James Gregory turns 70 this year and is still making up for lost time.
He was 36 when he left sales for a life as a comedian, and 34 years later jokes he “started making decent money about four or five years ago.”
He’ll pick up some cash – and make three generations of people howl with laughter – when he performs Thursday at the Sylvia Theater in downtown York.
Gregory’s show promises stories about lotteries and wide-load aunts, told by a man who is a mix of your funniest relative and a pre-Mayberry Andy Griffith with an edge. His shows are a mix of old routines and new insights, and hint of his conservative Georgia upbringing.
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The Herald spoke with Gregory as he prepared for for Thursday’s performance. His answers have been lightly edited for space and clarity.
Q: An entertainment columnist in Huntsville, Ala., called you the “funniest man in America” in the 1980s. What has changed more since then: America or the funniest man in it?
A: That’s kind of a complicated question. … We all know whether it’s comedy or the banking industry or whether you work at the post office, in 30 years of course the world has changed. It has nothing to do with comedy. The world is changed, and not necessarily for the good.
Q: You travel a lot. What sort of things are you seeing?
A: I don’t travel as much as I used to. I used to travel all over the country. I have performed in 38 of the 50 states. I have performed in every province in Canada, as far as the east in Nova Scotia to the West. I have seen all kind of things and all kinds of people.
I think most Americans today have been dumbed down. I don’t mean that in a harsh, mean way. I think there is a lack of common sense. I think common sense has gone to lunch.
Q: But lack of common sense in the world works to your advantage.
A: It does. Let me give you an example of that. … The American people worry about things that they should not worry about. For years there’s been news about childhood obesity. Kids today are more obese than previous generations of children. As you know, it has been blamed primarily on the fast-food industry, especially places like McDonald’s and their advertisements for things like the Happy Meals. That’s what kids want.
We’ve gone to the point in this country that people in Washington – and they been trying this for a long time – want to regulate TV advertising, so the kids wouldn’t see that on TV.
Here’s the thing about this: McDonald’s has been around for a long time. They went national in the 1950s. They started selling the Happy Meal in the 1970s.
Now why do you think the previous generation of mothers did not complain about McDonald’s? Common sense. There are three things you need to know: One: McDonald’s does not deliver. Two: Little children have no money. Three: Little children don’t have a car. They cannot drive.
So previously, if a child started whining about McDonald’s – “Momma, take me to McDonald’s; I want to go to McDonalds!” – the mother would say, “You better get your (self) out in the yard, and don’t make me tell you again.” You see how simple it is?
Q: On the other hand, you haven’t missed that many meals. What things do you look for in a restaurant?
A: I’m a meat-and-potatoes person. Any red meat – I love steaks, I love fried chicken, I want some potatoes, I want some bread. I don’t want to sound like an old guy, but I’m simply saying my aunts, my uncles, my parents, my grandparents ate three meals a day. At almost every meal, there was some sort of fried food. They drank whole milk. They used real sugar. They used real butter. And that happened for centuries. I have an Uncle Jim who lived to be 93. My parents lived into their 80s. You see what I’m saying?
Q: We will hear the occasional cuss word from you, but you don’t work blue.
A: No I don’t. Years ago I used to let a “damn” or a “hell” slide out, what I call Baptist language. That was when I used to do lots of comedy clubs. I hardly ever do comedy clubs anymore. All my work is in theaters. Theaters have no age restrictions. Any age group can come to my show. I don’t care if you’re 8 years old, 18 or 80. We get a lot of kids.
I was in Columbia recently, and on the front row was three generations of a family. The parents were there, two kids ages 9 and 13, and parents’ parents were there. You don’t see that too often at a comedy show.
It’s great. It’s funny. It’s hysterical. Everybody leaves happy. They can laugh and enjoy themselves and not feel like they are embarrassed. There is no guilt.
Q: …which is important to Baptists. But you do bring nostalgia. When I hear you, I think about my Aunt Edna and Uncle Hugh Lee back in Alabama. The way you tie nostalgia into what you do works for you, doesn’t it?
A: Everything I say on stage is believable. The audience can relate to what I’m talking about. See, we all have one or two crazy relatives, and we all have one or two overweight aunts. They eat, eat, eat on a Sunday afternoon – just eat everything – then get back in the living room and flop down. The first thing they say is, “Oh, Lord, I ate more than I planned to. I think starting tomorrow, I’m going to go on some kind of a diet.”
