Aspen Laugh Fest: Comedian Dusty Slay on bridging America’s red-blue divide
IF YOU GO …
Who: Dusty Slay, Adam Ray, Taylor Tomlinson
Where: Wheeler Opera House
When: Friday, Feb. 21, 7:30 p.m.
How much: $45
Tickets and more info: wheeleroperahouse.com
Who: Dusty Slay & Joe Praino
Where: Limelight Snowmass
When: Saturday, Feb. 22, 3 p.m.
How much: Free
More info: wheeleroperahouse.com
ASPEN LAUGH FESTIVAL WEEKEND LINEUP
FRIDAY, FEB. 21
4 p.m. Janae Burris, Joe Praino, Becky Robinson at Silver City (Free)
5:30 Vir Das at Limelight Lounge ($30)
7:30 Taylor Tomlinson, Adam Ray, Dusty Slay at the Wheeler ($45)
8 Vir Das at Limelight Lounge ($30)
SATURDAY, FEB. 22
3 p.m. Dusty Slay and Joe Praino at Limelight Snowmass (Free)
4 Janae Burris and Jackie Tohn at Silver City (Free)
5:30 Nancy Norton at Limelight Lounge ($30)
7 Trevor Noah at the Wheeler (Sold out)
8 Nancy Norton at Limelight Lounge ($30)
He may wear a trucker hat and tell jokes in a Southern twang, but Dusty Slay isn’t quite what you’d expect. He’s more of a trailer park Jerry Seinfeld rather than he is a new generation of Jeff Foxworthy.
Slay shapes sharp observational humor about everyday foibles and his Alabama upbringing. The comedian, who will co-headline the Aspen Laugh Festival on Friday night with Taylor Tomlinson and Adam Ray, has figured out that he can joke about poverty and trailer park life with love and without doing lame, classist humor. In recent years, as the U.S. has grown more divided between red and blue factions, Slay has been a rare bridge between them.
“I have people from all political sides that come to my shows and I don’t want that kind of stuff to keep us from laughing together,” he said in a phone interview from home in Nashville.
Slay’s national profile has risen over the last few years with features on Comedy Central, Jimmy Fallon and Jimmy Kimmel and in headlining spots at clubs around the country.
He developed his comic chops working out of Charleston, South Carolina — a liberal city in a conservative state — which he thinks helped him thread the needle of our culturally fraught and politically divided moment. He can get laughs from good ol’ boys or from cosmopolitan crowds or anything in between. Slay is unafraid to offend, he said, but doesn’t want anybody to leave his show feeling worse than when they arrived.
“I decided a long time ago that I wouldn’t do comedy that’s going to hurt your feelings,” he explained. “So no matter what you’re bringing to the show there is nothing in my act that’s going to hurt your feelings. I feel like being offended is a choice, but your feelings you can’t control.”
He can make jokes out of his hardscrabble childhood, he’s found, because he loved that childhood. It comes from a fond place, he said.
“Growing up, I was in a two-bedroom trailer with my mom and two sisters and their boyfriends,” Slay said. “We packed that house and had a good time. We watched NASCAR and watched wresting and we did the stereotypical redneck stuff, but we loved it. I still like living in the South and I like the people I live around.”
The past few years have been a show business breakthrough for Slay, but for the country music-loving kid, no gig will ever be as big as his debut at the Grand Ole Opry in 2019.
“It was comparable to the feeling I had being on the ‘Tonight Show’ for the first time,” Slay said. “At the Opry I did eight minutes onstage the first time and you would have throught I just headlined Madison Square Garden given the way I felt. … It was amazing.”
Slay is doing two Laugh Fest shows this weekend, co-headlining the main stage Friday and then doing a free show Saturday at the Limelight Snowmass with Joe Praino. The festival environment is a welcome change of pace for the comic, used to hopping around the U.S. from solo gig to solo gig.
“I love to talk about comedy, so I love festivals,” he said, noting how festivals offer the rare chance for comics to sit still and hang out for a few days together. “After awhile I feel like comics are about the only people I can relate to. You sit with comics and say, ‘Have you done this club?’ ‘Have you done this?’ You can talk forever.”
Slay crossed paths with fellow Laugh Fest headliner Norm Macdonald five years ago, when the then-unknown Slay was a contestant on “Last Comic Standing” and Macdonald was a judge (along with Keenan Ivory Wayans and Roseanne Barr).
Slay didn’t make it far in the reality show contest.
“Norm was the only one who had anything positive to say,” he recalled with a laugh. “I’m a much better comic now than I was in 2015 and I’m glad I didn’t go any further.”
Sharing a festival bill with Macdonald, he said, is an honor: “My friends are excited I’m on a poster with Norm Macdonald. Nobody beats Norm Macdonald.”
Along with his hat, long hair and glasses — “A lot of people tell me I look like Forrest Gump after he ran for a long time” he has quipped — a few seemingly simple gestures have become stage signatures for Slay: a short and friendly hand wave he uses to punctuate jokes and the phrase “We’re having a good time,” which developed out of his early days playing to grumpy crowds in stale rooms.
“I played a lot of bad gigs where I’d go up in front of 15 people and none of them looked happy,” he recalled. “I’d take the mic and go, ‘All right, who’s pumped?’ It would get people to laugh a bit because clearly nobody was pumped. That evolved into ‘We’re having a good time.’”
But it’s actually more than a verbal tic or personal slogan, he said.
“It’s my job to make it fun,” Slay said. “People make the mistake of going onstage and bashing an audience because the energy isn’t where they want it to be. But I think it’s my job to get the energy up.”
Slay has played Denver’s ComedyWorks and elsewhere around Colorado in the past few years as his national profile has expanded, but he’s never before performed in Aspen.
Slay is not a skier. He didn’t rule out giving it a try while in Aspen, but didn’t sound confident about his alpine skills.
“I used to say, ‘I don’t have health insurance, so I don’t want to do any extreme sports,’” he said. “Now I do have health insurance but it’s not that good and I’m so bad at things that move under my feet.”
Back in 2013, while working on a proposed box set of archival recordings, singer-songwriter Melissa Etheridge came across a group of songs that had been recorded in the late 1980s but never released.
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