By Sean Tuohy
There are few stand-up comics that have the ability to grab you with one joke and keep you interested. Sometimes it takes some time to develop the right rhythm with the audience, and rarely does it happen with one punch line. That is unless you’re comedian Slade Ham.
I was lucky enough to discover Ham's work one night and his on-stage personality and delivery grabbed me and wouldn’t let me go. Recently, the Texas-based comic has been working as a radio DJ and podcast host in addition to spilling jokes on stage.
I chatted with Slade about his career in comedy, his first experience on stage, and the worst whiskey he’s ever had.
Sean Tuohy: What made you become a comic?
Slade Ham: It’s funny, because the things that made me want to be a comic aren’t the same things that still make me want to be a comic. I’ll answer this question the same way in the past: I was a rock DJ on the radio in my hometown, and a huge fan of stand-up throughout the 1990s, and I thought that my clever (in my mind anyway) quips on the air were somehow on par with the people I watched on A&E’s “Evening at the Improv.” It was the natural progression for a delusional 23-year-old.
The reality is that you don’t know anything in your early 20s. You just don’t. The truth was that I had already dropped out of college, moved to Dallas, failed at basic survival, moved home, was in the early stages of a bad relationship, and was scraping by as a bartender. Stand-up really was just one more attempt to find something I was good at. And of course there was the allure of being the center of attention, the guy on stage. What keeps me doing stand-up is that I feel like at 38, I have some pretty solid opinions about some things. I know who I am. I have stuff to say and the stage gives me a platform. At 23, I had nothing to say, even if I didn’t know that at the time. I just needed to feel like I was working toward something.
ST: What was your first time on stage like? Good, bad, or awful?
SH: It was a train wreck. I mean, people laughed, but civilians don’t always know better. Regular people laugh at “that’s what she said” jokes and “The Big Bang Theory.” I don’t say that to be condescending, but non-comedians have an underdeveloped sense of comedy. They think in one step. So to a room full of people in my hometown, people with very little exposure to mainstream stand-up, I definitely did well.
I was also paraphrasing bits from George Carlin and others in those first few weeks. I didn’t know any better. I corrected that really quickly though and I started sucking with my own material instead of someone else’s. No one is good their first time. You are good compared to having never done it before, but no one is good compared to the standard any pro would consider baseline.
ST: How long did it take you to develop your own voice as a comic?
SH: The adage is that it takes seven years. I think it was closer to 10 for me, but there were gaps in my schedule that delayed things. The thing is that your opinions and values change as you get older, so your voice has to as well. The whole concept of “voice” on stage is funny to me—it’s really about being authentic and being able to present what you have to say as honestly as possible. Once you learn to do that, all the other stuff falls into place. You don’t have to worry about whether you write a story or a one liner, or whether the tone of a bit “fits” your voice. You just start to write as “you.” Not only does it solve all those other problems but it simplifies your actual writing process as well. Some days I still feel like I’m working on that, but for the most part I figured out—really, really figured out—who I was on stage around the 10-year mark.
ST: Which stand-up comics influenced you?
SH: I was influenced very heavily by Carlin in the early stages. Carlin, Richard Pryor, and Bill Cosby remain my Holy Trinity of stand-ups. Pryor and Cosby, particularly in regard to storytelling, have turned out to be bigger influences than Carlin though.
ST: You are also a radio host and podcast host of The Whiskey Brothers. Do you approach these platforms differently from stand-up comedy?
SH: They really are such different mediums. When you are on the radio by yourself there is no instant gratification. It’s literally playing to an empty room. No feedback, no laughter, no interaction. Maybe the phone rings, maybe it doesn’t. It’s just you and the microphone. I really don’t know why anyone does it, honestly. I did it initially because at least in the 1990s there was a bit of a rockstar quality to the DJ. It’s what you did if you had no musical talent but still wanted to go to concerts and feel important.
With the podcast (and with "The Outlaw Dave Show"), it’s a group environment. There is interplay and improvisation and you are actually creating something with your peers. It’s a totally different environment than being on stage by yourself. And of course you have to maintain the control. You’re operating on a clock, there are breaks to think about, levels to watch, and a ton of other things to distract you from simply being funny.
ST: Some comics write whole jokes down while others just keep it all in their head. What is your creative process when coming up with a joke?
SH: I used to have a long writing process. I would write every new joke out verbatim. I would use way too many words. I would over think it ridiculously. Now, I do so much of it on stage. I trust myself to throw a loose idea out in the middle of a show and see what happens. I always bring one good punch line with me and if things don’t work, that’s my out. You can always follow it with something old and proven to redeem yourself. It’s the thing the drum into your head in defensive driving classes. Always leave yourself an out. I’m gonna brake check this asshole who’s tailgating me, but if he gets all road ragey I’m going to make sure I have some space to get out of the situation. Not that defensive driving course offer that level of aggressive driving technique, but they do teach you to leave an out. New jokes are sort of that dangerous.
Most of the really good lines in some of my stories have just happened on stage though. You really are in a different mindset during a show—much more free, much more creative, very much the same way that people are in hypnosis shows. There is no over thinking it. It’s live fire, funny or die. I have a huge respect for the guys that can just sit down with a notepad and write “jokes.” I am fascinated by that. I realize that that seems like a racecar driver not knowing how to drive a stick shift, but I really do suck at it.
ST: You are a well-known whiskey drinker. What is your least favorite whiskey to drink?
SH: I was given a bottle of something called Yukon Gold for the podcast once. It’s the only bottle I’ve ever given back to a fan. It tasted like feet and sadness.
ST: I have to ask, did the Asian woman at Dunkin' Donuts ever dial the other "1"?
SH: Haha, that’s such an old bit but such a very true story. Kudos for knowing some of my old stuff that well. I’ve told the stage version of it so many times that I’ve forgotten what parts are true and which ones aren’t. What is true is that I was very much chased by my ex that night and I went to the Dunkin’ Donuts with the very sincere hope that a cop would be there. I remember laughing about that to myself even as her headlights raced toward me in the rearview mirror.
And she very much burst through the door and started throwing anything she could get her hands on—salt shakers, napkin holders, and then eventually one of those big drink machines got shoved off a counter and shattered the plate glass window. The only other person there was that poor little Chinese woman. It was two in the morning and I know I’m putting words in her mouth in the joke. As far as I actually remember, she just stood there as everything broke and watched. And I’m certain she pressed the “9” and both “1s” the second we left.
ST: What is one random fact about yourself?
SH: I take a toy Yoda with me everywhere I go and shoot pictures of him like one of those roaming gnomes. He’s been in something close to 15 countries with me since I got him last October, and I guard him as closely as I do my passport. There is a photo album with him on my Facebook and Flickr, and it’s gotten so bad that people no longer care what I’m doing; they just want to see Yoda in cool places.