Brandon Davidson Talks Doing Comedy on the Road, Connecting With Crowds and the Communal Power of Barbecue.
Welcome to Humor Us, our column in which Dallas comedian Alex Gaskin interviews other area comedians about the ol’ funny business in order to help introduce DFW at large to the burgeoning comedy scene blooming right under its nose.
Brandon Davidson learned just how powerful – and polarizing – stand-up comedy can be when his first attempt at it actually got him kicked out of a summer camp program as a teen.
But roughly five years ago, he finally gave it a second chance.
The last few years have been kinder to Davidson than the counselors at that summer camp. He’s been invited to perform on the road with multiple touring comics, he enjoys regular work in the Metroplex and, along with Tyler Elliott, he has helped generate a budding stand-up scene in Tyler, where he currently resides.
He’s also found a way to link his loves of stand-up comedy and barbecue, as he, Elliott and fellow comic Daryl Felsberg record Comedy BBQ, a podcast where they chat with other performers over food from some of the best barbecue joints found in Texas.
But some aspects of Davidson’s personal life may not gel with prevailing presumptions about stand-up comics. He honed his public speaking skills as a college and youth pastor, and he currently does nonprofit work helping teens in East Texas with issues of substance abuse and mental health. It’s a background that’s helped him hone a singular onstage presence. Davidson is exceedingly good at luring in audiences with fits of wordplay and wit, then blindsiding them with something terrifically subversive. He also has a keen sense of how to expose the humor in some of the more difficult subjects he broaches — without diminishing them.
I spoke with Davidson about adjusting to different crowds on the road, what it’s like to juggle community outreach and comedy, and how he feels about those articles that try to make declarations on the state of the stand-up audience.
This came up when I talked to Tyler Elliott, but you and he both started comedy in Tyler, which is pretty far removed from Dallas. Can you talk about the process of starting when you’re removed from the main scene?
Tyler and I started about five years ago. I got onstage years before that – I was probably 15 or 16, in high school, and got on a talent show and tried some stand-up, like, in the style of late-night monologue jokes. And it was in front of about a thousand people. It was a summer camp setting. It went better than I thought it would, but the adults were not happy at all. I got pulled offstage, kicked out of the program for the rest of the summer, and I thought that was it. I didn’t realize… I was aware of stand-up, and aware of comedy, but I didn’t know you could just go to an open mic. Fast forward to Tyler and I — our wives were friends, and we started hanging out, and then we just started talking about, like, we’d do bits with each other, and we wondered, “Could we start a comedy night in town or something?” And we started Googling and realized that we could go to Dallas and go to Backdoor and Hyena’s, and about five years ago we went onstage at about 2 in the morning at Hyena’s in front of three people, I think. [Laughs.]
You both do a lot of comedy in Dallas, but you also do work outside the area, like with the show you were booking at Jul’s in Tyler. What’s it like for the comics you bring out here? Are they apprehensive?
Yeah, I think at first. The old joke is that Tyler is 90 miles east, and 90 years behind. It’s more conservative than the Metroplex, but I think people here… they’ve got access to the same television shows and media. We’ll do theater shows or small shows, and I’ll always have people come up and go, “Oh yeah, I was listening to this episode of WTF,” or “I was listening to You Made it Weird,” or a Comedy Central special, or whatever. So people are aware. I think it’s more about cultivating an audience, and getting them from a place where, living in a place that doesn’t have a comedy scene, they don’t always know how to act. It’s always been passive for them – they can kick on Netflix, or watch a show. But when they go out, it’s just getting them used to the idea that this is gonna be an hour and a half show, we’ll have a handful of comics who are going to do progressively more time. Those sorts of things. It’s been fun. Between the East Texas Comedy Festival, and Jul’s, and other bars in town, we’ve been able to do some fun stuff. With Jul’s, we did a season’s worth of shows there, we took a break for the fall, and we’ll kick off again this Spring. Those were great. Every show, really small room, seats like 60, and every show was full. And the crowds really enjoyed it. So we’ll do it again, and we’ll keep doing shows as long as people come out for them.
