Dez O’Neal Won 2016’s Funniest Comic in Texas Competition. But What’s Happened Since? How Has That Win Changed His Career Arc?
Welcome to Humor Us, a column in which local comedian Alex Gaskin interviews other local comedians about the ol’ funny business in order to help introduce DFW at large to the burgeoning comedy scene blooming right under its nose.
Dez O’Neal entered 2017 with a phenomenal profile boost thanks to his winning the Funniest Comic in Texas competition at the end of last year.
With or without that title, though, O’Neal appears poised for major success in stand-up. He exudes all sorts of charisma when he performs — and, even without his impressive stage presence, he’d still be one of the sharpest and most precise writers in the scene.
Consider this: The guy won the Funniest Comic in Texas competition the very first time he ever entered it. Let’s just say that it’s pretty likely this will be just the first of many big career accomplishments he’ll reach in his future.
Speaking of O’Neal’s near future: It’s hard not to wonder what winning the contest does for a person. That in mind, I spoke with O’Neal about the aftermath of his victory, as well as his goals for the future, his adjusting to headlining opportunities and his thoughts on the DFW comedy scene at large.
We talked the night of the final round of the Funniest Comic in Texas competition, but can you take us back to that night, and what was going through your head when you won?
It felt… it felt like relief, to be honest. I was glad it was over. I was glad I knew the outcome. I was worried about that. I really wanted to win. That’s pretty much how I felt: “Ah, I can breathe.”
It wasn’t a matter of winning, it was just a matter of being done?
So how have things been from winning to now?
I ain’t gonna lie, I’ve got a lot of gigs from it — not even really from clubs, just random gigs. Just having that title, having that on your resume, I guess people just buy into it.
Was it people finding you, or was it you reaching out and getting more positive feedback?
I feel like people [were] kinda finding me, or other comedians helping me. My name would come up. People just type something on Facebook — like, “I’m looking for a comedian in Dallas” — and about six people put “Dez O’Neal.” Then I inbox the person, and the next thing you know, I’m booked.
So it’s more non-club stuff you’re getting?
How’s that going?
It’s good! They’re paying, so I can’t hate on that. [Laughs.] Ain’t nothin’ like being in a comedy club, though.
What’s the strangest gig you’ve gotten?
I did this fundraiser — I don’t even know what it was for, but it was a fundraiser. It was at a school, and it was like a poetry-comedy thing. They didn’t have a mic. So it was like I was doing a monologue, but the crowd was into it. I had a good set, had a good 25 minutes clean. I’ve been getting a lot of clean, church gigs. Gotta do clean. Getting a lot of clean stuff. Super clean.
Is that a big adjustment? Do you have to change much?
I really don’t change up my set. I just edit my stuff. If I have to take stuff out, I just take that joke out. My material ain’t really dirty, so I’m good.
I know one thing that came from the Funniest Comic in Texas competition was that you got to put on your own show at their club. What was the name of the show you put together?
The Comedy Hump?
Can you talk a little about that?
Man, that was probably one of my favorite nights so far in my comedy career — because I headlined at the Improv, so that was a big thing. I was so nervous about ticket sales, but it turned out to be a great turnout. I got to sell my merch — got to introduce merch. I never had merch before, so that made me invest in myself and get merchandise. I sold tea cakes! My granny, she made tea cakes. So I was selling cookies. I felt like a real businessperson.
So you had to put that all together before the show?
I had to put all of that together.
Had you ever thought about merchandise before the show?
I did, but I never went through with it. So that just kind of made me do it.
How much time did you have from when you decided to produce merch until the show?
I had enough time, probably two or three months.
So it wasn’t a last minute, “Oh shit, I need to do something about this,” situation.
No. I had thought of that a long time ago, before I had the show. But the show forced me to spend the money, and go through with it.
It was that punch in the arm?
Any other shows coming up in the future?
As far as headlining at the Improv? No, not at the Improv. But I’m headlining at Pocket Sandwich Theater on June 9 and I’m headlining at Dallas Comedy House on June 9. So I’ve got two shows I’m headlining on June 9. Then on June 10, I’m headlining at Pocket Sandwich Theater again.
Does knowing you’re the headliner change how you approach the show?
If anything, I feel like it’s the worst spot, honestly. [Laughs.] I feel like everybody says, “OK, this is the funny person!” I feel like the feature is the best spot to be in. I really like being the opener. You’re the first one in front of the crowd, you’re the first one to touch on every topic. But being the headliner, it’s kind of a new pressure I’ve never had.
What’s the biggest adjustment you’ve had to make going into the headliner spot?
Just trying to stretch my set, and not rush. Fifteen minutes? That’s nothing. Twenty minutes? I can do that. But when you tell someone to do 30 minutes, 45 minutes, you really gotta take your time, I guess. I’m trying to get used to doing that much time. Doing that much time… that’s a long time to be talking. [Laughs.]
Is it just a material thing, or is it a matter of learning to hold the crowd for that long?
