Bang a gong

So, Billy Graham walks into a bar, see, and he says to the bartender …

Shhh. Better not try that one at the new Asheville Comedy Club & Deli.

The 250-seat club (including a New York-style deli) opens May 31 on Biltmore Avenue downtown in the space once occupied by Be Here Now. Along with a headliner and an opening act appearing Thursday through Sunday, the club will feature an open-mic “gong show” on Sunday nights — in which anyone with enough comic chutzpah (or delusions of humor) can give their routine a whirl.

But budding amateur comics should beware the gong. No joke: Club co-owner Grant Fetters plans to wheel out an actual metal gong so that anyone deemed unfunny will be cut off before too much damage is done, just like they use to do on the old TV show. But rather than Fetters making the call, he plans to turn the decision-making over to the crowd.

“The audience gets to go up and ring the gong if they’re not funny,” he explains.

Of course, what may prompt a fit of guffaws in one person may not spark even a glimmer of a smile in another. And what might offend one segment of the community wouldn’t even cause a raised eyebrow in different quarter. Take for example, the owners’ parameters on what amateur performers can get away with on open-mic night, which Fetters (as emcee) plans to explain before each gong show.

“Leave Billy Graham alone,” commands Fetters, who owns the club with fiancee Sharon Childers.

By way of explanation, Fetters says he just doesn’t want the hassle of dealing with fallout from the iconic preacher’s defenders who might get hacked off by humor at Graham’s expense.

The dictate is just one way the couple is trying to set some boundaries on humor in their new venture. But whether those limits will meet with approval from Ashevilleans remains to be seen.

Curiously enough, the kid-glove approach to Graham doesn’t carry over to other segments of Western North Carolina’s population.

“If you want to pick on the gays and the lesbians and the people with dogs on the leash, that’s OK,” says Fetters, referring to downtown Asheville’s eclectic mix of people.

But what about fallout from the friends of gays, lesbians and young, backpack-toting dog lovers? No worries there, apparently. Fetters insists that he can’t control comedians who toss out jokes about those particular groups of people.

However, the owners declare that it wouldn’t be copacetic for a gong-show comic to single out someone in the audience for ridicule.

Fetters maintains that almost anything else will go — as long as it isn’t racially offensive or too vulgar. Sexual innuendo is OK, as are potty jokes and farting.

“We don’t want censorship, but we don’t want anybody to be verbally abusive,” posits Childers.

Tricky business, setting rules for humor. But if they decide someone has gone too far, the owners have a bigger tool than a gong at their disposal: the power cord.

“If you’re gonna be stupid, we’re gonna turn the power off and ask you to leave,” offers Fetters.

In yet another stab at defining boundaries, Fetters plans to help out his audiences by rating the professional comics with the movie industry’s G, PG and R designations, which he plans to post in the club’s window.

Though he’d like to reel in the locals, Fetters envisions most of his audience to be tourists (at least during tourist season), admitting that Asheville’s population on its own isn’t big enough to sustain a comedy club.

In town a little more than a year, Fetters hails from Michigan and Childers from Indiana. Childers holds a business management degree from Purdue University; Grant has worked as a chef, photographer and, most recently, a mechanical engineer (he once designed a machine that made an improved fuse trigger device for hand grenades).

According to the owners, the chance to be on stage is attracting a steady stream of inquiries. That claim was verified almost immediately by a woman walking by the club who popped in to say, “Y’all gonna have an amateur night? Can I sign up?”

Fetters told her to come back on Sunday night after the club opens, adding after she left: “That happens all the time.”

And even the guy in charge of installing the flooring in the new club, Jim LaVelle, was planning to develop an act for the gong show based on Steven Wright jokes. He tried out a few, some of which met with chuckles from the small knot of people standing up front, some with faint smiles.

“Work on it,” advised Fetters, not unkindly.

But such is the nature of comedy.

“We all think we’re funny,” he observes.

By the way, didya hear the one about Pat Robertson? Pat Robertson and his dog walk into a gay bar, see, and he says to the bartender…

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