What sort of feedback do you get from the comics who do these shows?
It’s sort of wide-ranging. People will kind of jokingly bitch about the drive, but Jul’s in particular, they’re just kind of blown away by the intimate setting, that these crowds are showing up, that the crowds look really similar to what they’re going to see in DFW. Occasionally people want to know if they’ll need to tinker with the material, if certain things are going to play, and I just tell them that we booked them for a reason, just to do their material, and they’ll be fine. They’ve had really good feedback. With the theater shows, we had Jimmy Pardo, from Conan and other things like Never Not Funny. He loved playing in Tyler. Just the silliness, and being able to have fun with that crowd, was great. Henry Cho – this was bizarre – he shows up, and I’m opening for him, and when I came out, the crowd, like, visibly gasped. And I just thought it was because I wasn’t Asian.
But they didn’t realize it was going to be a live show. They just thought we were going to use a projection screen, and that they were going to watch Henry Cho on a screen. So the idea this was a live show… [Cho] just thought that was so funny. He did maybe 10 minutes of crowd work just off the idea that there was a live person on stage. But the crowds have been great.
For the last year, maybe a little more, you started traveling and performing on the road with different headliners. How’s that going?
It’s been eye-opening. I’m really slow when it comes to building material. There’s some comics who’re really prolific, and will write a lot onstage, or they’ll come up with a lot of new material. I feel like at this point, five years in, I have maybe 25 minutes I feel pretty good about. And depending on the show, I may not feel too good about that. So I knew that I could go host and do fine, I knew that I would be a strength on a show if I could host. But getting the opportunity to go on the road and do a longer set, 25 to 30 minutes, that was a real chance for me to grow and see what might work. Daryl Felsberg got me my first road work, and I was able to go on the road, and it was awesome, to have some of the questions some people will have when they drive into Tyler, “Am I gonna need to readjust my material? Are these jokes gonna work? Am I gonna connect with this crowd?” At the end of the day, it’s pretty binary. People either laugh at your stuff or they don’t. You just want more laughs. I think the first road work I did was going to Waco, in this little biker bar, and there was an illegal poker game going on, somebody pulled a gun, and you just have to roll with it. The next night was a couple of nights at a comedy club in Corpus Christi. And to see how different those crowds were, and to see how I need to sort of adjust my material for a bar versus a club, and how 30 minutes felt like a really long time then, and now, after a couple of years doing that much time, I feel comfortable going up and doing that. It’s cool being able to go and experience new people, head out and do casinos in New Mexico, or do comedy clubs other places, and you get to meet other comics, and exchange hell gig stories, and bust balls about other comics you’ve worked with, whatever. At the end of the day, I like it because it’s really pure. No matter what city you’re in, you just have to go up and prove if you’re funny or not.
You mentioned Daryl Felsberg. You guys have been doing a barbecue-themed podcast. How’d that come about?
Going on the road, we found ourselves needing to eat. So we’d stop, and barbecue places were something we could agree on a lot. I think we were in Central Texas maybe, and we stopped at Black’s BBQ, or Smitty’s [Market] — one of the central Lockhart-area barbecue places, just real classic Texas barbecue, meat market style. We just sat there eating and talking, and just realized that we both really dug barbecue, and being silly about it, so we talked to Tyler [Elliott], and we really wanted to this podcast where we can get barbecue places to give us free barbecue if we’ll sit there and maybe talk to another comic. So we got a chance to go hang out with, like, Michael Winslow; we took him to this rib place in Kilgore, Texas. And we let him make goofy sound effects into a tape recorder while we talked to him. Podcasting is so weird. I think we’ve put out maybe 10 episodes, but if you listen to them, we don’t really talk about barbecue. We’ve had Daniel Vaughn, who’s the barbecue editor at Texas Monthly, and we talked about what makes good barbecue — can you spot a good place from the road? — but I don’t know, there’s something about a group of friends, or just people, sitting around. Barbecue’s kind of a communal food, and every single episode we’ve had, the guest we’ve had has talked about something that, when we stopped rolling, they said, “Oh, man, I’ve never talked about that before.” We’ll ask if it’s cool to run, and they’ll say it’s fine. Each week, people have talked about stuff they’ve never talked about before, it’s really cool.
