ALBANY — James Gregory isn’t one to mince words. He might drag them out in the form of a story, make a play on them, use them to excess in making a point about modern society.
But mincing them? Not him. And especially not when responding to a question in which the self-proclaimed “Funniest Man in America” is asked what those attending his 7:30 p.m. show Friday at Theatre Albany could expect to experience.
“I don’t want to brag,” he said Monday in a telephone interview, “but it’s going to be the funniest night of their lives. From beginning to end, it’s going to be funny. It’s going to be an authentic comedy show.”
In talking with Gregory, a lifetime resident of the metro Atlanta area, it quickly becomes clear that he doesn’t see himself as a guy who strings together snappy one-liners, but as a teller of exaggerated tales that audiences get caught up in, usually already smiling or laughing in anticipation of the punchline before it arrives.
“I don’t do jokes,” he said. “It’s storytelling or a comedy routine. I do it in a way where you don’t have to wait to get to the punchline. The story itself is funny enough that you’re laughing before you get there. And I try to do material everybody can relate to.”
Usually, Gregory says, he can see first few rows of the audience through the stage lighting. When they’re smiling and nodding as he weaves his tale, it “means they know what I’m doing.”
And as is the case with much good escapism, his material has a basis in everyday life.
“I think one of the reasons the show is as funny as it is is because it’s based on reality,” Gregory said. “I’m not a great writer. I can’t get up in the morning and get a legal pad out and say, ‘You know what, I’m going to write some new material.’ But I can come up with stuff if I’m inspired by something on the news or people I run across.”
He said he also slips in a little social commentary, trying to make a point in a humorous vein. It’s a method that pays homage to adage of many a truth being told in jest.
“Evidently there’s a concern about kids today being more obese than kids used to be,” Gregory said. “The fast-food industry is being blamed for that, you know … McDonald’s and the Happy Meals. It just blows my mind that we have big-city mayors, members of Congress, senators, the president and the first lady all trying to figure out a way to regulate TV advertising because McDonald’s is targeting our kids.
“Here’s the thing. These are kids. McDonald’s don’t deliver. Little kids don’t drive automobiles. We all go to McDonald’s from time to time, but I’ve never seen a 10-year-old boy driving a minivan. You got a soccer mom who voluntarily drives that kid to McDonald’s and drives him back home, and this generation thinks the government ought to do something about that.”
“The mind,” he said, “boggles.”
So, how did a mind that started out with a civil service job with the Postal Service and a decade as a salesman working on commission move to entertaining crowds? Turns out, a career was born because of some old-fashioned Southern boy daring.
Gregory is a student of comedy in many ways, but he never studied to be one.
“People just forget it’s not like being a mechanic or a bricklayer or a transmission specialist,” he said. “You can’t go through a classroom and then go into a building and fill out an application and say, ‘I’m a comedian. I just graduated from comedy college. Put me on the payroll.’
“There’s no other way to start except going on stage and working for free.”
Which is what Gregory did. Before the Punchline opened in Atlanta around 1982, there were no comedy clubs in the Southeast or the Heartland of America. For that sort of entertainment, you had to visit New York, Boston Chicago or Los Angeles. The shows at the Atlanta club were by professional stand-up comedians Wednesdays through Saturdays. Tuesdays, however, were open-mic nights — amateur hour, or, more exactly, amateur three minutes.
“I used to go there with a couple of friends not to be part of the show, but to watch the show,” he said. But his friends kept daring Gregory to give it a go. He finally took up the mic and, for the past two decades, it’s been his bread and butter.
“Most of the people who are in the business that I’m in, they had some dream of being in the comedy business when they were in high school or in college,” he said. “I had always been a big fan of comedy. I always loved comedy and comedians. But I never ever thought about I wanted to be one.”
Yet, that’s where he’s ended up. For about 15 years in the late 1980s and 1990s, comedy clubs boomed. Places like Augusta and Savannah had full-time comedy clubs, while smaller cities like Albany would see weekly comedy nights at local nightclubs. At its height, Gregory said, there were 400 full-time comedy clubs around the United States.
There are only three that he still performs at regularly. For him, 80-90 percent of his work is done in venues like Theatre Albany.
He also doesn’t remember The Joke — the first story or one-liner that he tossed at the Punchline that night, the words that charted a new course for his life.
“No, I do not,” he said. “I was so scared. They only let us go on stage for three minutes. That was so long ago. I just member going on stage and being petrified.”
Those in the audience, however, don’t have to be petrified that Gregory might toss in some choice “shock value” language that is popular with many comedians. His routines are safe for any generation of comedy fan.
“Saturday night,” he said, “I was at the Paramount Theater in Bristol, Tenn. On the front row were three generations of a family (including kids under 10). … You don’t see that too often at a comedy show, where people of all ages come and bring their family with them.”
There’s a practical reason for taking that approach. “I’m in the theater business,” Gregory said. “There are no age restrictions (like there are with clubs). I think it makes more sense to have a clean show.You have a broad appeal to everybody. You can broaden the business. If Mr. and Mrs. Jones can come to my show and bring the kids, then I’ve sold four tickets. But if they just com by themselves because the comedian’s too dirty, then I’ve lost business.”
But there’s also an intangible but perhaps more important reason why he does “clean” comedy.
“I just feel better and I think the audience feels better to be able to laugh and enjoy the show and when they leave, they were glad they came to the show,” he said.” They don’t feel bad about it.
“It’s not that I’m a prude. These other guys can do whatever they want to. This is America and we do have a First Amendment. A lot of these guys have huge followings. I don’t criticize that, I just disagree with it, that’s all.”
Meanwhile, he hopes his Albany audience will agree on one thing after the show Friday night — that they had a good time.
“I don’t do anything on stage that depresses an audience,” Gregory said. “I think the whole idea of coming to a comedy show is to get away from reality for a while and kind of laugh it up. … I’m looking forward to it. I did a show in Albany a number of years ago. It’s been a while. I think we’re going to have a good crowd.”
For tickets to Friday’s James Gregory show, contact the Theatre Albany box office at (229) 439-7141. Tickets are $30 each. The theater is at 514 Pine Ave. You can visit Gregory’s website at www. funniestman.com.