If it is true, as the old song says, that all the world loves a clown, then Lexington comic Etta May gives the world a great deal to love.
Etta May is her own brand of comedian: the kind of person whom country folk call "plain as dirt." As a comic, she isn't topical, she isn't political, she isn't pretentious or dirty or controversial or edgy. She doesn't tell F-bomb-laden jokes about airport security.
Etta May — who plays two weekends at Comedy Off Broadway starting this week — says she writes and performs so "people can have a little two-hour vacation. And when they leave, especially the men, they can feel a whole lot better about their wives. They can look at them and say, 'You may not be Shania Twain, but at least you're not Etta May!'"
Etta May's material is contemporary, but her style is deeply connected to the classic comediennes of vaudeville. "If you go back to the Great Depression," she says, "people needed an escape."
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Etta May jokes about teen faces riddled with piercings and middle-age thighs covered with cellulite the way Sophie Tucker joked about speakeasies and bathtub gin.
"Rednecks are not considered a gang, you know. What's he gonna do ... a drive-by spitting or something? 'Load me up with Skoal, Jessie. I'm going in!'"
Etta May, who moved to Lexington from California in 2000, says her onstage persona is not much different from who she is.
"It's everything I am: ... a bully I dealt with in junior high; going to my senior prom," she says. "Every comic knows they gotta write from what they know. ... Everyone I know is up on stage with me. It's like a family reunion every night.
"Most people call that schizophrenia. If there's a two-drink minimum, they call it comedy."
Etta May seems simple and familiar. She's a big-bottomed, poor, white, Southern hausfrau with a sharp tongue and a heart of gold. But she is not a female version of Larry the Cable Guy. She is an original artist who has honed her craft for two decades. She has a genius for making the complex seem simple.
"She knows how to do everything," Lexington director Deb Shoss says. "I have seen her be producer, director, tech person, designer ... everything, all by herself."
Along with the club act, Etta May tours with the Southern Fried Chicks, an ensemble of Southern female comics that she calls "the Blue Collar Tour with PMS." And under Shoss's guidance, she recently opened a new one-woman show, Dr. Etta May: Family Specialist.
It would be easy for someone so confident, capable and charming to grow complacent and arrogant, but Etta May has no intention of letting that happen.
When asked how she keeps getting better, she says candidly, "I don't know if I am getting better. I'm trying not to get stale. ... I'm taking more chances. It's not getting bored with yourself. ... That goes with any job. ... If you can't find in your job or your life something to get out of bed for, something to get excited about, ... you're not going to be at 100 percent."
She wonders whether comedy has lost some of its professionalism since she started performing.
"In the '80s, when I started, every Pizza Hut with a back room and a Radio Shack microphone had an open-mike night," she says. "Comedy was really hot. ... Now I talk to people maybe on a plane or something and they'll go, 'Oh, my cousin is a stand-up comic.' And I'll go, 'No, your cousin was playing open mike.' ... There's a difference between ruining every relationship you've ever had for your career, and doing open-mike night once a month."
Once, Etta May felt burned out by the comedy club scene. Today, she works venues from cruise ships to opera houses. She no longer dreads the clubs' chattering crowds and drink-juggling servers. Now, when she leaves the big thousand-seat halls and conservative ocean-going ballrooms, she is energized by the chance to cut loose in the small rooms where she honed her craft.
That's the Etta May we'll see in Lexington: an artist at the height of her power who's determined to give each audience an unforgettable little mental vacation from whatever ails 'em.