“Comedy can be powerful, and it can change people’s thought process,” says comedian Cliff Cash. But, even though much of his stand-up material revolves around his liberal viewpoints, including anti-racist and pro-LGBT stands, he’s not interested in beating anyone over the head with his opinion — he wants his audience to have a good time. “I also think part of the power is just making people be present for an hour,” he says.
Cash will perform at The Grey Eagle on Tuesday, Oct. 29, as part of a regional tour — an abbreviated version of last year’s Blue Ridge Parkway Comedy Tour during which he logged 590 miles on the parkway, playing in seven cities.
A North Carolina native and former Ashevillean, Cash now lives mainly on the road. “I’ll get as many shows strung together as I can in a region,” he explains. “Then, if I have four or five days off, I’ll go out into the wilderness and I’ll camp and hike.” Cash has seen 47 states and 44 national parks. His goal is to visit all 61 parks.
“If I had a brand, I’d want that to be factored into it,” he says. Cash often posts photos of sunsets, waterfalls and other nature scapes. He hopes “it encourages people to disconnect a little more often and go out and see something beautiful. There’s just so much beauty, no matter where you live,” he says. “There’s massive waterfalls in Alabama, there’s caverns, there’s rapids in Florida. Some of the coolest parks I’ve been in are in Ohio. … I’m trying to create social media content that reminds people of some of that.”
Cash’s general life message, he says, is about shifting priorities: “Focusing less on stuff, physical attachments, and more on not just being alive but really living life.”
Growing up, Cash was always the class clown. “My dad was funny,” he remembers. “Seeing him make my mom laugh and make my siblings laugh — from a young age, I was conscious that was important to me. I deliberately worked at it.” Stand-up is a skill that must be honed, but videos of the comedian display his comfort onstage and his ability to work the room.
His start, Cash says, was when “I did an open mic, and it went really well.” After that, “It just took other people believing in me to do it on a professional level.”
One of those supporters was the comedian’s mother. Because she’s conservative, Cash had avoided sharing his material with her. But, after releasing an hourlong YouTube video, “I had a deep, gut-wrenching fear about my parents hearing it,” he admits. When Cash’s mother finally did stumble upon the video and called him about it. “She said, ‘I wish you wouldn’t talk that way … but I think you’re funny enough to be famous,’” he remembers. “That was a big step in comedy, for me.”
The family, and the conservative ideas around which Cash was raised, figure into his stand-up. He has a particularly poignant bit about his sister — who was shunned by their parents after she came out — dropping everything to be with their father during his terminal illness. “It was the most Christlike thing I’ve ever seen,” Cash says in his show. A beat. “That’s why it’s such a bummer that she’s going to hell.”
In fact, Cash credits his sister for his open-minded perspective. “It probably would have happened anyway — just going to college and reading books and having a diverse social network,” he says. But when his sister revealed she was gay, “It strengthened my resolve. … You might let someone get away with saying something you think is unkind or ignorant, but you’re less likely to let them get away with it if you think they’re saying it about your sister.”
Cash’s brother, novelist Wiley Cash, shares a left-leaning worldview, sense of humor and drive for creative expression. The brothers both attended UNC Asheville, where Wiley is now a professor and the writer-in-residence. “I went for about 45 minutes, and I was like, ‘This is hard!’” Cliff jokes. “Then my brother decided to become class president.”
But on a more serious note, he points out that watching Wiley work toward his goal of becoming a novelist (now a New York Times bestseller) was deeply inspiring. Cliff, too, grappled with making his dream a reality. “I spent a lot of my adult life feeling real out of place. … Living within conventions goes against my spirit,” he says. Comedy allowed him to “do what I want, go where I want. … It’s a lot of hard work, but it doesn’t feel like a job,” he says.
Cliff came to realize that some of his challenges, such as insomnia, depression and anxiety, could be harnessed to feed his comedy work and to find meaning in confusion and chaos. Or racism. Or North Carolina legislation such as House Bill 2, about which he was able to express his outrage onstage.
“Once you find the thing you’re meant to do, you owe it to yourself to do it,” Cliff says. He adds, only half-joking, “I’ve never been more broke, but I’ve never been happier.”
WHO: Cliff Cash
WHERE: The Grey Eagle, 185 Clingman Ave., thegreyeagle.com
WHEN: Tuesday, Oct. 29, 8 p.m. $12 advance/$15 day of show
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