Have you heard the one about Brad Paisley bringing six downright hilarious comedians to the Wild West Comedy Festival, held this week in Nashville? You might say it was like shooting fish in a barrel. And if you're comic Jon Reep, you ask why you'd be shooting fish in a barrel in the first place (as he says, just think of the mess).
Paisley himself selected several of the acts for the mostly-clean Thursday night showcase at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center. Although it's where locals usually watch an opera or Broadway revival, on this night the stage turned into a black-curtained, bare-bones platform.
Rather than prepare a full stand-up comedy set to kick off the night, Paisley strummed a few novelty songs that he swears he'll never record or sing on the Opry.
One such title? "You'll Always Be My First (Cousin)." Another was named "Bleep It Out."
While he also bantered with each comedian, for the most part he let the spotlight shine on his guests: Reep, Nate Bargatze, Keith Alberstadt, Sarah Tiana, Theo Von and Greg Hahn. There were a few awkward sex jokes — this was a comedy show after all — but most of the humor was of the quirky anecdotal variety. For example, Von was raised by a 70-year-old dad recovering from a stroke, so yes, they had to learn to walk at the same time. Meanwhile, Alberstadt can't get through life without coffee, which he declared not the same as tea, and Hahn confessed he's addicted to frozen dinners — he had to "quit cold turkey."
Paisley was a late addition to the festival — only coming onboard officially last month — but that doesn't mean he's a newcomer to comedy.
"My interest comes about because I sort of inadvertently have done comedy my whole performing career, even before it was technically a career," Paisley told Rolling Stone Country backstage before the show. "Back when I was a kid and started playing songs in my hometown, first in church and then in Lion's Club meetings and church picnics and Fireman's Balls — which is a funny word — I was very much cracking jokes between songs."
Paisley emphasized that he's inspired as a writer by listening to comedians. Which is no surprise when you listen to clever singles like "Ticks" or "Online." He also hopes to write with his funny new friends someday.
"There's nothing like a comedian's perspective to say, 'Ah, I've never looked at it that way' about life. And I think it's what we need," he says. "There are so many things wrong in society that comedy and a little sense of humor would fix. One of them being Twitter."
Paisley cites Louis C.K. as a master of comic timing as well as one of his favorite "blue" comedians.
"I mean, he's not 'blue' language-wise or vulgarity, but the subjects he gets away with, I've never seen anybody get away with," Paisley says. "Did you ever see the routine that ended his last comedy special? It was 'Of course… but maybe…' Which is about the competing thoughts in your mind. One of his jokes on that was 'Of course nut allergies are bad. Of course! It's terrible and we need to do everything we can to fix that. But maybe, if a peanut can kill you, you were supposed to die.'"
Paisley cracks himself up recounting the bit. "He does that with so many subjects," he says. "You cannot believe how he gets there."
For the most part, Paisley is not nearly as outrageous. As a cheeky co-host of the CMA Awards, he's cultivated a reputation for having fun with country fans without blatantly mocking them.
In a nutshell, his strategy worked at the comedy festival too. From a microphone offstage, he introduced himself as "the great Brad Paisley!" then strolled out to the center ring. When he later asked who in the audience didn’t like country music, about half the room whooped and hollered like it was the Fourth of July. From then on, everything was fair game for the comedians, from ugly Denny's waitresses to beautiful Brad Pitt.
"One of the things I'm going to do a little bit tonight is to make fun of what we're perceived to be," Paisley said before the show. "Most of the time it's not justified but we're seen as ignorant, inbred hillbillies in a lot of circles. So, I find a little pride in that, at times. There's comedy in that. Hee Haw played with it for years. That's all they did. We're going to pretend to be the absolute stereotype and get laughs for it."