CU comedian discusses passion for performing

By Eli Schuster, Sports Editor

Clay Foley is 41 years old and in a mid-life crisis.

In May 2016, Foley decided to do something he never considered doing before. He didn’t buy a motorcycle. He didn’t get a tattoo. Instead, he got on stage at a local open mic and performed stand-up comedy.

He describes himself as a late bloomer. He never intended to be performing stand-up comedy, let alone travel around to perform.

The past few years have been full of some rather large life events. Before beginning stand-up comedy, Foley’s marriage ended, he quit his job and debated moving away from the Champaign-Urbana area altogether, where he has resided for around 12 years.

As far as Foley was concerned, he was good at public speaking. He would not have ended up with his last job if he wasn’t. In 2006, he interviewed for a position with the Champaign County Humane Society. A position he said fell into his lap, as Foley had no teaching or law enforcement background.

The interview went well and his love for animals complemented with a strong public speaking presence landed him a job as an animal cruelty investigator and humane educator.

“I’ll go there scooping poop if I get to work with animals,” Foley said in a phone conversation.

For the next 10 years, he would go on to provide educational outreach to the community on proper animal care. He traveled to preschools, colleges and local events to spread the word. It was a job he loved.

But it was also a job he got sick of, and he felt with his life-changing, it was time to move on. He first realized taking a stab at stand-up comedy wasn’t a bad idea toward the end of his time at the Humane Society. 

“I found myself in a job that involves a lot of public speaking and one day I realized I was spending more time writing my jokes than my actually intelligent content,” Foley said.

Performing stand-up comedy is often a bucket list item; however, he doesn’t view it that way.

“I started because I thought that I might be good at it,” said Foley. “I wanted to prove to myself that I could be successful at it. I wanted to prove to myself I could do it, and I’m still in the process by the way.”

Eventually, Foley decided to prove it to himself at the Clark Bar in Champaign. Every Wednesday and Thursday, Champaign-Urbana (C-U) Comedy, a local performance and booking company, holds an open mic night event. Since his first show at the bar, his love for the art form has only grown.

The Clark Bar has a small basement with dim lit lights and a beaten-up stage. On the floor, only two high-top tables stand in the left-hand portion of the room. The rest of the space is filled with about 50 chairs that come from the bar’s restaurant space and some local school classrooms.

The back room of the Clark Bar can fill up fast or feel empty.

Being on stage for Foley and making people laugh has become his passion. In fact, it’s something he finds himself thinking about around the clock.

“I don’t really have hobbies,” Foley said. “I have obsessions.”

An obsession with stand-up comedy has meant a growing interest, and Foley is determined to fine-tune his craft.

While he would love to be making a living as a comedian, reality sets in five days a week as he works for a printing company in Champaign. His workmates are well aware of his passion though, as even at work Foley is always looking for the next great bit to try out on stage in the coming weeks.

“My coworkers are used to me writing,” Foley said. “We will have a conversation and I’ll say ‘oh that’s great’ and I’ll write it on a post-it.”

While he continues to work a full-time job, during the weekend he gets to play pretend. Only being a part of the industry for a little over a year and a half, Foley recently started booking shows.

As of now, he has performed in seven states with Topeka, Kansas and Springfield, Missouri next-up on the list. Most shows he books aren’t paid, and if money does come his way, it is usually as a surprise. On occasion, comedy clubs or bars will hand him enough money to compensate for gas or a hotel, but rarely is it anything substantial.

Although, according to Foley, now is the time for him to pay his dues.

“Right now, if a club cannot pay me, I’m perfectly okay with that,” Foley said. “I just want to get onstage as much as possible.”

Foley has really enjoyed the opportunities the Champaign-Urbana community has provided him, but he has also made an effort to venture out of the community as much as possible. He is continually making a push to find shows in surrounding states and has set a goal to perform in 12 different states by the end of the calendar year.

The idea of setting long-term and short-term goals is really what keeps him going. He feels extremely new to the industry and feels like he needs to increase not only the number of shows he is doing but also the quality of his shows. He tries to get on stage for an open mic night every other week to try out new material.

To Foley, there is no place that he would have rather gained his footing at in the comedy world. He praises Champaign-Urbana for its supportive community and dedicated fans.

But he can’t exactly describe what makes the local area so special.

