Day Job, Night Comic: An Interview with Raleigh Comic Brent Blakeney
I caught up with Brent Blakeney at the Nashville Zanies Comedy Club where he was opening for Kathleen Madigan. He's an up-and-coming comedian who tours part-time while maintaining a career both as a comic and a substitute teacher. He was cool enough to answer some questions about comedy and juggling his day and night jobs, so you should be cool too and check out his YouTube videos or, if you are in the Raleigh area, get out to his shows and support live comedy!
How long have you been doing comedy?
I have been doing comedy for 5 years.
How did you get started? What was the inspiration to get on the stage?
I got started at a Comedy Zone in Lynchburg, Va., in 2011. A buddy of mine at work also loved comedy as much as I did. We found out that this club had an open mic, and we dared each other to get onstage. The first night, I got onstage and he bailed on it. He started a few weeks later. The funny thing is, though, I am still doing it, and he has since quit…I think. Haven’t talked to him in a while.
The other real inspiration was that I was a huge theater kid in high school. I loved being onstage and performing, and that desire never really left. Loving comedy as much as I do, stand-up seemed like the perfect fusion between the two.
What is your creative process for writing jokes?
I think that I’m a little bit of hybrid writer. Some people can sit down and write out complete jokes in a notebook and work on them that way, others can go onstage with an idea and riff it until it’s fleshed out. I will usually snag an idea and write out a skeleton form of the joke. Then, once I figure out exactly where the laughs are, I start to play with it onstage and let it grow organically from there. One of my biggest setbacks, or advantages, depending on how you look at it, is that I can’t lie onstage. Everything I say is rooted in some sort of truth. And I like it that way.
What is your day job? Do your two jobs ever cross paths—logistically (time conflicts, etc.) or creatively?
Right now I work as a substitute teacher here in North Carolina. Honestly, it is one of the best jobs I can think of for a working comedian. I can work as much or as little as I want to, and I’m free to take off whenever for road gigs. The pay is decent, if I wasn’t married I couldn’t survive, but I get by.
And as far as creativity, for a long time it was the crux of my act. I still have some bits I will toss in every now and again depending on the crowd. A lot, and I mean A LOT, of people say “I bet you get tons of material from that job!” And the truth is, yes and no. There have been some great things that have happened that I have been able to make jokes out of, but most of the time it is so insane you can’t explain it to people who weren’t there. I once got into an argument with a sixth-grader over if 9/11 was a conspiracy. He was 10! The worst part was he knew way more conspiracy facts, than I knew non-conspiracy facts. Things like that happen about once a week.
What was your experience, if any, with open mics? How do you “graduate” from open mics to better paying gigs?
Oh man, if I didn’t have experience with open mic, I wouldn’t be much of a comedian. Open mics, from the time you start, to past where I am as a comic, are a fundamental part of the growing process. I tend to find them to be very polarizing. Very rarely do you find an “ok” open mic. They’re either really fun moments of comedy and camaraderie between comics, or it's like watching someone you love get slowly choked to death, and there is nothing you can do about it. But they are always learning experiences, no matter which way you look at them. The instant feedback you get for your jokes is unparalleled.
Graduating from the open-mic level to the showcase or paid level takes patience. Also, as a caveat, I live in an area where there are not many comedy clubs, so the majority of shows are produced outside of the club environment. Since that is the case, it takes A LOT of work on my part to find shows and clubs outside of my town in order to get myself booked to travel.
Who have you opened for/worked with? Do you have any good stories that you’d be comfortable sharing on the record?
I feel like I have been extremely blessed with who I have gotten to work with over my very short career. Right now, I am working with and traveling with Last Comic Standing winner Jon Reep. It’s a goal of a lot of comics at my level to get picked up by a headliner and get to work with them multiple times over a long period, and I feel really lucky I get that opportunity.
Along with Jon, I have gotten to work with some great comics over the years. Bill Burr, Dan Cummins, Josh Blue, Alonzo Bodden, Iliza Shlesinger, and many others.
