by Ryan Meehan
Hailing from beautiful Covington, Kentucky Jay Armstrong is one of America’s funniest scumbags. His style of comedy delights degenerates and high society alike. From observations of the world he has a general distaste for to accounts from his personal experiences there is a little something for everyone. Jay was a child who was always told he had a lot of “potential” and spent most of his early years at school in gifted programs for genius kids. At sixteen he discovered heroin and spent the next nine years struggling with addiction, homelessness, and even served a little time in prison on drug charges. In 2005 he went to rehab and since has been the quintessential story of redemption and recovery. Once Jay worked up the courage to follow his dreams of comedy, he was hooked and it quickly became his new addiction. Jay travels the country performing at comedy clubs, recovery events and even a prison here and there. In 2014 he recorded his first comedy album which can be heard on Pandora Internet Radio. Jay is now a father in addition to being a comedian, and he’s also my guest today in 10 questions.
RM: For those who might not be familiar with the story, what can you tell us about the initial conversation you had with another comic while you were in treatment that peaked your interest in stand-up? How long after that exchange did you actually begin writing jokes down with the intention of telling them in front of people who were expecting to be entertained?
JA: It was actually after I got out of treatment, but very early on in my sobriety. I had been clean and sober maybe a year at the time and I had always been a fan of stand-up comedy. I happened to overhear a guy at a 12 step meeting I was attending talking about a show he did, and I was curious so I asked a few questions about how he got started and how it was going. That was nine years ago, so I can’t really tell you much specific about what was said but I knew I had to try it. It took another four years before I actually got on stage and that just kinda happened by chance. A friend of mine who put on concerts for punk rock and hardcore bands decided he wanted to put on a stand up show. He posted on social media that he needed comics or people who wanted to try comedy and I jumped on it. I had nothing prepared when I got on stage but I got laughs. The fact that I knew my audience, literally knew at least half the crowd and we all joked a lot helped greatly, but even though I didn’t have anything prepared I got laughs for about 4 minutes. After that was the first time I started trying to actually write jokes. I had never been to a professional or even an amateur live comedy show and had no idea what to expect but I was terrified and wanted to be more prepared for the next time. I called my friend in recovery who I mentioned earlier and he got me on stage again right away. He told me how to get on the club open mics and introduced me to a guy named Rob who put me on stage more than anyone even to this day ever has.
RM: What do you think might be some of the benefits of starting out as a comic in the Midwest as opposed to Los Angeles or New York City? What are some of the regional differences you’ve noticed in comedy club audiences over the past decade?
JA: I’ve never tried to start in Los Angeles or New York City, so I can’t give an answer to this one that I am comfortable standing behind. I would imagine it’s a lot harder to get stage time with so many more people, but also there’s more venues so I dunno. What I can say is that here in Cincinnati we’re blessed to have a pretty good competitive comedy scene and that has helped me a lot. We have two really good clubs in town that will work local comics, so we’re all trying to be as good as we can to get those spots. One thing that is nice about being kinda in the middle of the country is that I can get almost anywhere on pretty short notice. As far as regional differences I think the most accurate thing I can say is that people are pretty much the same everywhere depending on what part of the city it is. Rural people in Kentucky are pretty similar to the rural people of Illinois, Missouri, Virginia, and Washington State. City people in hipster areas of town in San Francisco are similar to people in hipster areas of Dayton. I don’t think it used to be that way. I think social media, while giving us all our own unique individual voice, has kinda connected us enough to where those of us here in Cincinnati aren’t all that different from people in say…Montana for instance because we interact so much more.
RM: When was the first time you really killed on stage? What was your approach towards remaining grounded after receiving such an impressive reaction to your material?
JA: The first show I did for a recovery audience was the first time I remember really killing. I had so much fun with those people that I went over my time by almost 10 minutes. The audience loved it and I had a blast, but the other comics on the show were not happy. I haven’t gone over my time like that since then. I always make sure I know where I’m at time wise. I think the thing that initially kept me grounded the first few times I did really well was that I kept thinking it was a fluke…I always expected that it would never happen again.
RM: When was the first time you really bombed on stage? What did you learn about yourself and the way you respond to failure from the events which took place that evening?
JA: The first time I really bombed, I mean REALLY bombed was during a contest at a gay bar in Northern KY. It was during a blizzard and there were only like 3 people in there. I was the only comic that showed up. The guy running it said we still had to do it and that I would automatically move on, but I really wanted to just reschedule it. The emcee did 15 minutes about government spending he didn’t like and then introduced me. He didn’t really even do any jokes. I learned a few things that night. The biggest lesson I got is how much effect an emcee really has on a show. I didn’t have a chance with those people. The way I responded was that I wanted to get back on stage immediately to redeem myself. That’s how I’ve always been. I wanna make it better right now. I hate having to wait to give anything another shot.
RM: What percentage of your current set is based on your past struggles with addiction? When you’re doing a show and you begin getting into that portion of your material, and you can tell that the crowd can’t really relate to the severity of the topic at hand, do you go ahead and make mental adjustments as to limiting the amount of drug-related content you’re about to deliver?
JA: I don’t do a whole lot of material about addiction and/or alcoholism at comedy clubs. At recovery events my set is pretty heavy with it, but not at comedy clubs. Most of the stuff I do at clubs is more about my experience and the consequences rather than any depictions of drug use. I don’t glorify any drug use…Even when I say I think marijuana should be legal, I don’t glamorize it at all. If marijuana was legalized today I wouldn’t use it, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a logical argument for legalization just because it wouldn’t affect me directly. Because of the way I tackle drugs audiences usually don’t pull back from it. Even when I talk about going to prison I tell it from a perspective of a regular guy rather than a hardened criminal.
