There’s a circle in Stewart Huff’s yard where the grass doesn’t grow anymore. When he’s working on a new show, he goes out at night and walks in a circle for hours, talking out loud to himself, chewing over a joke to get it just right. He’s admits this sounds crazy. But don’t you have to be at least a little crazy to be a road comic?
Huff has travelled 47-50 weeks a year for almost 20 years doing this, so you’d think the grass would grow back. It never does. That bare circle is always there, waiting for him when he returns to build a new show, like a practice track at Keeneland. “Building” is how he puts it, and if you ever see him perform, it makes sense. The jokes, the stories, the anecdotes take a lot of thought and a lot of time. Sometimes a joke will kill in Birmingham and bomb in Portland. Sometimes it flops everywhere. None of this fazes Huff, who rarely gives up on a joke: “You have to bring an incredible level of stubbornness. Something truly interesting might take a year of work to get right.” Some jokes take dozens of trials in as many cities, and more than a few errors. When it works, though, he has to pause his set to let the audience recover from the kind of unrestrained snorts and cackles that come when they can’t control themselves.
Huff knows this cramp-inducing cackle because he’s seen it, or heard it, rather. He opened for Mitch Hedberg in 2005 in front of almost 3000 people, just a few weeks before Hedberg died. He opened for Stephen Wright, who had the audience laughing so hard that Huff walked from the back of the club to the front just to hear what it sounded like near the stage. A woman in an elegant black dress, heels, and a pearl necklace was laughing so hard she fell out of her seat. Her husband was helping her back into her chair when he noticed a piece of gum stretching from her hair to the floor. He tried to pull it out, but she waved him off, squeaking out “don’t worry about it!” between laughs. “Do you know how hard it is for a comic to get someone wearing pearls not to care about gum in her hair?” Huff said.
He knows how hard it is. Opening for Hedberg and Wright is a rising comic’s dream, but he’s also played for a crowd of zero. Yes, zero. Well, maybe .5 or 1, depending on how you look at it. Several years back, he was slated to do a show at a small bar. No one showed up to see it. Not a single person. Custom is that the performer still gets paid even if no one shows, since it’s not the comic’s fault. When Huff went to settle up, though, the owner said that he paid for a show, and he wanted to get a show. The bar’s waitress was asked to sit in as the audience, which she did, talking on her cell phone to her boyfriend the whole time. “Yep, he’s still going,” she would say periodically, clearly annoyed. Huff was paid to do 45 minutes. He did an hour.
From Hedberg to no crowd to nearly 3000 people, Huff has performed in Los Angeles, New York, Canada, Seattle, and won his share of accolades (Best in the ‘Fest at the Aspen Comedy Festival, Finalist at the 2006 Boston Comedy Festival). Not bad for a boy from Campbellsville, KY. Huff moved in and out of KY a few times, lived in Knoxville for a good stretch, and has settled for now in Athens, GA. Being born and raised in the South has given him access to certain worldviews and experiences… and an accent, all of which make their way into his comedy but don’t define or limit it. One joke get laughs in Kentucky because the audience knows a guy who’s diabetic, emphysemic, and collecting disability in a mold-infested trailer, but who angrily denounces the government for trying to destroy his “way of life.” That same joke will get laughs in Seattle but for a different reason: it fits the stereotype that the audience has of Southern rednecks. Huff has to walk that line finely, but as he puts it, “I like to toy with your false perceptions.” The first time he did a show in Canada, he was backstage when he heard, “this next comic is from Kentucky,” followed by an audible gasp from the audience who didn’t know what to expect. Those types of crowds expect a story about getting fired from Dairy Queen (NSFW), but within 15 minutes he has them rolling with a bit about the absurdity of riots after the Paris debut of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring (“F*cker started with a bassoon. Hell, I had to kill somebody!”), or his ruminations on creativity (below, NSFW).
Like any other job, the life of a road comic has its ups and downs. Huff insists that he loves every part of it, except for early engagements like local TV spots and radio morning shows. Even then, it’s not the inane questions from Scooter and The Beev that bug him. It really is just getting up early. He loves staying in hotels (“I’m more comfortable in hotels than in my own home. I’ll wake up sometimes in my own bed and wonder where I am.”) He doesn’t mind the fast food and continental breakfasts. He rarely flies to his gigs; he prefers to drive, often in silence. It gives him time to think, to craft. It takes him through places he would otherwise just fly over, interacting with people he would otherwise never have met. After one show near Jackson, TN, a man confronted Huff, red-faced and wagging his finger. “You need church, and you need it now,” the man said. “Glad you liked the show,” said Huff, and the man stomped off. The fan standing behind him said, “no, you really do need to go to his church. Snake handlers.” Huff ran after the man, caught up with him, and asked for directions and a time. When he got there the next morning, the service started like most others probably do, but “then the snakes came out. Poisonous snakes,” he recounts. That was followed by people speaking in tongues and convulsing and writhing in the aisles, overcome by the Holy Spirit. Some things are worth getting up early.
The road can give a comic stories, but not every show ends with snake handling. To make it in comedy, you’ve got to be willing to put in long hours over long weeks over long years. You’ve got to fail, and be able to handle failure (see the Creativity bit in the video above). “Take a group of funny people, and the funniest one of the bunch is probably not the one who will make it as a comic,” Huff says. You’ve got to put yourself in uncomfortable situations: “Comedy is having a conversation with strangers, and it’s awkward talking to strangers.” With so many outlets for comedy and the mainstreaming of stand-up (Last Comic Standing, etc.), Huff believes it’s becoming harder and harder to make a living as a comic in the vein of George Carlin or Richard Pryor. “Neither of those guys would have made it on Last Comic Standing. They were trying to build a joke, a point of view–trying to make us think about our lives differently. That’s no good for TV now. Can you make a philosophical point in 4 minutes?” Huff’s advice, though, to anyone trying to be successful in comedy, is that success might not equal getting rich. “I’m not going to tell anyone how to do it, but I’ll say this: if you say something out loud and don’t believe it, dump it. Even if the crowd loves it.”
The crowd usually does love it, if nothing else because Huff is a smart, funny, likeable guy. He doesn’t get combative like Bill Hicks could, and he doesn’t imply that you’re stupid like Bill Maher might. Sure, his bits about gay marriage and global warning will rankle some folks, but they’re meant to make you think about your opinions rather than to make you feel dumb for holding them. He’s quick to stress that this is “thinking comedy”: not necessarily high brow, but intended to make his audience–and himself–look at things differently. That he might be asking you to cogitate about death right after he tells you about how his sister’s wife carried his baby is beside the point (NSFW). As Huff, who’s seen his share of comics great and terrible, puts it, “Anyone can get a cheap laugh with a d*ck joke. But a comic who can tell a joke that you’re still thinking about the next day? That’s something.”