Photographs by Tiana Lucking
Zack Mills is a tall man with a passion for language and laughter. One day, he'd like to get the word out about his own words. Meanwhile, he's trying to figure out ways to make money because it serves as such an effective proxy for speech. If he could tell the world one thing, it'd be that Polo is owned by Nestle. Think about that...POLO IS OWNED BY NESTLE!
Joe Pettis, an Atlanta-based comedian and creator of the Underwear Comedy Party, hosted his particular brand of stripped-down humor at the Black Sheep Bar & Grill last Thursday as part of the 12th Annual Charleston Comedy Festival. The show sold out, and the newish Black Sheep proved to be a capable venue: the comedians could be both seen and heard, the beer was somewhat affordable, and the serving staff worked relentlessly throughout the night to accommodate the full house.
The real attraction, however, was the human flesh. Over the course of the night, physiques were self-described as "a Chinese gymnast body with awkward hair," "what your mother looks like when she's wearing your underwear," and "overused." Pettis himself possesses body art that is particularly well-suited for an Underwear Comedy Party. During his opening routine, he worked his way through several colorful tattoos, a collection that includes a gummy bear eating kids, a bird and a bee (in honor of his promiscuous grandmother), and his ex-roommate's name upside down with a skull underneath it. After delivering a successful opening set replete with confident self-deprecation, Pettis worked as an equally impressive host by moving the show at a brisk pace, which was crucial considering 11 comedians were booked to perform in under two hours.
The comics, rotating at 10-minute clips, varied in age, appearance, and content, yet nearly all of them found the audience to be receptive to their sets. In other words, these were no rookies. Charleston has serious talent in its underrated stand-up community and, in addition to flashy underwear, many of Thursday night's performers have years of performance experience under their belts. An admirable trait of the Underwear Comedy Party tour, which hit 35 cities last year, is that it allows local comics to gain exposure in their respective hometowns. Sure enough, after the Charleston incarnation of the show, I can confidently encourage readers of this blog to go take a peep at the comics operating right here in Charleston.
The most successful acts of the night were able to expose uncomfortable truths about themselves as well as the audience. A local comedian named Apples aggressively attacked the exposure of his body (and the potential for wardrobe malfunction) by placing a woman in the front row on "nut duty" and then later imploring a photographer to ensure that his gut is well lit. Next, he disclosed his personal life via jokes regarding online-dating misadventures. Finally, he exposed us—the audience—by inquiring, "Who in here has gotten a divorce?" Many of us cheered.
The penultimate act, Jeremy McLellan (a 2014 Charleston Comedy Festival Stand-Up Competition Winner), stole the show in tackling challenging subjects like the more checkered pieces of Charleston's past, workplace gender inequality, and being engaged to a feminist. A particularly resonant bit found McLellan taking on the blasé theme of a locally ubiquitous Dixie Furniture ad and reimagining history with the same ambivalent attitude toward topics like slavery and homosexual marriage.
In a culture that obsesses over impossibly fit, surgically/Photoshop-enhanced bodies, Pettis has countered with a comedy party filled with antiheroes. These courageous, witty individuals lurk in every city and are willing to subject themselves to public scrutiny in using their own guts, rail-thin limbs, cellulite, or tuxedo undies as tools. They are capable of teaching us first how to laugh at them and then, importantly, how to laugh at ourselves. These are the types of underwear parties that are worth attending, and these are the types of comedians that are worth supporting.