In May, Ruckersville-based comic Chris Alan found himself backstage at Amy Schumer’s stand-up comedy show at the Blue Cross Arena in Rochester, New York.
Alan, a Rochester native, was there supporting his pal Mark Normand, Schumer’s opening act that night.
The three comics chatted a bit in the green room, but Alan says he was too nervous to say much to Schumer (she’s the biggest active comic he’s met, after all). Alan, who has been in the Air Force for 18 years, says, “The military came out of me. I popped out of my chair and was standing there all tall, calling her ‘Ms. Schumer.’ She told me to stop it and just talk to her like a comedian.”
Right before the show started, Alan saw Schumer whisper something to Normand, then she looked at Alan and asked, “So, do you wanna do five minutes?”
“Fuck yeah!” Alan told her, and moments later he was on stage in front of a sea of people. He had no prep. No warning. Nothing but his jokes.
In those moments, Alan says he thought of all the shows where there were more empty seats than filled ones, the nights when he and his fellow comics made no money.
But this time, he killed it. “All the jokes hit: boom, boom, boom,” Alan says, snapping his fingers. He told his hummus joke, his black man driving a Prius joke (helps save money on gas for all those drive-by shootings). He gave some love to his high school and trashed its longtime rival.
Five minutes goes quickly and, before he knew it, he was backstage again, shaking like a leaf, calling his mom, fending off tears, getting Twitter and Instagram notifications from new fans in the audience. He recalls Schumer’s people telling him he looked “amazingly too comfortable” on stage—and he was. “I was just ready,” he says.
The Ante Room
For the past year and a half, Alan has worked the L.Y.A.O. comedy showcase in Charlottesville—opening for national comedians such as Kyle Kinane and Sasheer Zamata—and is growing the local comedy scene with monthly open mic nights at the Southern, Holly’s Deli and, most recently, The Ante Room. Usually they’re “show up and go up” events, where budding comics sign up and Alan creates a roster based on what he knows they’re capable of. There are a few up-and-comers in town, he says, like Winston Hodges, Ken Edwards and T.J. Ferguson.
Alan, who also hosts the “Negro Please” podcast, says there’s been great support for the scene, from small but dedicated audiences and booking agents such as Danny Shea at the Southern and Jeyon Falsini at The Ante Room. He’d like to see more people come out to perform and watch…and, let’s face it, Charlottesville could stand to loosen up a bit.
Alan’s been prepping for that Schumer moment since he was a kid. “I grew up in the inner city,” he says. “I was fortunate enough to have both my parents, and that was very rare, to see an entire black family in the city, so I got picked on a lot.” On top of that, he went to private school. “In my neighborhood, I was the rich kid, but when I got to school, I was the poor black kid. I wasn’t black enough for [my neighborhood], but I was too black for the rich white kids,” he says. (This disparity extends to current struggles in the comedy scene, where he often feels “not black enough for the black shows” and “too black for the white shows.”)
Alan learned to use humor as a social inroad. “I would lash out and talk a lot of shit, just hurtful stuff,” he says. “I had bad teeth and glasses, I didn’t have the cool clothes. I was the worst fighter, the most unathletic dude, so that’s how I learned to be funny—it was a defense thing.” By high school, Alan realized that if he lightened it up, his sharpness could actually make people laugh.
He cracked up his Air Force bunkmates by mimicking drill sergeants, and by the time he got into comedy, in Las Vegas in 2010, he knew he’d found his people, his place.
“I want to be funny because I want people to listen…I want to make them think,” Alan says. Parenting jokes, marriage jokes, jokes about Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, feminism and bigotry, Black Lives Matter and more—he’s not drawing any lines in the sand. (He won’t insult his wife or her family, though.) He wants his audiences to consider experiences different from their own—it’s why he jokes about race, gender, politics and things that, for all of our many differences, are shared human experiences.
Like bathroom farts, the thing that Alan finds most hilarious of all. “That’s such a vulnerable moment for anybody,” he says, giggling. “You could be the most powerful person in the world or the poorest person in the world.”
Alan believes that good comedians develop huge followings because “people want to hear what comics have to say. I think that comics are the voice of the people. It’s not your politicians, it’s not your state representatives. It’s frickin’ comedians,” Alan says. Comedy gives performers a license to say what others cannot say—or are afraid to say—and in a public space, no less. “We need comedy,” he says.
But “if you wanna see some seriously funny shit,” he tells me while peering over the rims of his thick-framed glasses, “come to the Waffle House with us after a show. We’re there until like, 2 o’clock in the morning, just comic-on-comic. That’s the real show.”