On Tuesday, November 3, I had the distinct pleasure of conducting a phone interview with Arizonan comedian Keith Ellis. Ellis has been doing stand-up comedy, something this young writer also craves to partake in, for well over a decade now. What started as a traditional question-and-answer style of interview quickly turned into what felt more like a conversation between comrades. His calm, cool, and often times hilarious demeanor made sure we both were relaxed and learning from each other. Here are just a few of the more interesting pieces of information that I learned from one of the premier comedians in the Phoenix area.
When asked what prompted his interest and start in comedy, Ellis kept it very real and discussed how childhood bullying is what made him pick up the comedic traits he’s honed for all these years after. Being one of the smaller guys in his elementary school class, he learned that size does not matter when you can talk-the-talk with comedic comebacks that ultimately shut down his former bullies. He even noted that a few girls that had crushes on the bullies would come up to him to ask him to stop saying the “Yo mama” jokes that put said bullies in their places.
Probably the most significant comedic trait of Ellis is that he is what is known as a “clean comedian” which means he’s family-friendly with no profanity-laced set-ups or punchlines. I was eager to find out what made him choose this route of humor and how it’s impacted his career. Ellis expressed how much his family has meant to him in his life and said that his mother told him that she didn’t want him to be on stage cussing all the time just for laughs. That was more than okay with him and he’s even been given opportunities to do his sets in front of company outings because of his clean comedy. He noted that sometimes the companies make him sign a contract that specifically states that he cannot cuss or he will lose the paycheck.
I am a Northern California native and upon receiving Ellis’ phone number I noted that the area code belonged to San Francisco. So when Ellis was telling me about the many places he traveled to do comedy, he brought up the Bay Area and of course I pounced. Pleasantly surprised when learning I hail from NorCal, Ellis opened up on the incredible five years that he spent doing comedy in the Bay Area and was determined to inform me of how he preferred the atmosphere of the comedy clubs, restaurants, and bars which made the constant gigs he received that more thrilling. In fact, it was never his original plan to stay there for that long but one show led to the next show which led to the next show and I think one can deduce where I’m going.
I circled back to Ellis’ start in comedy but this time I addressed the actual catalyst event that triggered his passion and career. Ellis, in a funny plot twist, stated that he never even intended to get on stage but he made a bet with a friend. They were in a comedy club and there was a competition going on. During one of the sets, Ellis told his friend that he could get up there and do that to which his friend wagered $100 if Ellis actually did it. Not knowing any better, Ellis said yes because he thought that one had to know the owner of the comedy club to get on stage… but in reality, that was not the case. His friend calmly approached the club owner and asked him if Ellis could get on stage and the owner said yes and to have him back for next week’s competition. Well, lo and behold Ellis returned the following week and placed second out of 16 competitors. Not too shabby for his first set and Ellis, staying true to his comedic form, informed me that he is still mad that his friend has not given him his $100 to this day!
Closing out the hour-long interview, I asked Ellis if he had any advice for up-and-coming comedians such as myself. He told me that at the end of the day, young comedians should trust and really enjoy the process. He touched on a point earlier in the interview about how some comedy clubs in Arizona and other places can be a bit “cliquey”, meaning that the owners and promoters play favorites about who they give stage time to. Ellis remarked that when he returned from the Bay Area that a few comedians who previously blew him off in years past were amazed that someone with his level of success would come back to work the clubs they had often rejected him from before. In what was undeniably Ellis’ finest moment in the interview, he said that being a comedian never had or will turn him into an overcompetitive jerk that had to spar with other comedians for gigs, stage time, money, etc. He had been enjoying his own process and comedic adventure so much that he never needed to be humbled because the career of a comedian should be humbling in itself.