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He Works Hard for the Funny

Tom Simmons on becoming a successful comedian


The masters of comedy, such as George Carlin, Bill Hicks and Jerry Seinfield, use their creativity and imagination to come up with leveling pieces of social relevance that not only engage our minds, but also leave us filled with the best panacea of all--laughter.

Add comedian Tom Simmons to the list.

A regular-looking guy with a sheepish delivery, Simmons' appearance belies the sharp wit spinning cartwheels behind his eyes. His joke topics range from political to what-did-he-just-say mind-benders. Simmons' knows he has a gift, and the rest of the world is beginning to catch on. He's a regular on XM Satellite Radio and Comedy Central.

"I wanted to be a comedian at first because I would watch television and think that I was funnier than most of the people I saw," says Simmons. "The first time I did comedy, I was in college at [Florida State University] and some friends at the pizza place I was working talked me into entering an open mic contest. [I ended up winning] because I had the most friends there."

After winning that round, Simmons returned to the finals and bombed. He realized that even though someone may be naturally funny, he has to hone his skill to be a working comedian. "Slowly but surely, I started to learn a little about the craft," reveals Simmons. "I really thought I would do comedy a couple of times, and then I would be on The Tonight Show. It doesn't work that way."

Simmons began writing, carrying a notebook with him at all times. Everyday observations became fodder for his jokes. But it wasn't just his work ethic that helped him become successful, it was also his ability to learn from other masters of the craft. "I also happened to get in with a black comedy club in Atlanta ... most comedians I knew were afraid to perform there. I would go every chance I could and get on stage as often as they would let me. When they wouldn't, I would hang out and watch and learn. I cannot tell you how many nights I sat in the back of that club ... hoping for a precious few minutes on the mic."

Watch and learn is what Simmons did, eventually becoming a full-time comedian touring the states in a motor home and going abroad to do stand-up gigs for the troops. Simmons reveals that it is not an easy life, but he would have it no other way. "As I get older, get married, have a child ... life gets more expensive and worries about the future sometimes set in. There is no safety net in comedy. No insurance and no assurance that the gigs will still be there in five years. I am a case of laryngitis away from being homeless," says Simmons.

Simmons compares his writing jokes to a musician coming up with a song--any potential ideas are jotted down in a notebook, of which Simmons has hundreds. "The percentage of stuff that ends up making it from the page to the act is very low. I would say that [only] about 40 percent of ideas written even make it to the stage. Then about 20 percent of [those] end up making it into the act," he says. Simmons relates his joke writing to the average Joe getting chuckles at the water cooler. "We all have moments in life when we are hanging with friends or co-workers, and we say something that makes people laugh. If later that day you have a similar opportunity to reuse that line around other people to get another laugh--that is telling a joke. Since I have audiences that come see a show, I don't seem to run out of friends to try my funny line on. I think there is a creative force that just exists in the universe. Sometimes I get lucky and tap into it. I think that everyone does. I just write the funny ones down."

Simmons thinks the best comedians are the ones who not only garner a laugh, but are also the ones who cause the audience to "think differently and to question." Bill Hicks is one of his favorites. "I started listening to Hicks about five years in to doing comedy, and he changed everything for me. He was amazingly honest. The material was strung together in chunks that made great points, made me laugh out loud and educated me," Simmons continues. "I still sometimes, when writing, prod myself with 'what would Hicks be writing and talking about?'"

Beyond that, Simmon's cannot overemphasize the importance of comedy. "I think [comedy] is really one of the last bastions of free speech."

Jan. 31-Feb 3., Eric Hunter and local MC Ryan Noack, Wed.-Thurs. 8 p.m.; Fri.-Sat. 8 p.m. and 10:15 p.m.; Sun. 8 p.m.; $8, $10 Wed., Thurs. and Sun.; $10, $12 Fri. and Sat.; The Funny Bone, 405 S. 8th St. in BoDo, 208-331-2663.