As a comedian gains popularity, there are new challenges that come along if he or she wants to get to that next level. But it's safe to say no stand-up comic working today has the unique challenge that Gary Owen does.
"I'm the only comic that has to cross over to his own race," Owen says, laughing.
While mainstream white audiences might not be as familiar with Owen, to black audiences, he's a huge star in stand-up comedy. He became the only white man to ever host BET's ComicView in 1997 and later went on to make appearances on everything from Tyler Perry's House of Payne on TBS to recent hit film projects opposite Kevin Hart as the token white friend in Think Like A Man and the sequel Think Like A Man, Too.
But Owen said his following in the black community came less from strategy and more out of necessity. After enlisting in the Navy to get out of the trailer park in his hometown of Cincinnati, he moved to California to pursue a childhood dream of a comedy career. He was stationed in San Diego and when he couldn't initially get on stage at some of the more prestigious comedy clubs, he looked for other options.
"Some of my black friends said, 'you can go here, here and here,'" Owen recalls. "I started doing all the black clubs. I was looking for stage time. I didn't care who the audience was."
Even though he admits to being a bit intimidated performing in front of black crowds at first, his observational humor — with flashes of Sam Kinison-esque intensity thrown in — had them cracking up and welcoming him with open arms. After going on to win the slightly ironic title at the "Funniest Black Comedian in San Diego" contest, he was finally able to get a gig he was looking for at the famed Comedy Store in Hollywood.
On the stand-up specials that followed, whether it's Breakin' Out The Park, Urban Legend or his most recent True Story, he walks a line that few comics can.
"I have a ghetto credit card right now," Owen jokes. "I'm going to gear my set to an audience. That's my job as a comic. You always have to play to your audience, but you don't have to pander to your audience."
Another reason Owen's material goes over so well is because of where it comes from. Owen's wife is black and he is the father of bi-racial children. Because of his marriage, he's often able to give the a hilarious white perspective on everything from the difference between white and black churches to the consequences of confusing sweet potato pie with pumpkin at the family get-togethers. Owen says centering a good portion of his comedy on topics like these has been essential to his success.
"I tend to like the comedians that open up," Owen says. "Sometimes, it's not the biggest laugh that people are talking about; it's what they relate to the most."
Owen's acting career has started to take off alongside his stand-up. In addition to his appearances in the Think Like A Man films, he also appeared in the hit action comedy Ride Along and will have a supporting role in the comedy Get Hard, starring Will Ferrell, set for release in 2015.
While landing acting roles has been great, it's stand-up comedy where Owen is really aspiring for greatness. He's already recorded a new hour-long comedy special for Showtime called I Agree With Myself. That is scheduled to premiere in January 2015. But when he comes to perform at Comedy Off Broadway Thursday through Sunday, you won't hear one joke from that hour. He's already crafting another new hour of quality material he hopes to release late next year.
"I want two, one-hour specials in 2015," Owen says. "I want people to know Gary Owen isn't bull----ing."
Blake Hannon is a Mount Sterling-based writer.