Barbecue therapy, yeah. [Laughs.]
I did want to talk about being cautious about what you produce, writing-wise. How has your writing changed over time?
When I started, I think I kind of fell into that classic trap where the punchlines were few and far between. I thought I could go up and tell a story, and when all else fails, I could pepper it with blue material. I think the best thing for me, I reached out to Aaron Aryanpur, and asked, “What book would you recommend?” And he recommended Zen and the Art of Stand-Up Comedy. And I asked what open mics were good, and he basically said all open mics are good, but [I] should check out Backdoor, because it would force me to write clean. I was like, “I don’t know if I want to do that,” but doing that forced me to scrap a lot of material I’d been trying, and I started generating more. I had to write about other stuff going on in my life. Aaron also recommended Dean Lewis’ class, and the thing about that class was I had to write new bits every week. Most of the time it didn’t work, but when you found something, it was really cool. For me, over time I’ve realized that at this point there’s maybe only six or seven things I feel comfortable writing about. So now those are kind of the limbs on the tree, and I’m just trying to put leaves on the branches, new jokes or new tags. Trying to fill it in. I’ll write about my family, or growing up, or how I’m cosmetically overweight, or whatever. And that’s kind of it, and I’ll try to fill in around that stuff. Now that I’m doing longer sets I’m finding it easier to try something in the middle of a feature set. The jokes don’t have to be as bang-bang-bang as when you’re hosting, so you can try something a little goofier, or looser, or more absurd in the middle of your set. If you’re comfortable with what you have after it, you may think, “I’ll dig my way into a little hole, but I’ll find my way out of it.” I’ve actually found bits on the road recently that work, because for me, I’ve just got to say them. I don’t know, if I write it out on a piece of paper, it’s too wordy. I’ve got to try it out.
You mentioned reaching out to Aaron – when I started there was no way I would’ve had the guts to try that.
It just never felt like… I felt like I was just going to be bothering people. I was more withdrawn.
I’m kind of dumb. [Laughs.] I started late – I’ll be 40 next week, and so I’d already had… like, I was a college and youth pastor for about a dozen years, and I was already talking in front of groups of people. And I was used to generating new material. But when you’re a pastor, if you have two jokes in 40 minutes, you’re killing it. That doesn’t really work if you’re doing stand-up. I didn’t know that you weren’t supposed to reach out. If Patrice O’Neal would’ve been in our scene, I probably would’ve tried to Facebook message him, y’know? [Laughs.] But that’s one thing that’s really cool about Dallas. I don’t know if it’s always been this way, but my experience has been that I can pull somebody aside, whether they just started, and I can talk about how they came up with a bit, or I can pick somebody who’s been in it 20 years and talk to them. For the most part, I think people in the scene are pretty generous with their knowledge.
You don’t hear a lot of comics talk about their past as youth pastors.
Yeah, I know. I don’t know how to talk about it onstage, really. I didn’t grow up in the church at all, so it was kind of a weird thing for me when I left college and started doing that. For me, I still struggle with doubt and belief. But I learned so much about myself during that time. I think it was the politics of the whole thing that bummed me out. I loved helping people. I wasn’t this Evangelical Bible thumper, I was part of a really progressive denomination that [was] very liberal. I could’ve stayed there for years and been happy, I just got tired of the politics of it. There was a lot of money and stuff in there that I wasn’t interested in, and it was a lot of time. That’s a 24-hours-a-day kind of job. As I got older, and my daughter was really young, I decided I needed to do something else.
Speaking of work, you work at a nonprofit helping teens with things like substance abuse and access to counseling, right?
