Best Medicine: An inside look on the local comedy scene

TWICE AS FUNNY: Eric Brown and Cayla Clark discuss the local comedy scene, revealing why stand-ups and improv artists don't always get along. Photo of Brown by Cindy Kunst; photo of Clark by Donnie Rex Bishop

Xpress recently named Eric Brown and Cayla Clark as the new co-hosts of our monthly comedy feature “Best Medicine.” For this year’s Humor Issue, we brought the two together to pick their brains about all things funny.

Xpress: You’ve both now handled at least one “Best Medicine” feature since coming on in late 2023. Any surprises or unexpected challenges in hosting? 

Cayla: This may sound like the “biggest weakness” portion of a job interview, but there is honest-to-goodness too much talent in this town. Part of what makes Asheville such an incredible place to live is the amount of artistic talent per capita. Every comedic platform is saturated with genius, from the improv community to the variety shows. There’s even a niche comedic pole dancing/burlesque genre in this town. We’re a bunch of big, goofy fish in a little brown pond. Or, a little brown river.

Eric: I think the biggest challenge is not being there to hear the laughs when people read my stuff in “Best Medicine.” I personally know everything — and I do mean everything — I write is absolutely hilarious. But getting your friends to read your stuff is always a challenge. Plus, you’re usually not there when they read it. So I do one of two things. Either, I’ll have them read it in front of me, and I’ll wait, inches away from their face, to receive my well-earned laughs. Or I’ll have them reenact their laughs, and if I don’t find them believable, I’ll wish my former friend a good day and never see them again.

Cayla: Damn, that’s sad.

Moving on. … If Asheville’s local comedy scene was a superhero, what would its superpower be? 

Eric: I guess it would be endurance. I see my stand-up friends somehow doing 18 mics per week. There are only seven days in a week. I don’t even know how they pull it off. And to do it all while having to work a full-time job or two — it has to be a superpower.

Cayla: Oh gosh. Maybe Thick Skinboi? Thick Skinboi’s superpower would be staying onstage for a full 30 minutes of radio silence and/or heavily intoxicated tourists yelling things like, “Why didn’t your dad love you?!” I have immense amounts of respect for my friends who do mics. Like Eric said, there are about 40 open mics on any given night (don’t check my math on that) in dive bars, breweries, kava bars, bookshops, post offices, underground tunnel systems, you name it. I can guarantee that if I got heckled one time, I would be out of the stand-up game for the rest of my life. I’m not afraid to quit. I’ll quit right now. Dare me.

As you’ve noted, within the scene you’ve got a lot of different types of comedy — improv, stand-up, game show, burlesque. Pull back the curtain a little and tell us about the different groups. Can you spot, say, a stand-up versus an improv artist. What’s the tell? 

Cayla: I might get in trouble for speaking on this, but there is a shrouded, unspoken rivalry between stand-ups and improvisers. Don’t get me wrong, there’s also a lot of crossover and an incredible amount of support and camaraderie among all community members. But improvisers are always like, “Oh yeah, stand-up comedy: Let me tell the same five jokes over and over until I die.” And stand-ups are like, “Oh yeah, improv: Let me come up with new jokes over and over until I die.”

Jokes are jokes, at the end of the day. We’re all just here to laugh and have a good time. Except for those of us who are here because our parents didn’t show us quite enough love during our formative years.

I’ve learned that there’s a delicate balance between taking the craft seriously and taking self seriously. My favorite local comedians are the ones who don’t take themselves too seriously but still pour their hearts and souls into their craft.

Eric: As a guy who has done all of the forms of comedy listed above (except for burlesque, unless getting drunk at Double Crown and taking my shirt off counts [I used to drink a lot, and there’s no time to get into it here]), I think all comedy is valid. That being said, there really is a weird divide between stand-ups and improvisers. It’s not as prevalent here as it is in other cities. The Asheville scene does have a lot of crossover and support.

What’s the biggest misconception about comedians that you regularly come across? 

Cayla: I’ve never come across a misconception about comedians, personally. We’re all very sensitive and poor. And literally everything is a bit. I can’t say for sure that I’ve ever had an authentic conversation with anyone in the comedy community. Or, I guess, because I’m a member of the community, I can’t say for sure that I’ve ever had an authentic conversation with … anyone.

Eric: This whole statement is a misconception. I’m not sensitive and incredibly, obscenely wealthy. I’m being completely authentic here. I’m certainly not drowning in credit card debt, and I’m certainly not crying as I write this because the TV was on in the background and a commercial came on where a dad was nice to his son. I wonder what that would be like. … Anyway, none of this is a bit. I swear. Next question.

Cayla: I’ve got a question, Eric: Why didn’t your dad love you?

Oh, but also here are some other misconceptions: None of us do comedy because we are insecure and desperate for even just an Oliver Twist-sized shred of external validation. We are all very confident in ourselves and we never use humor to deflect. Our emotional intelligence levels are off the charts. We are all in therapy, too. Because, you know, we all have health insurance.

