Jeff Allen may not be a household name, but you’ve likely seen his comedy before. He’s been working his craft for more than 40 years, but thanks to a recent influx of video sharing, Allen’s brand of relatable clean comedy has been making the algorithmic rounds and reaching a whole new audience of people.
“It’s overwhelming,” says Allen, who will be headlining an evening at the Houston Improv on Sunday, May 19. “Coming from my generation where there was no internet, and everything came from print or from radio. You don’t have any idea of who is seeing it and what, but now through Facebook and YouTube – there’s a record of how many people are viewing it, and with comments! We hit about 15 million, my wife looked at me with tears in her eyes, overwhelmed. I knew what I did was good, I worked my tail off. But there was a period in my 30s, where I looked at her and said, “I got good at something that doesn’t matter to anybody.” You just spin your wheels doing the same thing over and over, getting no traction. So [for this to happen] at this point in my life, as a grandfather of four and the kids are out of the house, we’re just grateful.”
Family has always been a tentpole of Allen’s material – his first recorded special Happy Life, Happy
Wife premiered in 2002 on The Worship Network, and he’s been using his family as fodder for material ever since. “And she’s OK with it, her standard line is: as long as the check clears, he can say whatever he wants about me,” he chuckles.
The 62-year-old comedian consider this current tour, subtitled The America I Grew Up In, to be part of his return to the club scene, which he’s had a rocky relationship with since beginning his life as an entertainer in 1978. Quickly, the funny man recalls how he entered the scene: “I was working for a jewelry company and
somebody told me about a comedy club. My brother was a musician and I had seen some comics open for him. I thought that’d be really cool, but how do you get into that? Not like you fill out a job application!”
“After I went to the comedy club, I was just hooked. It was August, I remember. And it took me until November to get the courage up” Allen admits. “Thanksgiving night, I went up and was so bad. I came back the next night and the emcee came over to me and said, “You’re going to have to make some sense tonight, man - we’re still trying to figure out what you said Thursday.” I was hammered and left my parents' house on Thanksgiving!”
Amused by his own naivety, the Illinois-born perform recalls the learning curve for breaking in at the time. “I didn’t know you actually WROTE out a routine. I was just going up there and winging it! There were nights where I’d draw a blank and I’d just run off stage after a few seconds. I would just leave. Finally I saw some guy writing in a notebook and was like, you prepare this stuff? I didn’t even know. There’s no school for this! That’s been my whole career, trial and error. But at least I bombed early in my career, and bombed often and horrifically! Stand-up comedy is the only profession where the audience feels the need to give you their opinion while you’re doing what you’re doing. It’s not even enough to write it down on a form and give it to the club manager. Like you’re wasting their time and they want you to know it. Do you know you’re not funny? I got it, man! The sweat coming from my pits tells me everything.”
While Allen has played Houston a number of times before, he’s expanded his reached into venues less typical for comics. “I “used to do a club there years ago called Spellbinders, and I’ve done a handful of churches in The Woodlands. I’m sort of foraying back into clubs, I’ve been out of them
for a while. It got to a point where I looked out in the audience once day, and I told my manager that if I can’t draw my audience into a comedy club, there’s no point in going. The audience never got older, its still 25-35 year olds. I’m the only one that got older.”
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In a world that’s both frequently pushing the envelope, and also more self-conscious than in generations past, the comedian is of two-minds about the era of so-called ‘political correctness.’ “I’m not really steeped in
all that. People who hire me are familiar with me. You know who you’re getting. So I have read about political correctness on the college campuses - Seinfeld came out and said he’s not doing colleges anymore because of political correctness! I did colleges years ago before there was really any PC. I work clean, so you may not think what I’m doing is funny, but it’s hard to get offended by it. Guys I watch are usually the more edgy guys, like Bill Burr. He’ll talk about whatever he wants to. Those younger guys I really dig, they’re bold. Comics: good, bad, or indifferent, we’re always reflections of the culture. Guys like Carlin pushed back. People talk about edgy comics, but there was an edge because there was a line of morays in the culture and comics identify the line, and step over it. But now I think the line has been obliterated, but it's come back in there’s no way to figure it out with the language. What words offend, and don’t offend. But I’m 62 years old – I don’t care anymore. I’m too old, too tired and too set in my ways.”
Despite his tell-it-like-it-is mentality, Allen confesses he had his own identity crisis as a comedian decades ago, after frustrations set in at his then-current position in the comedic hierarchy. “When what you’re doing isn’t generating the response you want, you start looking outside yourself for who is doing well and who isn’t. I was ticking people off and spewing all this garbage. So I stopped that. One night I was watching Dice Clay on HBO, and I remembering saying – the next guy who comes out of the pack [who works] dirty is going to have to go BEYOND this, and I said I can’t. There’s no way that was IN me. I had the language, but the material was clean. I was just foul mouthed. I paid my kid for every foul word I had, and I ended up passing over a mountain of quarters.”
The revelation came, and with the support of his wife Tami, Jeff Allen cleaned up his act, and found a whole new audience. “I realized I was too clean to be dirty, and too dirty to be clean. I had about two years of trying to clean it up, and I hit 40. I found my faith, gave my life to Christ. It seemed like a natural fit.”
Jeff Allen's performance is scheduled for 5 p.m on Sunday, May 19 at Houston Improv on 7620 Katy Freeway. For information, call 713-333-8800 or visit improvhouston.com. $22-32.