We cover about 23 counties in East Texas. We try to address the issues of substance abuse and mental health. In East Texas, there’s not a lot of resources, but there are a lot of issues, and people aren’t always able to get the help they need. We’ve got a staff of counselors, and other people on staff that help from a substance abuse standpoint. Substance abuse, we try to work on prevention. We want to stop people from starting to use. Not like D.A.R.E or a “Just Say No” kind of way, we try to use more evidence-based stuff. But the mental health aspect was eye-opening for me. I have a family history of having a lot of behavioral and mental health issues. About half of all mental illness happens by 14. My younger brother has a diagnosis that probably could’ve happened at that age, but people around then didn’t see it. So here I am, I get to be in school and juvenile probation offices across East Texas, and if we can help get a kid counseling they wouldn’t have received otherwise, that is so fucking big. I just came from a lunch where I got to hang out with a group of counselors and our staff, and just to go around the table, and know there are kids who aren’t in jail or the cemetery because of the work we do, I love it. And it’s weird, because it’s heavy shit, so I love having stand-up to balance it out.
Is it weird to be in this one world where you have to be very tuned in to people’s emotional states, then go into comedy where you’re sometimes almost expected to have comedy from… y’know, you talk about drinking, you talk about depression onstage?
I think some of the skills that helped me in the nonprofit world can help me onstage. That listening – the crowd wants to laugh, they want to be with you, it’s a relationship. I try to be careful. I’ve found that hanging out with a lot of comics, we have a higher prevalence of substance abuse and mental health issues. That’s something I wouldn’t… I guess you kind of think about it, we eat like shit, we work in bars, basically, our sleep schedules are jacked. Conditions are ripe for things to happen. That’s been another thing – being able to help my friends now. When people have issues, and for them to think, “I can reach out to Brandon, and he can point me in the right direction.” That’s cool as hell. I find myself not labeling anymore. I kind of cringe a little bit when people, I don’t know, maybe make fun of mental illness onstage. But I think it comes from a place of ignorance, I don’t think it’s really malicious. That was the long way of me saying I typically steer away from talking about mental illness. In my act, I talk about my relationship with my dad, and we don’t have a great one. I’ve found that the best way for me to deal with it is for him to have the most absurd, Stone Cold Steve Austin voice in each bit, and to really find the funny edge of whatever we’re talking about — to not dwell on the dark part of that mental illness. But, y’know, I have a family member who legitimately believes I’m an alien. Legitimately believes it. I’m gonna go visit them for Christmas, and I guarantee you that they’ll tell me about that. I’m the tallest person on both sides of my family – I’m 5’7″ – but they think that’s because I’m an alien. And that aliens announce that I’m gonna be there before I’m there, like, “They told me you were gonna be here today.” I’m like, “That’s cool, I called like three days ago.” I need to find more ways to talk about it onstage, but I struggle with exploiting it.
Stories come up occasionally about the climate of comedy – for a while, we got those articles about crowds wanting “safe spaces” and being sensitive to controversy, and now we’re getting those articles about how Trump’s election win makes people more aggressive. You kind of live in both worlds. You live in an area that could be considered a stereotypical “Trump’s America,” but you work in this world where you have to be more sensitive. So what are your thoughts when you see articles saying audiences are too sensitive, or too aggressive or regressive?
I am the Hannah Montana of this. I don’t think crowds have changed. I don’t think that Trump being elected – it’s gonna be so dumb, talking about politics – but I don’t think Trump’s being elected changed crowds. I think that if you’re funny, if you have a funny take, go up and do it. If you think you’ve got some hot shit take on Trump’s presidency, do it. What I think is more common is people think it’s a funny take, and they go up and try to accost an audience with it. And what happens is the audience is like, “Wait a second, we didn’t sign up for this shit.” I think the only real contract we have with an audience is when we go up and hold a microphone, they expect us to be funny. I think there’s so many beautiful ways to be subversive with that microphone, and to be able to let them swallow some really bitter truths with a laugh. We’ve got to be clever about those punchlines and those stories. It feels like we’re too on the nose when we talk about some of it. I choose not to write five minutes on Trump. Partly because I would be a shitty political writer, but partly because if I do that… I don’t write about the Dallas Cowboys. If I got onstage at a comedy club in DFW and started talking about the Cowboys, I know I’m gonna split the room in half. If I talk about Texas A&M or the University of Texas, I know I’m gonna split the room in half. The same is true with politics. I’m not that clever, I don’t have a hot enough take for the audience to say, “This guy is good, let’s listen to him.” I’m gonna stick to my pun-based dad jokes, and how I get tunnel vision when I tie my shoes, but that’s about it.