RM: How would you best describe the experience of doing comedy in a prison? Also, how would you summarize the surrealism of performing inside that correctional institution when you could have very easily been on the other side of that coin had you continued such a destructive lifestyle?
JA: The few correctional institutions I’ve done have been small and the shows were super chill. Inmates tend to like me because I served a three year prison sentence and I got served out. I never got parole or early release, so I have been on the other side of that coin. I was homeless during several different periods, and my heart stopped four different times due to drug overdoses. Convicts pick up on what’s real and what isn’t. For me the weird part isn’t going into them, it’s being let back out the same day that I’m not used to.
RM: You’re a big metal fan…Which artists within that genre do you think have really gone above and beyond the call of duty in the past five years, and what songs do you typically use as your walk-up music to let the crowd know that a true banger is about to take the stage?
JA: I love metal, but punk rock and hardcore will always be my first love. Bands that are killing it right now? That’s a tough question. I could easily rattle of ten bands that have put records out in the last five years that I absolutely hate. The one new record I really like is the newest Body Count record “Manslaughter.” Iron Maiden is dropping a new album in September and I’m really looking forward to that. Usually there are three songs that I come out to when I get to pick music. “March of the S.O.D.” by Stormtroopers of Death, “Heavenhell” by Madball, or “Brick in Yo Face” by the rapper Stitches. If you haven’t seen or heard of Stitches look him up. He’s absolutely hilarious completely on accident.
RM: How has being a father changed the way you approach the business end of doing stand-up? How often do you find yourself thinking twice about taking a gig that is a great distance from Northern Kentucky or Southern Ohio because of the responsibilities associated with being a dad?
JA: I’m very fortunate in that my parents are super supportive of my career and love my little girl so any time I need to go out of town they are more than happy to take her. It has to be worth it to me to leave her though. I fought pretty hard for full custody because I love her and I want to be with her as much as possible. It doesn’t really change what gigs I’ll take, but it affects how I travel for sure. For instance I had a one night gig at a college in Richomond, VA and I drove the 9 hours there, did the show, then drove the 9 hours back the same night. If it weren’t for my daughter I wouldn’t have come back. I would have stayed, slept and then drove back.
RM: In your opinion, does putting children in “gifted” programs and the like create an unattainable set of expectations for youngsters and put them at greater risk for fear of disappointing others as well as themselves? When you first began to use heroin, was the educational path that you had been forced into one of the reasons you convinced yourself you needed a stress reliever of that intensity level? Would you ever put your daughter in an “advanced” curriculum at the age that you were led down that road?
JA: I don’t’ think it was so much the program that put expectations on me. It was getting into those programs that made the adults surrounding me have great expectations. “Potential” they call it. Potential means “your ability to do what we think you should.” I hate hearing that people have “potential.” Its almost always said in a sad way like, “he had so much potential.” That always implies that the person isn’t doing what you think they should. Maybe they’re doing exactly what they want. Screw you and your plans for everyone else’s life. Not you personally, but you know what I mean. The programs I was put in were mainly designed to teach us to think, how to use our minds. We did a lot of logic problems and future problem solving exercises. I think its a big part of why I’m quick witted now. The ability to think for myself was nurtured. The adults in my life just didn’t much care for the end result of independent thought. I don’t blame any of my excuses for using drugs on those programs. They were the only part of my school day where I wasn’t relentlessly bullied. They were stress relief for me. It was the rest of my life that made me stressed out, terrified, full of shame, and hurt. Whether or not I would put my little girl into an “advanced” program really depends on the curriculum of that particular program. I want her to have all the tools she needs to do anything she wants in her life. I’m just gonna be real clear that she can be anything she wants, and no matter what she will always be good enough for me…That I will love her no matter what. I seemed to have missed out on those parts of the equation.
RM: Does sitting down at a certain time of day with the sole intention of writing all new bits tend to be the most productive way for you to work; or does most of your fresh material come from things that you encounter in your day-to-day life and you just write the ideas down as you go and stuff them in your pocket? How often do you use the “voice-notes” app on your smartphone for this purpose?
JA: The way I write is chaotic. I’ll jot down one line from an idea i have to remember for later here and there. I’ll sit down and try to come up with premises. I’ll have an idea on stage and try it right then. I never take voice notes but I do record every set I do with the voice recorder app and I listen to them later to see if I had any new ideas on stage that weren’t good enough for me to remember and then I’ll sit and work on them and try them again.
RM: How often do you experiment with shaking up the sequence of the bits within your set? Do you ever make those alterations for a weekend set without testing them out at mics between feature gigs?
JA: I have three bits I’ll use as an opener right now, so it just kinda depends on what the demographic of the audience is. If it’s mainly younger people I’ll use one, if it’s mainly older folks I’ll use a different one. The middle part of my set is pretty interchangeable. If I’m doing 45 minutes or longer I tend to use the same order just because it helps me remember my set. I have two different bits I use as a closer depending on how blue I’m allowed to be. Basically there are some alterations I will purposely make, but some of it I just kinda do on the fly. I think that helps it seem more spontaneous.
RM: What’s up next for you in the remainder of 2015 and beyond? Anything big in the works that we should know about?
JA: I have no idea what the universe has in store for me in the future. If I could know, I would choose not to. It’s just more of an adventure that way. I can say what I’m gonna try is to feature at more clubs than I did this year, headline more clubs than I did this year, write more new stuff than I did this year. Basically I just wanna be better than I was this year. If I don’t drink, use, or die between now and November I’ll have a decade 100% clean and sober, and that’s the biggest thing for me. I’m grateful for every sober breath I take. Anything beyond that is just gravy.
Jay on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/JayArmstrongComedy
Jay on Twitter: https://twitter.com/jayarmcomedy
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