He is simply one of the best.
With my first ‘attempt’ at comedy in 2010, I met David “Deacon” Gray, veteran comedian and New Talent Coordinator at Comedy Works. We’d actually been introduced online through a mutual friend because we’re all from Oklahoma, but with the face to face acquaintance, I realized why they called him Deacon. A preacher’s brother, his kindness and guidance are treasures, especially in the comedy business. Humbly and with consummate professionalism, he offers pointers to his flock. For instance, he stresses to newcomers the need to say or do something to help the audience like them immediately when they take the mike.
Now writer friends, doesn’t that sound familiar? Hook the reader on page one. Create a character with whom the bookworm can identify and admire. Funny how entertainment and arts have these techniques in common.
Speaking of scribing, Deacon has a Bachelor’s of Arts in Journalism with an English minor from Oklahoma University and it shows. An author can listen to his hilarious act and detect attention to word choice, brevity (the old less is more rule), elaboration if needed, and of course that old literary device: irony. Just listen to how sharp and fresh his performance is.
He is an inspiration to watch and I’m glad I know him. Honestly, I get a little star-struck around him.
Welcome to Chiseled in Rock, Deacon!
CIR: I’ve been dying to ask you this: Have you ever pursued publication?
DG: The short answer is no, I’ve never submitted anything I’ve written to a publisher.
The only experiences I’ve had that might be similar involve self-publishing. Growing up in Oklahoma gave me a strong DIY streak: I learned to make my own fun. So, for three years immediately after college (1991-94), I published a zine in Norman, Oklahoma. It was named the Oklahoma Comic Review, and featured comic strips, political cartoons, puzzles, and, yes, a monthly column by me. Usually it was just new jokes I wanted to try out, but sometimes I would write a column in character. I remember one column was supposedly written by the Review’s plumber.
Then, in 2003-04, I published a couple issues of a smaller zine called Gray’s Journal, which was really just an excuse to print the pieces in my notebook that were too long or too weird for the stage. One was a happy alternate ending to Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery. Another was an intervention for a man who said, “wassup” too often. I think the longest piece was three pages. That might be the closest I’ve come to writing and publishing prose.
CIR: A common tool used in prose and stand-up is the simile. It seems the more I try to come up with a good one, the worse it gets regardless of whether it’s meant for profundity or wit. Are they best from you a la seat-of-the-pants?
DG: To me and my way of communicating, simile and metaphor are absolutely critical.
So much of what we do as comedians is getting people to shift their perspective, to see something routine from a different point-of-view. And there are times when the ideas we are trying to convey might be too sublime, too blunt, too odd, or too much of a stretch to state simply. Metaphors act as verbal ambassadors and provide the audience/reader with a touchstone with which they can get to the ideas more easily or more elegantly.
For instance, there’s a huge distance between saying, “Donald Trump is a racist,” or saying, “Donald Trump is your racist uncle.” The first idea is too on-the-nose, too politically charged, and too open for interpretation (i.e. too broad). The audience is left only with the choices of agreeing or disagreeing, usually based on their prior experience and opinions or what they think the comic means by ‘racist.’ It’s not likely that you will change anybody’s mind with the first statement.
But by employing a metaphor, the second idea is softened, personalized, and makes it easier for the audience to identify and understand. Everybody has a racist family member, so that communal idea provides a step to what you are trying to communicate about Trump. And, most importantly, that step makes it more likely that the audience will accept the shift in POV.
CIR: When writing a joke, do you follow a method, or jot down something that strikes you as humorous, maybe both?
DG: I don’t have a method, unless endless repetition and rewriting counts as a method.
In most cases, an idea will occur to me, usually provoked by something I’ve seen, read, or heard. Sometimes the idea will present itself in complete joke form, but usually I just pick up on something about the idea that I find absurd or ironic or grandiose. Then it’s up to me to cast it in joke form.
For instance, I looked at my notes from last night, and I had written this: erotic novelties. I saw that on a sign on Santa Fe last night, and something about the word ‘novelties’ clanged in my ear. It’s not a joke yet, but I can see the premise in my mind: is there anything truly ‘novel’ about what they sell in that store? What would it take to catch me by surprise?
The next step will be to write it out in joke form, and see if I can refine it to match my voice. Then I will try it on a stage somewhere.
CIR: Do you test a bit with anyone to see if it might ‘push the limits’? The reason I ask is I’ve never heard you perform anything that rubbed the audience the wrong way.
DG: I think part of my personal maturation as a comedy writer was discovering that I could be subversive without poking somebody in the eye. As a young comic, I had plenty of material that was edgy and provocative. And that material worked fine… for a particular crowd. Anyone outside of that small group usually saw it as heavy-handed, obvious, and self-righteous. ‘Oh, you’re in college and you think war is bad? Didn’t see that coming.’ There was no surprise in those jokes; no revelation.
At some point, I switched to a sugar-pill approach. The idea now is to slip difficult ideas into bubbly material so that the audience doesn’t see it coming. I think that’s a thousand times more subversive, and also provides for bigger laughs because the audience is surprised. One of my biggest joys is making an audience laugh at a difficult idea with a light presentation. That way there’s irony in both the words and the performance.
Here’s a recent joke that might help illustrate the idea.
“My parents were Baby Boomers, so that makes me Generation X.
Now we’re into the Millennials, and, after that, is the Probably Fucked’s.
Then the What Did You Do To The Planet’s.
And then the Ooo We’re Thirsty’s.”
Didn’t see that environmental message coming, did you?
CIR: How important is it to cultivate following online? Probably like comedians, writers, who often tend to be introverted, are constantly nagged by agents to do so.
DG: It’s important if you are looking for commercial success. Like it or not, most consumers do their shopping online now, and social media drives people to your product. Also, a good online example of what you do can often lead to more work. I’ve been booked for gigs off of videos I have posted online. And there are lots of stories of comedy writers who got job interviews based on their Twitter presence.
CIR: Did you always know that comedy was your calling?
DG: I always knew I wanted to write and perform comedy, but I didn’t know that it was possible to make a living doing it. I grew up very sheltered in Oklahoma in the 70’s. The idea of being a stand-up comedian was about as likely as running off with the circus.
I remember the first time I was booked in the comedy club in Oklahoma City (in 1986). The booker gave me the dates, the number of shows, the comics I would be working with, and then offered me $250. That stunned me. I had never been paid for doing any kind of performance.
CIR: From my point of view, your job as coordinator must be difficult. With the tons of comedians in Denver wanting their shot, I think you’re constantly queried—almost like a literary agent. What do you do to shut down?
DG: The most difficult part of my job is the reality of the occupation: many are called and few will make it. Almost all of the young comedians believe they are only one good set away from a big break that will lead to their own Comedy Central series. But the reality is that stand-up is a difficult job that requires a lot of work, luck, and discipline to survive.
Out of a hundred comics, only ten have the talent and skills to succeed. Of those ten, seven will quit. The remaining three will have a career, but only one will get any fame, and that fame only lasts a second.
So, with those odds, it’s wildly important that you love what you do. My happiest day in comedy was the day I stopped chasing fame and started writing comedy that was true to me. And, ironically, that was when I first started having some success in the business.
When you love what you do, you never shut down. I spend my time away from comedy thinking of ways to produce more comedy. If I went to the beach, I would just think of jokes about the beach.
CIR: Thank you, Deacon!
Friend him. Follow him. Buy his CD. Catch his standup when you can. You too, will be hailing his humor.