to ease back pain.”
“Then the routine kept growing and got such a great response, that once I did it in the middle, I couldn’t follow my own act. So I put it at the end,” he added.
Gregory now closes every show with “The Fat Lady.”
To see a video of Gregory’s “fat lady” bit — which has over 90,000 views — visit www.youtube.com/watch?v=tDobTVM4RDY.
“Hilarity for Charity” is sponsored by Broad River Electric Charities – a non-profit subsidiary of Broad River Electric Cooperative whose purpose is to raise and distribute funds for other non-profit organizations and charities in Union, Cherokee and Spartanburg counties. All proceeds from the event will benefit the Miracle Hill Rescue Missions in Spartanburg and Cherokee counties and the Crisis Ministries Network of the Union County Baptist Association.
“It has been a tough few years for a lot of people in this area,” said Broad River CEO Richard Baines. “We hope this event can not only help these three organizations that do such wonderful work helping others, but also provide a night of joy and laughter for our community.”
Tickets are available at Union Oil Mills Farm and Garden or at Broad River Electric Cooperative offices.
To purchase tickets, call toll-free (877) 643-6854. For more information contact Broad River Electric at (864) 206-7128. For more information about James Gregory, visit www.funniestman.com.
AT A GLANCE
WHO: “The Funniest Man in America” James Gregory
WHAT: “Hilarity for Charity”
WHEN: Friday, Feb. 18 at 7:30 p.m.
WHERE: Broad River Auditorium in Gaffney
WHY: To raise funds for rescue missions and crisis ministries in Cherokee, Spartanburg and Union counties
HOW: Purchase tickets at Union Oil Mills Farm and Garden or by calling (877) 643-6854. Tickets are also available through Gregory’s Web site — www.funniestman.com.