“I can’t really put my finger on it,” Foley said. “It’s having talented comedians who are friends with one another, who are trying to support one another. There are so many factors, and I can’t pinpoint it exactly, but I consider myself very lucky to be here.”

Champaign-Urbana’s comedy scene was nonexistent almost a decade ago. If it wasn’t for the rise of C-U Comedy, Foley wouldn’t be where he is today.

Jesse and Justin Tuttle are twin brothers who have been working the entertainment industry for a long time. Both with a passion for comedy, the two decided, in 2009, to start up a small business. At first, the Tuttles just wanted a name brand to attribute their work to. C-U Comedy was catchy enough, and it was localized, which, according to Jesse, was key to getting the community behind them.

“We started C-U Comedy just as an umbrella to put everything under,” Jesse said. “And then we built a brand. It started with a once-a-week open mic, and now it’s sometimes three to four shows a week.”

A bit of the business’s creation was selfish, according to Jesse. For the Tuttles, having their own outlet meant more stage time and more guaranteed shows. Not to mention, the C-U Comedy business meant a space for people in the community like Foley to get a foot in the door.

“It was just trying to create bigger crowds for yourself to perform in front of,” Jesse said.

Jesse and Justin have continued to work closely together over the years and have continued to create a comedy scene that brings professional comedians to the Champaign-Urbana community, almost on a weekly basis.

Although, the two have fallen into their own roles. As Justin describes it, he has become much more of an employee, with Jesse taking over as the head of the business.

“It started equal; I hate doing the handshaking and talking to each individual person,” Justin said. “There is just so much involved in the promotional aspects I don’t like to do. Over the course of years, it just kind of migrated to Jesse is the front thing of everything.”

The two brothers have a history of working together. Before committing themselves full-time to the Champaign-Urbana area, Jesse and Justin had a long-running stint in professional wrestling. From around the age of 17 to 30, the two toured around the United States to perform as a kind of World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) duo.

The two didn’t work directly with the WWE but performed a very similar style of entertainment. Shows would be in front of thousands, and the two are certain the experience has helped them find success in stand-up comedy and with C-U Comedy.

“The businesses aren’t really that different,” Jesse said. “You want to have different styles; you want to have different characters; you want to have different presentations, which is kind of what stand-up is.”

The Tuttles’ long reign in the entertainment industry has helped them shape the Champaign-Urbana twin cities into a more desirable comedy location. Plenty of mid-tier professional comedians who have performed on late night talk shows and in larger cities will make a stop in the community now, because of C-U Comedy. Jesse makes it a priority to book professional talent, and then he will sometimes supply them with opening acts that come from his local open mic nights.

The two brothers also attribute a lot of their success to the atmosphere at their shows.

“There is no reason for people to be bad people,” Jesse said. “Good breeds good; everyone wants to see everyone do well here.”

The Tuttle brothers have been given high praise by local performers on the outlet they have created, Foley included. In his recent quest for booking performances, Foley claimed he has had some decent success because of the opportunities given to him by C-U Comedy.

“I had pretty good luck,” Foley said. “I owe a lot to Jesse and Justin Tuttle, for taking me under their wing.”

Foley has said the Tuttle brothers have been responsible for getting him shows and bettering his understanding of how performing comedy works.

The amount of effort that Foley has put into his comedy hasn’t gone unnoticed either.

“Clay is very productive in getting himself booked,” Jesse said. “A lot of people kind of wait for people to contact them; he has been very out there. He drives a lot to open mics; he makes it work–I wish everyone had that intuition.”

It’s not unusual for the local stand-up performers to have a soft spot for Jesse and Justin and the work they have done.

Another aspiring comedian, Alexandria Hawkey, has been performing with C-U Comedy for almost two years. Currently a senior in Media at the University, Hawkey is also trying to add the title of professional comedian to her list. Hawkey didn’t start stand-up comedy until her sophomore year, but she owes a lot of her improvements to the Tuttle brothers.

“We all call C-U Comedy the Tuttle school of comedy,” Hawkey said. “The Tuttles do a great job of laying it out in a professional way. They don’t just hand over professional opportunities, you have to earn it; you have to prove yourself.”

While Hawkey and Foley may have started their comedy careers at the same time, their situations couldn’t be more different. Hawkey finds herself trying to balance an education and career path with her love of comedy. She makes plenty of time for performances in the local community, and she says that throughout a five-month period, she will find herself onstage somewhere between 30 and 60 times.

