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Road Comics Bring Big-Time Laughs to Small-Town America With AM-AP Arts: New Comedy

July 16, 1991

PIKEVILLE, Ky. (AP) _ Comedian Skip Darby wowed ’em in Boone, N.C., population 12,000. The next night, he brought down the house in this eastern Kentucky coal town of 6,000.

After six years playing such out-of-the-way places, you might think it’s time for Darby to change agents. But to him, it’s just part of being a road comic.

″We’re like the new hippies, the new rock ‘n’ rollers,″ the 30-year-old Cleveland native said after a recent show at The Boulevard, a Pikeville bar- nightclub.

″Bringing comedy to the masses,″ chimed in 32-year-old Nancy Gray, another road comic who opened for Darby during a recent tour.

Playing Pikeville is a kind of distinction insofar as it’s the smallest link in the country’s largest comedy-club chain - The Comedy Zone. Run by Charlotte, N.C.-based Creative Entertainment, it has 1,500 comedians working its circuit, said company Vice President Ken Phillips. The network covers 13 states, the District of Columbia and the Bahamas.

Some Zone clubs are in larger cities like Charlotte and Orlando, Fla. But 53 of the 80 gigs on the circuit are one-nighters in towns like Pikeville, Phillips said.

″There are not a lot of people out there that go into the small markets and medium-sized markets like we do,″ he said. ″But they still like to laugh just as hard as people in major cities.″

″People stereotype small towns and try and make everyone think the crowds are bad and the shows are always duddy,″ said Hollywood-based comic Vince Champ, a six-year veteran of the circuit and another recent visitor to Pikeville.

″To be truthful, they really aren’t very different to me than working the big rooms in the big city.″

Champ, Darby and Gray have all worked in big markets like New York and Los Angeles, and they’ve been on nationally televised comedy shows.

But they say working these small nightclubs is the real test of a comic’s stuff.

″You have to be tough and universal,″ Darby said. ″I’ve seen them in New York and L.A., and the funniest people I know are road comics.″

Champ and Gray are strictly stand-up comedians. But Darby, who did magic and theater for 14 years, juggles flaming batons and bowling balls. He finishes by getting out of a pair of handcuffs while doing a headstand in a fish tank.

″Whatever does not kill me becomes part of my act,″ he said, twisting a line borrowed from 19th-century German philosopher Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche.

Gray said road comedians can make $20,000 to $40,000 a year. Some weeks she earns $300, others $1,200.

On the Zone circuit, the clubs put the comics up free in hotels or apartments. The comics can write off mileage and $25 a day for meals.

But traveling 50,000 miles and spending 42 to 45 weeks a year on the road can make the price high in other areas.

After graduating from the University of Kentucky, Gray married and settled down to a comfortable $32,000-a-year job selling office equipment. ″I was a regular yuppie,″ she said. ″I had a husband, a house, a boat.″

But that all changed when she started performing at an amateur night in Lexington. When Gray took her act on the road, her marriage went out the window. ″He wouldn’t support my comedy,″ she said.

Champ, who’s single, acknowledges his career ruined one relationship. ″Who wants to date a phantom, a gypsy?″ he said.

Darby, on the other hand, has been married six years and has two daughters, aged 5 years and 10 months.

Gray - now married to Jeff Chester, booking director for Creative Entertainment - said the road can be a trial, especially for a woman.

″It’s not like I’m trying to cop an attitude. It just seems like I have to work twice as hard,″ said Gray, who dyed her blonde hair red to avoid a stereotype.

Champ, who’s black, said he’s encountered surprisingly little racism, even in the smallest Southern towns.

″Racism is not as common as it used to be,″ he said. ″I’ve been very lucky.″

Chester said the Zone circuit is big enough that he can steer comics around certain ″hell gigs.″

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