The one real special time, though, was when I got to close for legendary comic Brian Regan. Yes, close. He had a deal with the club where they couldn’t drop any checks until after the whole show was over, so they needed someone to keep people in their seats, so they hired me. It was a crazy experience to close for someone who was a huge influence for me to start doing comedy. His crowds were so great, though, and they were very receptive and kind to me.
How do your friends deal with your success? And vice versa?
I feel like I am lucky enough to be friends with other comics who are all working towards the same end. Not only that, but we all understand there are different ways to go about reaching that end. For example, I am married. I have a full-time job, and a life I have built for myself in Raleigh, N.C. I look at it as if I am working outward. I have been building a fanbase, and slowly moving further and further away from Raleigh as I book more shows.
On the flip side, one of my best friends recently just packed up and moved to L.A. He didn’t have any connections, so he was free to do that. And I say, “Good for him.” That’s the path he wants to take, and he is doing very, very, well. (@ImRyanHiggins if you want to look him up)
And the nice thing about having separate views of the road, is that there’s still a twinge of jealousy on both sides that pushes us to work harder. I am jealous that he gets to play some legendary clubs in L.A., where as he is jealous I get to road gigs and travel more. It is so much a give-and-take that it’s important you find people that share your ideals.
You seem like a generally happy guy. How do you deal with the vein of bitterness that tends to crop up in the comedy scene?
I mean to be honest I am just as stressed and anxious as the next guy. I get bummed out with missed opportunities, and frustrated if I am not moving forward as fast as I would like to. But at the end of the day, it’s comedy. It is supposed to be fun, and I try to hold onto that ideal as hard as I can.
Getting the opportunities that I did, as early as I did, I saw a lot of the bitterness that comes from long stretches of time spent on the road. Seeing that, as that young of a comedian, really burned itself into my mind, and I vowed I would never be that.
When all is said and done I get to travel the country and make people laugh. I win.
What is the end goal of doing comedy? Do you want to end up comedy writing, headlining on a major level, movies, TV?
At the place I’m at in my life right now, I want to be able to support myself on comedy alone. As far as the amount of work and luck it takes to “make it” in comedy, that is my current realistic goal. And if that can end up with me still touring, and possibly writing for someone or something, I would be pretty happy.
Now, pipe dream? I would love to be headlining in a major way. That is my dream end with comedy. I would love to be able to play theaters and have a fanbase built off of stand-up. Along with, and I know this sounds sappy, I want to help as many of my friends grow in their careers as I can. I had a lot given to me as I was coming up, and I really want to be able to do the same for some of my friends.
Do you have a plan?
Honestly, my plan right now is to keep grinding it out. I have had a lot of luck in the past year or so, and I am hoping to keep that streak going. The road to success is a long and arduous one, but I get to be creative so I am willing to walk it.
My next big step is to record an album to be able to distribute at shows and online. I am absolutely ready to just give that thing away for the sake of exposure. Comedians today are lucky in that we have so many outlets to promote ourselves, but at times it can feel overwhelming. It is just a constant cycle of Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. So I think the more you can get out there, the better. And is having a CD going to get me to the next level? No. But hopefully it will get my name out a little more.
What advice do you have for young comedians who want to gain momentum in their careers?
There is no short-cut. Patience and persistence are your two biggest allies. That and not being a dick-head off stage. No one wants to work with an asshole. You could be the funniest guy in your city, but if you’re a jerk, no one will want to work with you.
Also, this is a job. And you should treat it as such. It is a fun job, and you should enjoy it, but also remember it is a job. Party and have fun and be safe, when the work is over. Never let any of that stuff bleed over into your performance. You wouldn’t do it at an office job, you shouldn’t do it here.
Do yourself a favor and look up all the comedians you can from Raleigh, NC. It is a strong, strong group of people, and there are a lot of great things coming out of our modest city.