Published on September 12th, 2012 | by Jessica Mickey0
An Invigorated Dusty Slay Aims the Spotlight at Locals
If you haven’t seen Dusty Slay since he won the Charleston Comedy Festival Stand Up Competition in 2011, you may not recognize him. Sleeker, fitter, and funnier, the highly regarded local comedian recently slid into a booth in the back of Gene’s Haufbrau with me for a chat. I was on my second Bloody Mary of brunch service. He sat with his bicycle helmet and sports bottle full of water. Ladies and gentleman, meet Dusty Slay 2.0.
When Slay began making a name for himself in Charleston’s stand-up scene during the early 2000s, there was only a small handful of local comedians in town and even fewer opportunities to perform. After taking improv classes with Theatre 99, Slay was encouraged to try stand-up by longtime company member John Brennan, the one-man spaz of the Piccolo Fringe favorite The Banana Monologues.
Slay’s early sets focused on his Alabama roots, complete with bare feet and denim overalls. They quickly earned him a reputation as one of the stronger local comedians. He became a regular at Bill Davis’ weekly open mic series Liquid Courage at Lite Affair on Calhoun Street (now Big Gun Burger Shop, where Slay himself hosts a weekly open mic), as well as the now defunct 96 Wave’s Comedy Free with Kenny Z events at the Music Farm. However, Slay soon realized that the redneck shtick initially fueling his onstage persona could only take him so far creatively, and he found himself becoming frustrated by the box he and Brennan had built for himself.
“Everything I was writing, I was trying to put into that niche, and it wasn’t working very well, so I quit doing it for awhile,” Slay recalls. When he did finally work up the courage (and a new set) to hit the stage again, he had traded the stereotypical Southern character for something closer to his true self, something that Slay acknowledges stemmed from him allowing himself to becoming a better writer. “At some point, I just got to where everything I was writing was just not funny. I felt like I was so nervous for a while, that I wouldn’t really sell my jokes like I thought I should. So I would get up and do it, and it wouldn’t go that well, and then I would just want to trash it completely instead of rewriting it. I just didn’t understand writing. I feel like I’ve found my voice, so I can write for myself now. I can tell where it’s supposed to be funny.”
Back in the saddle, Slay again became a solid bet behind the mic, and the Charleston stand-up scene, once made up of a miniscule handful of Lowcountry improvisers and occasional hobbyists, started to blossom. Various open mics and showcases became common weekly occurrences, sometimes with more comics in attendance hoping to score some stage time than audience members. Slay entered a few stand-up competitions, usually at least placing in the top five or ten, and then in 2011, he came in first in the Charleston Comedy Festival Stand Up Competition at Theatre 99. He was both the judges’ and the audiences’ pick, winning a hefty cash prize and the opportunity to headline his very own show at the Pour House during the annual comedy festival. But something was missing.
“I felt like once I got to that point, that something was going to happen,” Slay says. “Not that I thought someone was gonna go, ‘Let’s sign you up for a record deal,’ or whatever, but I just thought things would suddenly be different, but I didn’t feel any different. So I was like, ‘I wanna do something better than what I’m doing.’ I wanna do better jokes, and I wanna better myself, and the changes came from that.”
Shortly after winning the competition, Slay simplified his life dramatically, quitting his job as a pesticide salesman and selling his car. He went cold turkey, trading booze and cigarettes for a regular workout routine. Many would say that Slay was always a happy guy, but since his big changes, there’s a definite glow about him that wasn’t there before.
“I go to work. I wait tables. I clock out, and I’m done,” he says. “Being in that world, there’s more material out there, I interact with people constantly, and that’s so much better being stuck in my car, driving. I can’t even make funny jokes about my old job, I’ve tried. The best joke I’ve ever gotten off that is telling people that I quit my job as a pesticide salesman and then getting nothing from the audience. And I was like, ‘Yeah, that’s about the response I expected.’ No one ever says, ‘Hey, you should’ve kept that job!’”
With his newfound focus, Slay looks for ways to help support and nurture his fellow comedians. This drive led to a weekly open mic at the Upper Deck, which now takes place at Big Gun Burger Shop every Wednesday night. This Saturday at Theatre 99, Slay kicks off the first in of what he hopes to be a series of Dusty Slay’s Homegrown Stand-Up Showcase, featuring local comics Sarah Porter, Vince Fabra, Sam Jackel, and Danny Green. His motivation is simple: give people another tier to strive for. Slay explains, “I started this open mic, and the idea was just to get some stage time for me and my friends, but so many people started to come out to try stand-up. Some of them are really good, and some of them are not so good, but they keep at it and they get better. I remember when I started doing comedy around here there wasn’t really anywhere to take your stand-up past an open mic, and I feel people will get better at the open mic if they have a place to take it to the next level. If you’re performing in a bar with a pool table, and then you get to do a set at Theatre 99, it’s amazing because the audience actually listens to you.”
Though there are always a few bad apples in the bunch, Slay believes that the Charleston stand-up scene is overall more supportive than competitive, an attitude he’s definitely helped shape. “I try to write with anyone who wants to write together, especially if they’re trying. I know for me, it was just the writing issue. I’ve always been funny, but once I figured out that I can take these things that have really happened in my life and learn how to structure it in a way that makes it funny, it really opened up the joke-writing world for me.”
It seems that with Slay’s endeavors, he is trying to provide the support system he wish he had when he was just getting started in the Holy City’s local comedy scene. Perhaps if he had a mentor to tell him to quit drinking so much, lay off the sex jokes, ditch the overalls, and find his true voice early on, things would’ve turned out differently. But sitting across the booth from him today, it looks like everything turned out just fine.
Dusty Slay’s Homegrown Stand-Up Showcase takes place at Theatre 99 (280 Meeting St.) on Sat. Sept. 15 at 10 p.m. Admission is $8. Visit theatre99.com for ticket info and facebook.com/dusty.slay.5 for more.
Both photos by Marshall Bowles
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