LAUGH ’TIL IT HURTS: Local comedy group the Black Liver Society plans for a rib-busting good time
By Steve Wildsmith (email@example.com)
If laughter is the best medicine, then the president could have saved himself a whole lot of Obamacare headaches by recruiting Knoxville-based comedy troupe the Black Liver Society for a USO-style tour of the nation’s hospitals, doctors’ offices and emergency rooms.
The loose confederation of local comedians may not have the power to cure the afflicted of cancer or illness, but they can at least provide enough laughs to make the pain go away. And if that doesn’t work, chances are good they’ll bring along their own brand of anesthetic.
“The Black Liver Society was originally going to be a travel site for alcoholics,” said Waylon Whiskey, one of the society’s founders and a guy who models his style of storytelling snark and vein-popping rants after famous comedian Lewis Black. “I started this website (The Whiskey Chronicles), and then I figured I needed a way to make money with it. I’d met these guys just like me — guys who like to get together and party and raise hell and make people laugh — and it all sort of came together.
“How could you come up with a better name than the Black Liver Society? It’s a brand to put all of these crazy comics together. We’re good enough to play any club, but we’re rowdy enough to play any bar. And it sounds more polished than something like, ‘Shucky’s Group of Comics.’”
A native of East Tennessee and a 1994 graduate of Carter High School who declines — under any circumstances — to reveal his real name, Whiskey originally envisioned himself as a party planner, the sort of guy who watches “Van Wilder” with fondness and aspires to bring base debauchery to the masses. Originally a bouncer at various clubs around town — where he met his wife, affectionately referred to as “Misses Whiskey” — he got his start in front of people are an emcee for one of his events at an Old City nightclub backed out at the last minute.
“I got good and schnockered and got up and did it myself, and I hate a great time, but I was scared to death,” he said. “The very next week, I decided I was going to go watch the open mic night at Side Splitters (Comedy Club in West Knoxville). I figured the scariest thing I could do would be stand-up comedy, and if I could do that, then emceeing a show would be nothing.”
As fate would have it, his first time in the audience was the first time Trae Crowder, another Black Liver founder, tried his hand at making people laugh. An Oak Ridge native and a graduate of Tennessee Tech, he’s always been a fan of comedy but didn’t give it a try himself until November 2010.
“If I had to compare myself to someone people might recognize, I think I’m sort of like a country-fried Bill Burr,” Crowder said. “He’s angry and loud and really expressive, and he talks about all of the stuff that (makes him mad). My whole thing is trying to be a more intelligent, higher-brow version of the ‘Blue Collar Comedy’ guys. I have this accent, and I don’t try to hide it, but I have a larger vocabulary as well. I like to think of myself as an intelligent redneck.”
“He’s a country boy who’s very intelligent, isn’t sleeping with his cousin and doesn’t have cars on blocks in his front yard,” Whiskey added. “His sense of humor’s very much like mine.”
The two men bonded, and two weeks later it was Whiskey’s turn behind the microphone. He was, once again, hammered — alcohol is a consistent theme among the members of the Black Liver Society, as the group’s moniker might indicate.
“I love to fuss and rant, and that’s how I got in the mind to do comedy: I would get drink at parties, and people would get me going, and I would go off on a profanity-laced rant,” Whiskey said. “I didn’t expect to do great at Side Splitters, but I killed it. I had the place rolling, and I’ve been hooked ever since.”
With a common style and a common goal — expanding the opportunities for themselves and for other local comedians — Crowder and Whiskey set out to establish the Black Liver Society a year ago. Although there’s no standard prospective members have to meet to join up, the overall effect is “high energy, in your face, no brakes,” Whiskey said. They’re like a pack of ravenous comedy wolves: when one smells blood in the form of a potential joke or crazy story, the rest of them seize on the opportunity.
“Comedy is traditionally individualistic — you’re up there by yourself, and that mentality breeds off the stage too,” Crowder said. “We made this a group that purposefully tries to help each other out. It’s just a collective of like-minded comedians or funny people in general, and we didn’t restrict it to only stand-up comedians.”
Take Andi Morrow, for example: A native of Scott County and a 2009 graduate of Maryville College, she’s pursued a career in acting since leaving Blount County. She’s toured with a children’s theater group out of New Hampshire and done acting and film work in Miami, but she’s always been drawn to sketch comedy. And when her husband, Drew, tried stand-up for the first time while the couple lived in Florida, it wasn’t long before she followed him into the art form.
“When Drew started doing stand-up in Miami, I was helping with the jokes,” she said. “We would talk about what was funny, and eventually we started a sketch comedy group called Family Band Comedy. And as we got into writing for it, I discovered that it’s just something I really love doing.”
The Morgans joined Black Liver when Drew, a native of Morgan County who originally attended Maryville College to play football, met Whiskey during an open mic night. As a kid, Drew was addicted to Comedy Central the way his peers were to cartoons and Nickelodeon; after his wife pushed him to give stand-up a try, he was hooked.
“My first time on stage, I blacked out a little bit, but then 2 minutes in, I remember thinking, ‘This is actually happening, and it’s going OK,’” Drew said. “It was just pure exhilaration after that. It sounds corny, but it was sort of a sense of it being exactly like I hoped it would feel. I was comfortable, even though I was very, very nervous.
“My father was a Baptist preacher, and I get compared to that a lot in the way I deliver. I’m very zealous. I’m not angry and ranting, but I’m loud.”
Which puts him in good company. Fans of abrasive comedy, of sketch comedy, of characters and games and commentary — all will find something to love when members of the Black Liver crew throws down, as they’ll do on Friday night at The Well in Knoxville. The material on tap is top secret, but given the individual members’ past performances — the Morgans staging a dramatic reading of a fake “NASCAR romance novel” on stage, or a presidential debate between famous wrestler Randy “Macho Man” Savage and an amalgam of famous politicos — then there’s only one rule, really, for what’s in store: Anything goes.
“This is the first show where we’ve had carte blanche — a stage big enough to handle us and management brave enough to say, ‘Do what you want,’” Whiskey said. “The first Black Liver show at the Roaming Gnome in Sevierville, there were 200 people in the audience, and we got up and gave them our full energy. We had them hanging on every word, and I think that was the night most of us had the hair burned off of our chests.
“This one will definitely be the rowdiest. We’re producing it like you’ve never seen a comedy show produced before, but none of it is scripted. It’s just an old-school variety show with dancing girls, people singing and things we have planned that no one in the audience is going to expect. They’ll never know what’s going to happen on stage next.”