Comedian Josh Blue on the pros and cons of being an "inspiration"
Josh Blue will open for Ron White at the Temple Buell Theatre on Friday, May 17.
There have been a handful of standup comics with cerebral palsy over the years, but few have transcended the "inspirational" novelty and gone on to achieve legitimate credibility in their field. Not like Denver's Josh Blue, who conquered the fourth season of Last Comic Standing and released his own Showtime comedy special, Sticky Change (available on DVD May 21). In anticipation of his opening slot for Ron White this Friday, May 17, we caught up with the fearless funny man at his Cheesman Park home -- where he was throwing a hatchet into a wooden target with his good arm before taking us down to his studio, where a plethora of his paintings and sculptures were on display -- to discuss hecklers, pushing yourself, and some cruel baseball players at Boulder High School.
Westword: You came up in the Denver comedy scene just before it really took off, yet are now established on a national stage as well. Do you like to bring Denver acts with you while you're out touring?
Josh Blue: I like taking Ben Roy with me on the road, because he raises the bar so high. It makes me rise to the occasion -- though I've gotten to the point in my career where I'm confident enough that I'm not afraid to follow anyone. I think I could follow Chris Rock. It's like they're handing you the ball, they've already run it most of the way, now you just have to high-step it into the end zone. If I have someone who sucks opening for me, not only do I have to warm the crowd up for me, but I have to dig them out of a hole.
So is it really important for you to continually challenge yourself? Like, after you get to a certain point of accomplishment, you want to put another obstacle in front of yourself to overcome?
Yeah, otherwise it gets boring and stagnant. I need to find the next step. And that's what I love about comedy: I'll never learn it all. Once I think I've figured everything out, a new door will open that makes me think, "Oh, I never thought of taking that route before."
That's really unique with comics. I've seen so many who find a set that works for them, and they'll keep pumping that out over and again for years.
I find that if I say a joke more than fifteen times, I get sick of it. I never wanted to be one of those comics that do the same set. I can do their jokes verbatim for them, and that would kill me. I would hate to have to say the same jokes year after year. Uck.
If I want people to come see me again and again, I can't do the same stuff. If you come a second time and it's the same, what gives them incentive to ever see me again?
So much of standup comedy is based on physical presentation. And I would assume there are a lot of people with cerebral palsy who would think that the stage isn't an option for them. Was that at all on your mind when you first started?
I don't know where I got the idea, but I knew that I could do it. I was petrified, for sure. But I know that having cerebral palsy helped me immensely in having a unique voice. At the time, I was so self-conscious about my physical appearance. But people always told me I was funny.
I just always told stories from my life. I've always been a shit magnet; the most random things happen to me, so it's easy to take that and put it on stage.
I think you're a great comic beyond the novelty of "achieving against the odds," but I'm curious if you're not averse to people celebrating you as a comedian under the umbrella of that story. Or is that too annoying to consider?
For a long time the "inspirational story" really bothered me, because that wasn't what I was going for. I'm just doing it because I love telling jokes and I have a knack for it. But people will say, "It's so inspirational, what you're doing."
But as I get older, I see more of a need for it. There are so many disabled people who are stuck in their life, and maybe they can achieve so much but they don't have the courage. People write to me and say they saw me on TV and I made them want to become a painter; they always wanted to be a painter, but didn't have the balls to do it. And that made me realize, if they take inspiration from what I'm doing, why would I want to be against that? So I started to embrace it.
I just had an incident when I was at the airport, and the Boulder High School baseball team was there. They started elbowing each other, like "Look at this guy!" And I get that every day from kids and people who don't know any better. And it's not necessarily malice; it's just ignorance. But it really pissed me off, so I went and confronted the kids, and they were not ready for the person that they thought was retarded to come and get in their face.
It made me think, well, what if I wasn't the person I am? What if I wasn't able to go on stage and talk about it? Someone in a wheelchair, or whatever it is, could go home and feel like shit because this whole baseball team was pointing and laughing at them. It made me realize I'm in a position to help people. So these kids picked the wrong person to make fun of.
My wife saw this whole incident, and she put it on Facebook, and my fans went fucking crazy. They found every stick of information about this one kid. And he had his Facebook page set up so you had to pay a dollar to post something on his page, and 350 people paid a dollar to say what they had to say to him. And I had to intervene. I was like, "We're not here to bully the bully."
Unfortunately, a lot of kids like that grow up to be comedy fans. I certainly don't want to say that's what comedy crowds are made up of, but there's definitely a lot of that juvenile machismo found in the comedy scene. When you first started, did you experience anything similar on stage to what happened in the airport that day?
What's been really great is that I think I've always had a really great stage presence, and once I'm up there for a minute or two, most people are in pain with laughter. So that diffuses everything else. Because laughter is an involuntary thing. You can't laugh on command. So I found a way to overpower people with laughter to the point that you don't even remember I have a disability.
You seemed to have quickly established yourself at comedy clubs when you were coming up. Did you ever go through the open-mic phase?
Yeah, I did the Squire a lot. That's the toughest room in the country. I'd rather play in front of 3,000 people at the Apollo than the Squire. No one's listening there, and it takes so much to get them to listen. You have to be over the top. People like Chuck Roy and Ben Roy, they do great there.
I've done my share of shitty one-nighters, too. I played a show in Gillette, Wyoming, one night, and when I was coming out of the bathroom, some guy comes up to me and says, "Hey, you're that comedy-tard."
Oh, my God!
Yeah, I still get that sometimes. The other night some guy yelled, "I came here to see a comedy show, not the Special Olympics!" Everyone booed him and he got kicked out. But I like hecklers; I'll give it right back to them. I'll step on their necks. I like it because it lets people know that I'm not just reading off a script.
And you're actually very physically adept. I've been checking out your artwork while we've been talking, and you've got some really great pieces here.
Yeah, well, it's probably not doctor-recommended for me to use power tools. But I have visions of what I want, and I'm going to keep sculpting until I accidentally cut something off.
I never have a clear idea when I start sculpting or painting; I just start cutting or drawing until something appears. And I take that to the stage, too: I've never written anything down, I've never rehearsed anything. I just go up and do it. When you don't have a set structure, your set feels like you're saying it for the first time right there. If there's too much structure, it feels blocky, as opposed to just telling the first joke that pops into your head.
Josh Blue will open for Ron White at 7:30 p.m. Friday, May 17, at the Buell Theatre in the Denver Performing Arts Complex. For more information, visit www.denvercenter.org
For more comedy commentary, follow me on Twitter at @JosiahMHesse.
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