On a hot June evening at Comedy Off Broadway, a crowd has turned up to see headlining hypnotist Ricky Kalmon. Opener and emcee Scott Wilson takes the stage to get things started, and even though the venue is comfortably air-conditioned, the crowd itself is borderline icy, with barely an audible response.
But Wilson is a stand-up veteran. He can handle this audience.
"I like you people. So far, you're very polite," Wilson says. "You're not interrupting me with outbursts of laughter or applause."
Suddenly, a crowd that has barely cracked a smile laughs in unison. The energy level goes up a couple of notches, which helps the remaining jokes in Wilson's 15-minute set get a warm response. After a few plugs for the club's schedule of performers and a flattering introduction, Wilson brings Kalmon out to a crowd that's now ready to have a good time.
When his set ends like this, Wilson feels like he's done his job, but it's only one of the duties he's happily taken on for the past 20 years as Comedy Off Broadway's in-house comedian and emcee.
Born in Little Rock, Ark., Wilson, 54, had a long and respectable run as a touring comedian before he became a staple at Lexington's premier comedy club. Growing up, his appreciation for comedy began when he listened to Bill Cosby's early comedy albums and occasionally caught Johnny Carson's monologue on The Tonight Show. But it was seeing the debut of another iconic comedy program at age 14 that set Wilson on his path to getting laughs.
"The first time I saw George Carlin walk down the steps to do Saturday Night Live, that was it for me," he says. "That's what I wanted to do. I wanted to walk down those steps."
Wilson didn't begin taking any serious steps in that direction until he got to college. While doing one-year stints at both the University of Kentucky and Eastern Kentucky University, he emceed several events. Some, like a synchronized swimming competition at EKU, provided the perfect opportunity for him to show his affability and wit.
"I got the chance to inject humor into that and I got to pick and choose when I got the chance to do that and just see how the reaction was," he says.
In his 20s, Wilson would drive to Louisville every Tuesday night for weeks on end to hit up the city's open mike nights and try out material. He earned the respect of veteran comedians who came to those clubs, and stand-up acts from Louisville, Atlanta and Charlotte would have Wilson come along with them to emcee their shows in surrounding cities. The early 1980s stand-up comedy boom led to a lot of opportunities for Wilson, who worked his way up to a featured performer and occasional headliner, playing comedy clubs nearly 48 weeks a year across the country and earning a solid reputation in the business. At one point, he got the unexpected honor of serving as the opening act for legendary singer Tom Jones when he performed in Charlotte in 1995.
"I was pretty nervous about that," he says. "In the end, everything I've worked for and everything I put together for a show came together for 45 minutes."
During much of his stand-up career, his wife of 31 years, Peggy, has been by his side. They had one son, Garett, who had visited 17 states by the time he was two years old. Wilson eventually quit the road for his family and they made Lexington their permanent home in 1995. Soon after, Comedy Off Broadway, one of the first clubs Wilson ever headlined, asked him to come on as its in-house comedian.
While Wilson has held what he calls "the best part-time job in the world," he's worked in other areas. He worked in radio from 2000 to 2009, as a traffic reporter for three years at WVLK-FM and later as part of the morning team at WBUL-FM.
Every weekend that he's hosting and performing at Comedy Off Broadway — which, if you take a look at the venue's website, is most weekends — Wilson has a few plates he has to keep spinning in his head. When he's on stage, looking out into the dark at a different audience for every performance, he's simultaneously trying to keep the crowd, the comedian and the club happy, warming everyone up, spelling out the club's "rules" and setting up the comedians who follow him for a successful show. Two decades in, he knows he's got the hang of it, but he also thought he had a knack for it since day one given the years of work he put in on the road.
"It first dawned on me when I first emceed at Comedy Off Broadway: Maybe this is what I'm meant to be," he says. "I've done the good places. I've done the bad places. I had the armor on me. Nothing was going to phase me. I was going to move the show along no matter what happens."
In addition to being the in-house comedian, Wilson made sure that the club would have open mike nights so it would give aspiring comics the same opportunity other clubs gave him when he started. He hosts those the first Tuesday of each month, along with an annual amateur comedy competition titled Scott and Lee's Knock-Down, Drag-Out, No-Holds-Barred, Texas Chainsaw Match Comedy Competition.
The Lee is WLEX-TV and WVLK-AM host and stand-up comic Lee Cruse. Cruse has worked with Wilson on the road many times over the years and they have become close friends.
"Scott is big and goofy and I'm little and mean," Cruse says.
He says he's learned a lot from watching Wilson perform, both as an emcee and as a featured act.
"At the club, he's very much the host. It's like that party-style of Chevy Chase or Tim Matheson — these guys that are slightly goofy but you know them instantly," Cruse says. "I've seen Scott on the road and he's Spartacus. He's just mainlining joke after joke and hitting people hard."
While Cruse considers himself a protégé of Wilson, he thinks Wilson's consistent presence and reliability as a performer and host at Comedy Off Broadway may go unnoticed or, worse yet, unappreciated.
"I don't know if you can separate the two. He's been there so long. I mean, most people think he owns the club," Cruse says. "He's such an indelible imprint on that whole experience because he's the constant. Always. There's no real Comedy Off Broadway experience without Scott Wilson."
Wilson's job at Comedy Off Broadway has turned out to be a dream job he didn't realize he wanted. His aspirations early on were much larger. He never got the chance to walk down those steps at SNL. While his black-and-white headshot ('80s mullet haircut and all) may adorn various comedy clubs across the country, he earned respect among his peers but not the fame and everything that comes with it.
But he's happy where he ended up. He gets to perform comedy, albeit in short bursts, almost every weekend. He gets to mentor young talent as they come to open mike nights to either get laughs or bomb trying. He gets to be the familiar face seasoned comedians see that immediately makes them feel at ease, whether they are talking about gas prices in the upstairs green room or hanging out at Wilson's house eating a meal before the show. And he knows that for every regular that's seen him perform more times than they can count, there's always someone new in the crowd, someone who has never seen him that he can win over with a joke or two while keeping the show moving. The fact is, most comedy clubs don't have a veteran comedian like Scott Wilson willing to do so many small things to keep a room filled with the biggest laughs.
"I am a dinosaur," he says.
Actually, that's not quite accurate. Dinosaurs are extinct. Scott Wilson is more like a rare breed — one that you can see up to six shows a week.