Upcoming comedy show channels ‘The X-Files’

HOMETOWN HUMORIST: Except for a brief stint in New York City, comedian Petey Smith-McDowell has lived in Asheville his entire life. This fact, he says, gives him license to poke fun at his hometown. Photo by Storms Reback

Local comedian Petey Smith-McDowell would like to set the record straight: Asheville is not a normal place.

“At certain times in this town, you feel like you’re on an NBC show,” says the 33-year-old. “You’re like, ‘This can’t be real. It’s all scripted.’”

But the best analogy, he continues, comes from the big screen.

“Asheville is The Truman Show, and we’re all Truman,” he says. In this scenario, Smith-McDowell believes COVID wasn’t a pandemic but a mandated timeout forced upon us by the movie’s creators. “That’s when they had to fix the set,” he says. “So they had to put us in our houses.”

When it comes to life in Asheville, Smith-McDowell, who has opened shows for Trevor Noah and Hannibal Buress, is overflowing with conspiracy theories. And when he’s not talking about them onstage, he’s posting about them on his Instagram page (@peteysmithmcdowell), which recently experienced a surge of more than 7,000 new followers thanks to his Asheville-specific memes.

Michele Scheve, owner of Slice of Life Comedy, was among those impressed by Smith-McDowell’s online presence. Based on his memes, Scheve suggested he create a comedy show about his Asheville-focused subject matter. On Friday, March 22, 7-9 p.m., at plēb urban winery, The Asheville Files will debut.

Plastic tomatoes

Smith-McDowell was introduced to the local comedy scene at age 19, while taking an acting class at A-B Tech. His teacher mentioned Tomato Tuesday, an open mic at the former New French Bar (now White Duck Taco in downtown Asheville). Smith-McDowell decided to give it a try.

“It was basically ‘The Gong Show,’” says Smith-McDowell, who has an extensive knowledge of and a deep appreciation for 1970s television shows. “The crowd had plastic tomatoes, and you would do two minutes of stand-up. It was crazy. I think we’ve grown as a society, as far as our emotional standards go, to not jump on an open knife like that.”

Since Tomato Tuesday ended its run in the mid-2010s, Smith McDowell says Asheville’s open mic comedy scene has bounced around “from bar to bar to bar to bar.” In the process, the city’s local talent has morphed into a tightknit community. This factored into Smith-McDowell’s vision for The Asheville Files, which he describes as an ensemble production.

Local improv teacher and stand-up comedian Marlene Thomson will co-host the show with Smith-McDowell. “Me and her always bounce off each other at comedy shows,” he says. “We’re always making each other laugh. We have a fun chemistry.”

Together, the pair will channel their inner FBI agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully, as they investigate the city’s many mysteries and conspiracy theories.

“At the end of the show, you should have a good sense of what this town really is,” says Smith-McDowell. “We’re trying to give a brief history lesson. That’s why I like ‘The X-Files’ theme. We take you through a portal. We’re like, ‘What’s this about? This doesn’t make sense.’ You can never connect the dots here because everyone’s not in the same room. This is the moment where everyone can be in the same room.”

The weirdos and the woods

Along with inspiration from “The X-Files,” The Asheville Files also pulls from the popular 1970s variety show format — including games, audience participation and videos, as well as what Smith-McDowell describes as a surprise guest from “a local legend.”

But the heart of the show will be three 10- to 15-minute sets reserved for local comedians. One of them, 53-year-old Cary Goff, began his comedy career in 2004 as a writer for Asheville Disclaimer, a former satirical newspaper that Smith-McDowell also contributed to (and which Xpress featured).

PEN IT: Cary Goff began his comedy career in 2004 as a writer for Asheville Disclaimer, a former local satirical newspaper. Photo by Storms Reback

A few years later, Goff started doing stand-up. Goff loved the immediate feedback his jokes received, which stood in stark contrast to the hoops he jumped through to gauge the public’s interest in the articles he wrote for Asheville Disclaimer. Goff recalls being out with his wife and craning his neck whenever he spotted someone reading the paper, desperate to see if they’d laugh.

He’s been an integral part of Asheville’s open mic circuit ever since. “Each year, the scene seems to be growing,” Goff says. “I don’t really pay attention [to a new comedian] until they’ve been at it for three months or so. And then I’m like, ‘OK, I guess they’re staying.’”

When Goff isn’t working as a web developer in Ingles’ IT department, he manages and is a regular performer every Wednesday at the Disclaimer Stand-up Lounge at the Asheville Music Hall. “I’ve got a lot of Asheville-specific jokes,” says Goff. “So Petey was like, ‘You should come do some of your Asheville stuff [for The Asheville Files].”

The two comedians share a similar sense of humor, one that’s mostly lighthearted and observational. Since Goff moved here from Atlanta, he’s noticed how much Asheville has changed. “Downtown’s still weird though,” he says. “Sometimes in a nonfun way. You see a lot of crazy stuff. Like dudes standing in the middle of the road screaming. A lot of people having very intense conversations with themselves. All mixed in with the tourists.”

There are also a handful of local celebrities. “I love the guy [Josh Foster] who has a PlayStation guitar and … music blaring through the headphones, and he has a supermetal voice,” Goff says. “That’s the old Asheville that’s still alive. A lot of that’s gone away, but that’s why I moved up here. I like the weirdos and the woods.”

Smith-McDowell takes Goff’s fondness for such characters one step further by using them as navigational landmarks when giving directions. “I’ll be like, ‘If you see the guy playing the guitar that’s not connected to anything, turn left at him.’”

Wakanda for white people

Fellow comedians Blaine Perry and James Harrod round out The Asheville Files’ lineup. Like Goff, Perry is a regular at the Disclaimer Stand-up Lounge and has been a fixture on Asheville’s open mic circuit for years. Goff recalls a story about an unusual moment several years ago at a show he and Perry once did at The Southern (now Crave Dessert Bar). “Blaine was onstage, and all of a sudden this guy jumped up there and started wrestling Blaine, and I was like, ‘I don’t remember this being a part of the show,’” Goff remembers. “And then I looked at Blaine’s face and I realized it was not a part of the show.”

According to Goff, a bouncer ended the unexpected brawl, removing the attacker from the venue.

Meanwhile, Harrod is best known for running the Tuesday night Open Mic Comedy Freakshow at The Odd. Smith-McDowell describes Harrod’s personality as a mix between the two main characters from the 1986 film Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. “He’s Ferris and Ferris’ friend [Cameron Frye played by Alan Ruck]. He’s cool and anxious at the same time. He has a very good energy.”

Smith-McDowell didn’t go so far as to dedicate The Asheville Files show to Harrod, but he came awfully close. “He’s about to move to Denver, so it’s kind of like my goodbye to James,” says Smith-McDowell. “The city can say goodbye to him.”

Except for a brief stint in New York City, Smith-McDowell has lived in Asheville his entire life, which he says gives him license to poke fun at his hometown. According to the comedian, Asheville has gone through a series of phases he likens to intense love affairs: Everyone wholeheartedly embraces them at first before jettisoning them in disgust. He mentions Asheville’s former street festival phase, its hookah phase and its kava bar phase.

Currently, he continues, the city is in its Billy Strings phase, which both amuses and frightens him.

“You need to hide,” Smith-McDowell recently told a friend who was heading downtown on a night Billy Strings was playing. “There’s going to be so many hippie white people down there.”

When pressed about what Asheville means to him, Smith-McDowell returns to his love of conspiracy theories. “It’s this weird little portal,” he says. “It’s like Wakanda [the fictional African kingdom from Black Panther] for white people. It’s where you come to your mother source and figure stuff out.”


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