Lest we forget how much humor is nestled in our little town, the tight-knit Houston comedy industry has spent recent months engaged in an Elyse Lanier-style public relations campaign: Did you know that the late, great renegade comedians Sam Kinison and Bill Hicks started the infamous Texas Outlaw Comics here? Or that it-girl Janeane Garofalo first cut her teeth in Houston stand-up clubs? Or that native big mama Thea Vidale wowed TV industry folk enough to get her own (short-lived) sitcom? Did you know her sitcom was set inHouston?
Now, to prove the city is still the comedic crossroads that it once was, they've organized the Houston Comedy Festival, in the hopes that it will become the "Sundance of comedy festivals." Those hopes are pinned on the likes of Billy D. Washington. The 34-year-old up-and-comer has headlined in clubs across the country, opened for everyone from the Temptations to Lynyrd Skynyrd and even appeared on Def Comedy Jam.
Before he was busting guts, the six-foot-two Washington was busting perps as an officer of the Houston Police Department. "When I was a cop, I went to a show and I saw some guy do it, and I thought I was a lot funnier than him," he remembers. "And through a friend, I found out how much headliners made."
Washington honed his newfound craft in the clubs for a year before he won Laff Stop's Funniest Person in Houston contest and the Sammy Davis Jr. Award for Comedian of the Year in 1991. That's when he dropped his nightstick and went into comedy full-time. But even with the awards, Washington's social-commentary stand-up wasn't enough to bump him up from feature act, "which is like the middle guy in a comedy show," to the more lucrative headlining position that would allow him to support his family. He needed a gimmick.
A piano player since the age of four, Washington decided to end his act with some funny ivory tinkling -- like a laugh-out-loud rendition of Lionel Richie's "Hello," simply titled "Hey Hoe." That turned out to be just the angle he needed. "During my set, some of the stuff is kinda wrenching," he says. "Some of the stuff is really funny. Some of the stuff is too dirty for some; some of the stuff is too clean for some," he says. "But at the end, when I do the music, that's when everybody comes together." Well, almost everybody. After he performed "Hey Hoe" on Def Comedy Jam, he says, "I don't even know if it was the Lionel Richie people, but somebody wanted to sue me."
Like most Clutch City comics, Washington isn't trying to get out of town and on to bigger or better things. He just wants Houston's stand-up scene to get the props it deserves. "I mean, not many people know about Sam Kinison's tenure here and how Rushion McDonald is like a huge player in Hollywood from right here," he says. "Other than, of course, L.A., Chicago and New York, Houston comes in really close to having put out some of the top talents in the country." And hey, fourth place isn't bad. Billy D. Washington performs in the Whiskey Brothers All-Star Revue at the Houston Comedy Festival, Sunday, September 5, at the Garden in the Heights, 3926 Feagan. Show starts at 9 p.m. Other acts include the Comedy Workshop Reunion, the Habanero-Hot Comedy Caliente Show, P.C. Cowboys, Xtreme Comedy and Sisters Morales. For more information, call (713)629-3700 or go to www.houstoncomedyfestival.com. $10 in advance; $15 at the door.