Hawkey first got the idea of performing stand-up comedy after a brief trip to New York. She said while at an open mic event, she saw a random woman get up and give it a go. After seeing the woman run for about 20 minutes, she was inspired to give it a try for herself, and after writing material, she was up onstage in Champaign a short while after.

Similarly to Foley, Hawkey values the stage time that an area like Champaign-Urbana can provide. She also values the support.

“The really nice thing in the Champaign comedy scene is they want to build you up,” Hawkey said.  

Hawkey has moved on to perform in bigger cities, with several performances in Chicago. However, she described the atmosphere in Chicago during performances as salty and discouraging. She said that while onstage, she would look out into the audience to see the other comedians refusing to laugh at her jokes, with their arms crossed.

According to Hawkey, in Champaign-Urbana, comedians help one another instead of viewing each other as rivals.

Hawkey likes when the other performers will tell her what didn’t work on stage and how she may be able to adjust her act, despite her competitive nature.

“I think I’m a very analytical person, and I am a competitive person,” Hawkey said. “Half of being onstage is getting the audience to like you; for me, it was honing who I want to be onstage. The stag persona is really important; the jokes are not the most important part.”

While some stand-up comedians may stress about their material, Hawkey is focusing on just being an entertainer.

“I think the biggest challenge is realizing that comedy, while it can be therapeutic, is a show,” Hawkey said. “You are putting on a character; you are putting on an act.”

The style of comedy and perception of comedy that Hawkey follows has slowly paid off. She has performed at the Laugh Factory in Chicago, one of the city’s most popular comedy venues, and has been offered several other paid gigs. Unlike Foley, who takes work regardless of pay, Hawkey says that any show she travels for is a paid one.

However, even with the success that Hawkey has seen outside of the Champaign-Urbana community, she still debated walking away from it.

“I was planning on quitting to focus on my career,” Hawkey said. “But I just love it so much, so I can’t quit.”

When Hawkey graduates from UIUC, she plans to continue her stand-up career wherever she ends up.

Similarly to Hawkey, two doctorate students at UIUC have hopes of performing stand-up comedy professionally as well. Often appearing at the same shows, Kadeem Fuller and Kadeem Richardson have become regulars at C-U Comedy open mic nights.

The two aspiring comics started in September of 2017. Still fresh, they have quickly become a Tuttle favorite and have gotten bigger gigs because of it. A constant push to get onstage plays a large role in that as well.

“We probably go up every night during the week,” Richardson said. “We try to hit up every scene and (sharpen) our material.”

Known as the “Kadeems” by a lot of the local comedy fans, the two quickly came to learn that they may have a knack for the profession.

“It started as just something to do because grad school can be so draining,” Fuller said. “We just come up here to vent, but then people were really laughing and it wasn’t just crickets and we were like, ‘This is something we might be able to do.’”

Richardson and Fuller both have a respect for starting in the Champaign-Urbana area. Specifically, the two admire the versatile communities. Richardson said that with a working-class community and a college community so close to one another, a comic can quickly learn the appropriate boundaries to stay between.

On the other hand, Fuller feels as though the two different lifestyles have made him create universalized content that everyone can find humor in.

One thing the Kadeems try to do that may differ from comedians like Foley and Hawkey is talk about social issues onstage. The two comics enjoy frequently focusing on race relations in their sets.

“I love going up, making things funny, and people still saying I can vibe with that even if I’m not black,” Fuller said.

For Richardson, he noticed that his jokes can make a difference after a particular performance at Soma Ultralounge in Champaign. Once he finished his set, a professor of his from the University walked up and told him he never thought about a particular situation in the way he was describing it onstage.

After that experience, Richardson thought to himself, “What if we can use comedy as a tool to make stuff better?”

The work of C-U Comedy and the growing industry has helped bring to the forefront several local comedians who are beginning to find success. Foley, Hawkey and the Kadeems may differ in style, race, class and jokes, but they all share a single desire: to get onstage.

As for Foley, he will continue to drive to cities like Topeka and Springfield, not expecting any compensation other than laughter. But even if the laughs do not come one night, Foley has changed enough to realize it’s okay.

“I’m 41 years old, and my entire life I have been the type of person that needs to be constantly reassured and loved by everyone,” Foley said. “Over the past year and a half of doing stand-up comedy, you have to accept the path that people won’t like you.”