Q: You have been doing that fat relative routine for quite a while now.
A: That’s the one I get requests for. I close my show with that. If they see me get out of my car and head to the lobby, that’s the first thing they ask for: “Are you going to do the fat lady? Be sure to do the fat lady. Are you going to the fat lady? You’d better do the fat lady.”
Most of the people who have heard it before, No. 1 is that they want to see it again, and No. 2, they brought someone to the show who has not seen it yet.
Q: It sounds like an old rock band who has to play the hits. How do you tie that in with performing new stuff?
A: That goes throughout the new show. There’s always something new in there, but I don’t change the show drastically. It would make no sense.
That is the thing about comedy: People think that if you go someplace and a year later you go back, the audience wants a brand-new show. That’s not true.
Let me give you an example. Suppose you were interviewing Kenny Chesney. His major shows every year, there are about a dozen he goes to the same place. He goes there every 12 to 18 months. Now Kenny may have one new song in the past year or year and a half. The average length of the song is about three minutes. But Kenny Chesney is on stage about an hour and a half. He doesn’t have an hour and a half of new songs. Those are the songs that people have heard before, and they still want to hear them again.
People love the routines. You kind of doctor it up. You change it up some. People like the old stuff. You mix in some of the new stuff. And it has paid off for me. I’m still in business.
Q: What is your writing process like?
A: I can’t write or create anything unless I accidentally stumble into it. If I hear something or read something or see something at a truck stop or at a mall that strikes me as being funny, then I will try to re-create it and embellish it on the stage. I can’t just take a sheet of paper and say, “I think I’m going to write something today.” I don’t see how people can do that. I can’t do that. Something has to start my brain to get me started on that.
Q: Do you watch “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee” with Jerry Seinfeld?
A: I have watched three or four of them. I do enjoy those.
Q: I’m wondering why he hasn’t had you on, and what he would ask you.
A: I’m not quite in their league, you know. I’m not complaining. I’m just simply saying, I am not in the superstar stratosphere. I have never been on TV. I’ve never been on the “Tonight Show” or the Letterman show. I tried, but I got rejected so many times that I quit trying. I am not in that level of notoriety… He (Seinfeld) doesn’t even know I’m alive.
Q: He’s missing something.
A: That’s what I think, too.
Q: So what are you driving now?
A: I had a Cadillac I drove for years and years, and it finally conked out on me. I had two cars I mess around with: a Mercedes that is 10 years old, a 2006 I bought in 2009. I also had a Ford Fusion. It is not something I ordinarily drive around in. I bought that car for my brother, because I was going to get me a new car and that was what he wanted, so I bought it for him. About four months later, he passed away, so I end up with that car. I like a big car.
Q: What do you do when you are not on stage?
A: I am always busy. I have an office and a lady who runs my office. She’s been on my payroll for almost 25 years. By the time I get back, there are things to do. You got to go through the mail. You got your bookkeeping. You’ve got to spend some time in the office. I’ve got a sister and a brother-in-law, and they got kids. I try to spend at least one full day with my family every year.
By the time you taking your dry cleaning and go to the bank and go to the drugstore and to the grocery store, and unpack your suitcase, pack it, and make your phone calls – this morning I did two radio stations, and yesterday I did three plus a newspaper – it’s not just busy on stage. There’s something you’ve got to do all the time to make sure you stay in business.
Q: You don’t talk much about politics on stage. Has this year been particularly hard to keep quiet?
A: The reason I don’t is because I get so damn mad I will start cussing. I am so angry about what is going on in our country, I can’t keep my mouth shut. If I start doing it on stage, it will turn people off. I also think that if I start talking about politics, I will alienate half of the audience.
Now what I do is to get into social commentary I may be thinking about. I never mention a politician’s name. I never use the words “Democrat” or “Republican.” I never mention names. Never. I may talk about guns, for example, with everybody wanting to ban guns. I may say something about that in a semi-humorous way without mentioning any individual.
Q: It is kind of sad for you that you never won the lottery…
A: I’m trying, though.
Q: …but there are thousands and thousands of people who are happy that you did not.
A: I think I would still do comedy. Here’s what I have said: If I win the lottery, I will still do the comedy, but you will have to come to my house. I do want to cut back on the travel. I’ve got four acres out here, so we can get folding chairs.