Donnie Baker, the popular call-in character from the syndicated radio program “The Bob & Tom Show,” is a person radio listeners have laughed at for years. But it appears as much as fans want to hear him, there are plenty who also want to see him.
How else would you explain why all six Donnie Baker performances at Comedy Off Broadway this weekend are sold out — and have been for weeks? In the words of Baker, the character’s popularity — spawned both by his radio appearances and by a growing social media presence on Facebook and YouTube — is “fire-ass hot.”
But in the words of Ron Sexton, the stand-up comedian whose mind birthed the Baker persona, part of the reason so many people enjoy hearing Baker’s overly confident and occasionally dim-witted declarations or reveling in his throwback fashion sense is because they’ve seen him before.
“This character that’s stuck in the ’80s makes people realize, ‘I work with a guy like that,’ or ‘He has a mullet and doesn’t know it,’” Sexton said. “There are Donnies at work. There are Donnies at ball games. There are even Donnies at formal events. They kind of manage to worm their way in there.”
If Bob and Tom laugh, I know it’s working. There’s not a better room time-tested for comedy than that radio show.
Ron Sexton, aka Donnie Baker
Sexton initially pursued more of a traditional stand-up comedy career in Indianapolis but didn’t hit the road full-time so he could stay close to his family. He began writing bits and crafting characters like Donnie Baker — along with others like Kenny Tarmac and Floyd the Trucker — and called in to “The Bob & Tom Show” about a decade ago. Listeners enjoyed all of Sexton’s characters, but Donnie Baker’s popularity was on another level.
Since people wanted to see Donnie Baker, Sexton had to put just as much time and effort into building the character for the stage as he did for the radio. He got plenty of guidance along the way, including from the late comedian and singer-songwriter Tim Wilson and master impressionist Frank Caliendo.
Sexton calls into “The Bob & Tom Show” — heard locally on WKQQ-FM 100.1 — as Donnie Baker five days a week. Unlike other stand-up comedians, who are on the road creating and fine-tuning an hour’s worth of material for clubs and a possible stand-up comedy special, Sexton is typing new material into his phone every day for his radio appearances. Some of his best bits (that he remembers) will work into performances like the ones he will be doing this weekend. He doesn’t have a club crowd’s reaction to gauge how well a joke works, but he said he just needs to hear a response from the right people to know he’s onto something.
I’m wearing the hat, I’m wearing the Zubaz, I’m wearing the pager, but I wasn’t Donnie yet. Now, I’m Donnie.
Ron Sexton, aka Donnie Baker
“If Bob and Tom laugh, I know it’s working. There’s not a better room time-tested for comedy than that radio show,” he said. “Even if it’s not funny to me, if they laugh, that carries over.”
Donnie Baker remains a popular radio presence, but the internet has helped Sexton give the character a repackaging and a rebirth, expanding Baker’s presence well beyond “The Bob & Tom” listenership. Baker has YouTube and Facebook videos on everything from saluting veterans to his boat getting impounded to offering a fight tutorial to MMA superstar Ronda Rousey that have garnered millions of views while allowing him to comment on current events, concoct crazy scenarios and insert colorful characters into Donnie Baker’s world and worldview.
Sexton said he would probably get the “open mic sweats” if he had to do traditional stand-up comedy as himself. His portrayal of Baker’s brash and bold personality has led to Sexton being even braver on stage, interacting more with the crowd, letting Baker’s mannerisms get as many laughs as the jokes and being a performer he always wished he could be.
“That’s where it has changed the most, is that I didn’t have the confidence to do that early on because I was afraid to become the character,” Sexton said. “I’m wearing the hat, I’m wearing the Zubaz, I’m wearing the pager, but I wasn’t Donnie yet. Now, I’m Donnie.”
If you go
When: 7:15 p.m. Nov. 17, 7:15 and 9:45 p.m. Nov. 18 and 19, 7:15 p.m. Nov. 20
Where: Comedy Off Broadway, 161 Lexington Green Circle
Tickets: All shows sold out