Eric: Like I said, none of this is a bit. NEXT QUESTION!

Hmm. … Yes, well, how about we discuss what you all perceive as desperately needed in Asheville’s comedy scene. Outside of health insurance and perhaps the approval of a father figure. 

Cayla: Performance space. I think I can probably speak for all of us (right, Eric?) when I say our community is incredibly grateful to all of the retail shops, dive bars and craft breweries that allow us to perform inside their venues. We love you. However, I don’t think any of us will ever take a stage for granted again.

Eric: Yes, I’ll just echo what Cayla said here. For a comedy scene this big to not have a single devoted comedy theater is criminal. The reason that doesn’t exist is the same reason all comedians are broke: There’s little to no funding for the arts.  We do comedy because we love it, but I can safely speak for all of us when I say we could all use some money out of it. So here’s my proposal: grants for comedy at the city level. Help artists pay for venues in town so we can keep doing our bits about how expensive it is to live here and how we’re all dead inside.

Cayla: What’s … funding? Just kidding (how appropriate), Eric brings up an exceptional point. I personally believe that artistic creation is the string that binds the very fabric of society together. Did that sound smart? Life can be pretty dark and dismal, and some degree of levity is genuinely crucial in this day and age. We have enough bridges, for crying out loud. That road doesn’t need 87 lanes, you morons. Give us a black box and some dang funds.

Who is a local talent that you anticipate big things from in 2024 — and why? 

Cayla: First off, I am not biased. Let’s get that straight. My boyfriend, Ryan Gordon, is my fourth-favorite local stand-up comedian after Jess Cooley, Cody Hughes and Petey Smith-McDowell. That being said, I have a gut feeling that 2024 is going to be his year (Ryan’s, that is). He’s hardworking, pretty funny and 30, so doesn’t have very many years left. I feel confident enough to immortalize this sentiment in print because if there’s one place that romantic relationships last, it’s among members of the Asheville comedy scene.

In other avenues, I have heard incredible things about Adesto Theatre. Improvisers/roommates/besties Joe Carroll and Peter Lundblad are national treasures. They’re like Asheville’s bargain basement version of Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly. That sounds like a roast, but it’s legitimately the highest compliment I’ve ever paid anyone.

I would be remiss to not give a warm shout to my Blind Date Live co-hosts, Donnie Rex Bishop (who also happens to be an incredible improviser) and Toni Brown (a comedic diamond in the rough). Co-producing the show with George Awad and Paul Dixon of Double Dip Productions has also been wonderful. Working on a project like those two is kind of like having two funny dads. (George, Paul: If you’re reading this —  are you proud of me? Do you love me yet?)

Oh, and there will undoubtedly be an incredible amount of fun comedic acts of all kinds in the Asheville Fringe Festival this coming March.

Eric: I second all of those stand-ups. To throw a couple more in the mix, I think Hilliary Begley is consistently one of the funniest people around. Hilliary is always working on something, and it’s always good. I also like CJ Green. I did a show with him on the bill a few months back, and I was floored with how funny he was.

As for improv, we have an unbelievable amount of talent here. I won’t list all the individual players I like or we’d be here all day. I will, however, list all the improv schools and companies: Asheville School of Improv, Misfit Improv and Acting School and Speakeasy Improv. I love working with them all, but like Cayla said, Adesto Theatre really seemed to set the improv scene on fire this year. Every performer and school came together under their umbrella to put on some truly remarkable shows. The excitement surrounding their shows was unreal, and I loved being a part of it. If this first year of theirs was this good, I can only imagine what 2024 will bring.


Thanks for reading through to the end…

We share your inclination to get the whole story. For the past 25 years, Xpress has been committed to in-depth, balanced reporting about the greater Asheville area. We want everyone to have access to our stories. That’s a big part of why we've never charged for the paper or put up a paywall.

We’re pretty sure that you know journalism faces big challenges these days. Advertising no longer pays the whole cost. Media outlets around the country are asking their readers to chip in. Xpress needs help, too. We hope you’ll consider signing up to be a member of Xpress. For as little as $5 a month — the cost of a craft beer or kombucha — you can help keep local journalism strong. It only takes a moment.

About Thomas Calder
Thomas Calder received his MFA in Fiction from the University of Houston's Creative Writing Program. His writing has appeared in Gulf Coast, the Miracle Monocle, Juked and elsewhere. His debut novel, The Wind Under the Door, is now available.

Before you comment

The comments section is here to provide a platform for civil dialogue on the issues we face together as a local community. Xpress is committed to offering this platform for all voices, but when the tone of the discussion gets nasty or strays off topic, we believe many people choose not to participate. Xpress editors are determined to moderate comments to ensure a constructive interchange is maintained. All comments judged not to be in keeping with the spirit of civil discourse will be removed and repeat violators will be banned. See here for our terms of service. Thank you for being part of this effort to promote respectful discussion.

Leave a Reply

To leave a reply you may Login with your Mountain Xpress account, connect socially or enter your name and e-mail. Your e-mail address will not be published. All fields are required.