Sure, every comedian wants to make people laugh. But it’s a rare one that will go so far as to create a festival devoted to doing just that. Last year, Brown launched Laugh Your Asheville Off, a recurring spasm of standup comedy that will soon grace Asheville stages for the eighth time (see details below).
Brown was born in St. Louis and raised in Atlanta, where he excelled as a high-school runner. He took a shine to the Asheville area when he attended Brevard College, where he majored in exercise physiology. (Along the way, he also attended culinary school.) After graduating, he went to work at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo.
There Brown took up with Chris Carmichael, coach for cyclist Lance Armstrong, and wrote the recipes for Carmichael’s Food for Fitness: Eat Right to Train Right (Berkley Books, 2005).
The book did well, but Brown was ready to try something new. On a flight home to see relatives in Atlanta, he browsed through an airline magazine. In it was an article on the “top 10 places to reinvent yourself,” he remembers. Seeing Asheville on the list, he decided on the spot to make a move here.
That was three years ago. In the time since, Brown, 30, has waited tables at fine-dining restaurants, tested recipes for chefs who are writing cookbooks (“I make sure the descriptions are clear and good,” he explains), and poured countless hours into Laugh Your Asheville Off, which has brought a steady stream of nationally touring comedians into our midst. When he’s not busy working his jobs or the jokefest, Brown is writing new standup material and what he hopes will be his next book. The tentative title: Greg’s Grub: Laughing and Broke in the American Kitchen. The project’s still taking shape, but his current plan is to present 90 or so recipes that can be made on a tight budget, using a “not-so-serious approach to cooking.”
Brown is tall, easy-going and quietly enigmatic—not the in-your-face type of comedian. But he’s damned serious about making comedy connect. Xpress sat down with him last week to talk about standup. Below are parts of our conversation.
Mountain Xpress: So, heard any good jokes lately?
Greg Brown: Oh, that’s good. (Laughs.) Wait, that’s a serious question? I have not heard a lot of good jokes lately. I have heard jokes lately, like fart jokes.
Actually, the new Mitch Hedberg CD just came out. He passed away a couple of years ago, but they found an old recording of him. He started the alternative-comedy revolution. He was very surreal and very acerbic. He was brilliant—kind of like a younger, hipper Steven Wright. His stuff blows me away.
What was the first joke you ever told before a standup audience?
The moment of getting your first laugh on stage, from something that you wrote, is pretty liberating. My first bit was based on something from my life: I went to a mostly all-black high school, and I was a really good athlete. So my nickname was “The Caucasian Sensation.”
Why didn’t Asheville have much of a comedy scene before you came along?
There was a lot of improv here, and sketch comedy, but there was really no standup comedy—an art form that I thought was missing. I don’t know why it hadn’t been established. Wrong venues? Wrong type of comics? There were probably a lot of variables.
Some people would say that Asheville’s still not big enough to really support a successful standup scene. What would you tell them?
Well, we’re doing it. People are coming out [to the shows], and they’re very receptive. There are repeat customers, repeat attendees. It’s pretty amazing how some people have been to every one of our shows. People are ready for it. In times of a bad economy, everybody wants to laugh. It’s the perfect time to go out and get kind of separated from things.
How do you choose which comics to invite?
It’s tricky, because we’re a first-year business. We have to be pretty particular about who we pool. We look for an intelligent comic whose observations are pretty clean—I mean, I don’t want their writing to revolve around F-bombs. … We get a big crowd, with a big age gap, and the right comic makes everybody laugh.
Is Asheville ready to laugh at itself?
I think that when people sit down [at the shows], they relax a little bit—and that’s when you can laugh at yourself. The best jokes that I’ve delivered have been making fun of, like, Amazing Savings, and Florida people. But even topics that people hold really close to home, they can loosen up about.
How’d you come up with the idea for Laugh Your Asheville Off?
I came up with the whole concept driving back from Charlotte after a gig. I had a tape recorder [to talk into], and that’s when your best ideas happen. For some reason, doing 20 minutes of comedy and then getting into your car by yourself makes your creative juices run wide open. I was thinking, “Asheville’s such a cool place. Why isn’t my favorite art form represented here? You know … I could probably do this; I could pull this off.”
I was so new to comedy and pretty naïve, so I said, “Instead of having three comics on the stage, which is the format, let’s have 10 on the stage and call it a festival.”
Which comedians are making you laugh lately?
Mitch Hedberg, who I brought up earlier. And Zach Galifianakis, who’s from North Carolina—he has a farm up near Boone. I like the alternative comics, who approach comedy from a different direction from the norm. … I think that Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart are brilliant, but I’ve never, ever told a political joke. That doesn’t resonate with me, because I’m going to piss off either 46 percent of the audience or 54 percent. When I write something funny, I want everybody to identify with it.
Having seen you perform a couple of times, it seems fair to say that your jokes are drawn from the stuff of everyday life. Sometimes it seems like the material just falls into your lap.
Yeah, I’ve got this one joke that actually happened at home—I tell it a lot, and it always kills. Goes like this:
My ex-girlfriend used to watch the Food Network a lot. So one day I said to her, “You know, you’re always watching all these cooking shows. You should try to make some of these recipes that you see on TV. Why don’t you cook this stuff instead of just watching other people do it?”
And she says, “Well, you watch a lot of porn …”
Laugh Your Asheville Off returns to the Diana Wortham Theatre on Saturday, Sept. 20, at 8 p.m. Headlining act is musical comedian Mark Eddie. Tickets are $15. Call the theatre at 257-4530 or visit www.laughyourashevilleoff.com.