Tim Wilson is a comedian and singer/songwriter who represents Southern culture and lifestyle with his songs and stand-up. He is often featured on national telecasts of the syndicated radio shows The Bob and Tom Show and the John Boy and Billy Morning Show and Wilson has also been appeared on many of the late-night talk shows. With a dozen comedy albums featuring his original songs, Wilson has found crossover success on both the comedy and Country music charts.
CityBeat caught up with Wilson by phone to preview his appearance in Cincinnati and discuss southern roots in comedy and the assimilation of music into his comedy. Catch him performing live Saturday night at the Taft Theatre with Patti Vasquez (ticket info here).
CityBeat: Tell us about your comedy style.
Tim Wilson: Well, I am kind of an in-betweener. I am a comedian and I write warped comedy songs. That is how I describe it and what I call them.
CB: I have been listening to some of your music this week. What is your process to write new material and who do you test it out on?
TW: Usually songs hit me when I am out driving. When you go between Cincinnati and Nashville, it gets a little boring driving and songs kind of come out of the air a little bit. There is a frequency somewhere that sends you songs. Stand-up routines, I usually watch TV and yell at the TV and something pops out and I take that on stage with me. As far as songs go, I usually try them out on crowds. I get a song idea and take it on stage and put it between two that work and try it out and see if it gets a laugh. If it does, I keep working on it. If it doesn’t I go to something else.
CB: I was laughing at some of your stuff as I researched it. I live in Cincinnati but I am from Tennessee as well. I was home at Christmastime and with just my family and I think there is enough material to write comedy. This is true at almost any family gathering in the South.
TW: All families are full of material.
CB: I have found that even when you think someone’s family is normal, once you dig deeper, there are always crazy things.
TW: Yeah, that is true. I have a routine called “The Family Reunion.” It talks about aunts that say crazy things.That’s why I always tell everybody I know what Southerners are going to say before they are going to say it because I have been to so many family reunions. (In Southern Aunt voice) “Y’all get in here and eat some of these fried taters before they get away. Does anybody want any cake?” I have been to plenty of family reunions.
CB: What is the worst heckling experience you have ever had?
TW: I was arrested in Nashville one time for helping a heckler out of a club. That taught me a big lesson — never, ever leave the stage, ever. You duct tape yourself to the microphone stand if you have to, don’t ever leave. That one pretty much cured me. Hecklers are somebody trying to sabotage your show and that’s what I sort of got in Nashville about five years ago. I don’t really get a lot of hecklers. I get a lot of overly-enthusiastic types who want to help you.
CB: I’m sure it breaks your rhythm though when you have people yelling out.
TW: And that is so big. Civilians don’t understand that comedians have done it before and we know what we are doing so it’s really not all that difficult, you just have to sit and laugh or don’t.
CB: That will be good advice for any crowd — laugh, or don’t.
TW: You either laugh or don’t but you don’t really have to help. In a way, a comedy show is best when there is a little bit of controversy. If somebody says something and it is relatively harmless, I mean, that is fine — a lot of times somebody will say something and I will make a bigger deal of it than it really was. A comedy show is best when it has a little touch of controversy.
CB: When you are not performing on stage or on the radio, do you feel pressure to always be “on” and be the funny guy?
TW: Well maybe when you are young you do, but I have been doing comedy for 28 years and when the lights go off, I kind of go back to Tim Wilson-dom. If I am selling CDs or shirts after a show, I may try to entertain a little bit as we go. But comedians, in a lot of ways, are kind of quiet. We are more observers. On stage, hopefully, I am entertaining and afterwards outside meeting people I am entertaining. But other than that I am kind of sitting there thinking.
CB: How did you end up with comedy as a career ?
TW: Well, I just sort of wandered into it. I wanted to be a songwriter and I was living in Atlanta, Ga. A bunch of guys in the Atlanta Rhythm Section, which was a big Southern Rock band in the ’70s, they helped me. They brought me into the studio and taught me how things worked and played on a lot of my songs. That wasn’t going anywhere and I was working at a mall and I was driving a girl home from work one day and passed a comedy club and I thought, “Well I haven’t heard of that. I know I can do that.” I had done a lot of work on stage in school, MC’ed talent shows and that kind of thing, so I knew I could do that. So I went in there and started on an open mic night and that was in 1983. That was when comedy first started (becoming huge) so it was easier to get road gigs.
CB: If you weren’t doing comedy, what do you think you would be doing?
TW: If I wasn’t doing comedy, I would have probably gone to law school and been a defense attorney because I am pretty good at coming up with bullshit to get somebody off. I have a comedian friend of mine, Roger Keiss, (and) he and I wrote a book about Ted Bundy, which is a complete departure from comedy. It is a serious book and in it we are trying to prove that Ted Bundy murdered four women in my hometown in 1978, and in the course of doing that, I found out that there was one man that got executed for killing two of the women that Ted Bundy actually killed, and when I looked at the shamble of a defense that the man had, it made me want to be a defense attorney in a lot of ways.
I would definitely be a cold-case investigator or defense attorney. Or if I could get a job as a singer in a Southern Rock band and get guaranteed a million dollars, I’d like to do that as well. I have a lot of different interests.
CB: Who is your favorite all-time Southern Rock band?
TW: My favorite band of all time is either the Atlanta Rhythm Section or Lynyrd Skynyrd. I am a Southerner and if you grew up in the 70s and you didn’t know Lynyrd Skynyrd, you were sort of on a different planet.
CB: I saw you played guitar in some of the videos that I watched. Do you play any other instruments?
TW: I can pick and peck on a piano. If I am writing a song, I can write it on the piano. I am the same way on the guitar. I am not much of a guitar player, but play well enough to play comedy.