I feel like it’s a little of both, because I found myself, like, let me add a little joke here, but it ain’t even really a joke, it’s just something to say in between. It may get a laugh. It’s just really trying to make sure you fill the time. I probably need to write more. Shit! [Laughs.]
I feel like every comedian at every point in their career can say that. Can we talk about the transition from your first open mic until now? When would you say comedy moved from something you were just doing and into a possible career?
When people started saluting my funny. As far as the comedians in Dallas, people at DCH and Arlington Improv — and the comedians, not even really the club. But when the comedians started saying, “You’ve got something,” and then getting a reaction from the crowd? I started feeling like this may be a real thing. Then I met Edwina Gray (of Lady in the Red Dress PR/Marketing Agency), and she forced me to get business-minded. She’s a PR marketer, and she really helped me think of it as a job, as a business.
What was the transition like to thinking of this as a business?
Spending money on yourself. [Laughs.] Spending money, buying stuff, investing in a website — a real website, not Facebook. Taking head shots, business cards. You can be funny all day, but if you ain’t got that stuff to make you look like, “Oh, he’s for real,” then people ain’t gonna take you serious. That’s something she really helped me do.
What are you looking forward to as far as your future with comedy is concerned?
I’m trying to travel and make this a legitimate job to where I don’t have to work, where comedy is my only job. That’s where I’m trying to get right now. I’m really trying to get into acting, get an agent. I kind of feel like I’m on a treadmill, just running in place. I’m just trying to get my eggs in everybody’s basket.
It’s kind of scary to hear you say you feel like you’re on a comedy treadmill after winning Funniest Comic in Texas.
I’m still on the treadmill, man.!Like, everybody feels like I should be on TV or something, but it didn’t work like that. I won, they put my name out there, but it’s still on me to really get out there.
I guess people don’t see those gigs between where we are and those big gigs that everyone sees. Private gigs can be lucrative, but they’re not visible…
They don’t see, so they don’t know.
You mentioned acting. You’ve done a play before, right? How long have you been acting?
It’s hard to say I’ve been acting, I did only that one play.
How’d that come about?
I went to this school, KD Conservatory, and I met this dude named Otis Watson. He wrote this play [A Life in Shambles], he knew me from school, he put me in the play, and we did it for about four years, and it just got better and better.
Four years, we did this play. We probably did it once a year, and it got a real decent buzz locally. It’s over now, but I had fun doing it. [Laughs.] And it gave me repetition. He let me open with my stand-up before the play, so people got to see me do stand-up, and see me transition to an actor, so I enjoyed it.
That seems like a best of both worlds situation, getting to do the stand-up and the acting. So you’re looking for more acting?
That’s the plan right now. I just took some head shots. I’m fixing to start submitting to some people to see if I can get some representation, try to get on a commercial or something. In Dallas, they do a lot of commercial stuff. In Austin, too. I’m willing to drive and audition.
You mentioned trying to find more opportunities for stand-up outside of Dallas. It feels like you’d probably have to do some driving to find serious acting work.
You have to! But I’m willing.
Do you have any inroads that you’ve made in other scenes, either in acting or in stand-up?
Not really. I talked to some people in California, trying to get into this club out there, and they told me they’d look at my submission kit, and get back at me. But not really. I feel like I need to slowly work the Texas scene, travel to Houston, work their scene. But that’s hard to do that stuff when you have a job. I would love to spend three months in Houston, and just get familiar out there, then go to Austin for three months, chill out there. Let everyone in Texas get to know you.
So you want to set serious roots around Texas.
I might as well do it.
Put yourself out there.
Put myself out there. But it goes back to spending money on yourself. You gotta spend that money. I don’t have the money, but I gotta do something.
What are your thoughts on the DFW comedy scene?
To be honest, I feel like we’re underrated. I hear a lot of people saying, like out-of-owners, that they’re blown away by the comedians out here. For people to say that, I feel like we don’t get enough credit, like we should. But I like our scene. We’ve got a lot of different comedians. It’s funny. They’re funny. Dallas is funny. [Laughs.]
You’re not the first person in this interview series to mention that you think we’re underrated as a scene. What do you think is going on there?
I can’t even pinpoint it. It’s just that people don’t know. People just don’t know there’s Backdoor over there, and there’s funny people over there. They don’t know! I used to tell people I was going to the Improv, and they would be like, “What’s that?” You don’t know what the Improv is? What the fuck? Then they go there and they’re like, “Oh, Tommy Davidson is gonna be here? Famous people?” Yes! This scene… they don’t know. They’re not into the arts, performance, plays, acting. There’s some areas. Like, Deep Ellum, they’re into it. But I feel like people don’t care. It’s all, “What the Cowboys doing?” [Laughs.] That’s all they care about.
You talked about needing to invest in yourself as an individual. Does Dallas as a comedy scene need to invest more in being visible?
Yeah. You’re probably right on that. Somebody with some money needs to invest in the comedy scene and promote it. Promote it, put some bomb ass shows together and get people to know. Because I don’t think people know there’s comedy out here. It’s sad.
Head here for more information on Dez O’Neal and his upcoming performance schedule.