So what are your thoughts on the Dallas comedy scene?
I’ll take something I learned when I was a pastor, and apply it to here. St. Augustine has a quote, “The Church is a whore, but she’s my mother.” That’s how I feel about the Dallas comedy scene. It’s my mom, right? That’s where I started, I started in DFW. Does it have its warts? Yeah, absolutely. But I think that’s part and parcel with us as a scene. I think we’re all kind of waiting on something, and I think it’s kind of all in us, right? There’s opportunities for all of us, and a lot of the headliners that used to live here migrated out, and they’re in L.A. And we’ve still got so many talented comics in DFW, and for whatever reason, you have a lot of people who, if there’s a hierarchy, are all kind of smashed in at one level. I think it’s kind of cool, because we can all kind of talk to each other. I don’t have experience with a lot of other comedy scenes, but I see a bar show in Dallas, and a club show in Dallas, and a theater show in Dallas, and they’re all so different. There are 400 people in Dallas that would call themselves comic on their Facebook profile, but there may only be ten percent of those who’re working. My goal for 2017, I want to write more, I want to be funnier than I was last year. Living in Tyler and driving to Dallas, I can’t take it for granted. I don’t have the ability – I guess I could grind my balls off and drive over four nights a week and do multiple open mics, and I probably should do that, but I try to balance my job, and being a dad, and being a husband, and all that. I have to sort of harness my internal Eminem and drive over and say, “I’ve got one shot this week, what am I gonna work on?” That’s why it’s so cool that I’ve got Tyler Elliott. We started at the same time, we can keep each other accountable. I can call him and say, “Is this funny? Has anyone done this before?” And vice-versa. We can drive and riff bits, and try stuff at DCH (Dallas Comedy House) or Hyena’s, and see if it goes in the act. I love Dallas comedy, and I hate Dallas comedy. I generally, as an optimist, love meeting new people. But hanging out at open mics and doing shows, you will meet some of the best people this world has to offer, and some of the vilest, who you just want to slam dunk in a garbage can. In the same hour you will meet these people. And that’s hard, because I genuinely love everybody, and I want to find something redeeming. I just hope they’re funny. If I see somebody I don’t initially like, and they make me laugh, I’m like, “OK, I like them a little more.” But if I don’t like you and you’re not funny? I don’t know. [Laughs.] But I really enjoy Dallas stand-up. It’s much better than Tyler’s comedy scene. There’s so much more that can happen. We can’t take it for granted – there’s a giant city in Houston that is one of the top five largest cities in the US, and their scene is constantly in a state of flux, with clubs opening and closing. Austin is a killer scene, and San Antonio has this neat scene that does really cool shit. And Dallas is right there. I don’t think we get the respect that we should. I feel like, if you can come to Dallas and kill, you can kill anywhere. If you can kill in Austin, you may not be able to kill everywhere. If you can kill in Dallas, you are going to kill across Middle America, in that Trump bubble. You’re gonna kill, you’re gonna kill, you’re gonna kill. That’s been the cool thing about working clubs, is headliners come in and talk about why they like to play in Dallas, because they like to see how this material’s gonna play, because if it kills in Dallas, they feel like it has a really broad reach. I love Dallas, I’m excited to see what happens in 2017. I’m excited to see people start new shows, start new things. I love it when people find new ways to work together. Having done it only five years, I think it’s cool to see any time a new crop of people come out of a comedy class, who’s going to stick around. Or when a new flock of open mic-ers come out, and you hear someone do something funny, and you think, “I hope they stick around for a few years, because they may legitimately have something.” But you see a bunch fold. I’m excited to see what happens over the next year.
Cover photo by Heath Bickerstaff.