CB: I watched some of your songs on YouTube, like the "Paul McCartney Lawyer” bit or the Michelle Obama bit. Have you ever been contacted by somebody that you wrote something about?
TW: I once wrote a song called “Michael McDonald Had a Farm” and Michael McDonald ended up playing it at his 50th birthday. I knew his sister in Nashville and he wrote me a note on one of his CDs and that was nice.
CB: What is your favorite city or venue to perform at?
TW: Over the years I liked working in Lexington, Ky. They have a club called Comedy Off Broadway that is very good. There is a Zanies in Nashville. There is a place called Comedy Catch in Chattanooga, Tenn. I have done a lot of CDs there. If you are a Southern comedian and you can’t get laughs in Chattanooga, then you need to change careers.
CB: Obviously you are Southern and a lot of your comedy is about Southern people. Do you find it harder when you go up North or in different parts of the U.S. to get laughs?
TW: It sort of depends on where you are. Right now, my favorite places to play are in the Midwest. I can go up to Lansing, Mich., and my act has no problem. I work a lot up in Michigan, and in Peoria, Ill., and Iowa, and a lot of Midwestern areas like Cincinnati, Ohio. In Middle America, my act is fine. When I go to New York City, it is hard for them to understand what I am saying. I have noticed on some TV shows when they have southerners, they put closed captioning on the bottom to understand what they are saying, but upstate New York is not a problem. It has to do with whether or not the crowd wants to like you or not. Plus I do a lot of radio, I do a lot of Bob and Tom, which is out of Indianapolis, and I do a lot of syndicated radio, a show called John Boy and Billy Show which is out of Charlotte, and those go out to so many different towns, it makes it possible for me go to a town in Kansas that I have never been to, but if they have Bob and Tom, they sort of know what I do ahead of time.
CB: What advice would you give any young comedians starting out?
TW: What advice would I give them? Let advice go in one ear and out the other. The key to comedy is sort of a long process of learning yourself. Somebody else can’t tell you who you are. That is why in the comedy business after 10 years you start really learning how to write for yourself, and after 20 years, you understand why God has put you on the Earth and so you write completely for yourself. Advice from other people is nice and everything but it really doesn’t help you that much.
And 2) a comedian has to go work every week. He has to work every week and keep banging on it.
CB: I know it takes a lot of practice. It looks easy sometimes but I assume it is really hard.
TW: There are comedians who get the hang of it really fast and there are other ones like me who have been doing it for 28 years and I am starting to get the hang of it.
CB: I've found it really interesting lately because comedians are the new rock stars it seems. When I open my Rolling Stone magazine every month, they are always highlighting comedians like Aziz Ansari, Aubrey Plaza and Chelsea Handler. Do you have any thoughts on why comedians blow up more than musicians from time to time?
TW: I think comedians are truth tellers. Our job is to tell the truth. There are some people that get a handle on it and get on the right horse and it helps them get popular. I think Chelsea Lately is a great show and she is very funny and she is very willing to take a lot of risks.
The media has changed a little bit, the way people watch YouTube, a lot. My little son is 13 and what he thinks is funny is different than me because I don’t watch the same things on computers that he does. The world has changed a lot and you sort of have to get a handle on that. I am in the record business and all the record stores are closing. That is because I am 50 years old and I think of the record business as it was in the ’70s, and that’s not the way it is. You have to learn how computers work. It is a big, long learning process.
CB: I saw some of your stuff on YouTube is very popular. Some of the Bob and Tom stuff had over 500,000 hits.
TW: Yeah. I had one video called “But I Could Be Wrong" — I think (that) is my biggest one on YouTube — (that) just went over 2 million. That is in about a four year period.
It is fun to look and see, but I wish I could get paid for it. Two million hits on YouTube is a lot different than 2 million singles sold. But it is a good thing, it doesn’t hurt anything.
The most downloaded song that I have is called “Booty Man.” It is a very weird song. It gets played on cruise ships in Jamaica and people like me and ask me if I am a Jamaican singer. It is a weird song and it is kind of monotonous. If you get a chance, listen to “Booty Man.” That is my most downloaded song. I have a song called “Where the Blank is My Jetpack?” which has done pretty well, and then I have my standards “First Baptist Bar and Grill” and “Church League Softball Fist Fight.” I have a song called “Acid Country” that is one of my favorites to do. I write a bunch of songs that nobody else will write.
CB: What can the fans expect here in Cincinnati on Saturday?
TW: I do about an hour and a half or so. I’ll come out and do about 45 minutes of stand-up, which is kind of opinionated. Then I get the guitar out and I’ll play as many songs as you want to hear.
CB: Any thoughts on the election?
TW: I don’t know. I can’t get excited about anybody I am seeing in the Iowa Caucuses. I think Obama is a good person. I like Obama. I don’t think anybody can do that job. It has gotten so peculiar lately in this country that I don’t think any person can solve the problems, and I am damn sure nobody in the Iowa Caucuses can.
CB: I’m sure there is a lot of song material the Iowa Caucuses.
TW: There is a lot. The only problem is that the Republicans don’t have anybody with enough personality to make fun of all that much.
CB: We have had some lively debate around my house about the Iowa situation. It has been scary.
TW: I grew up a Republican when I was a kid. I used to write to Richard Nixon when I was 9 years old and he’d send me pictures back. Now I don’t think the Republicans have a strong enough candidate. In 2016, I think that Jeb Bush will be President.
CB: Really? He is kind of lying low right now.
TW: Jeb Bush should have been President in 2000, but he wasn’t. The wrong one won.