Sanford’s Ron Perkinson calls himself a “recovering attorney.” Legal work paid the bills for most of his professional life, and for the last 18 years he’s been a professional mediator for civil lawsuits – a role in which he says humor has proven to be an effective tool.
Which works out well, because anyone who knows Perkinson knows of his wit – and maybe of his second career, which has been in stand-up comedy. Since 1983, when Goodnight’s opened in Raleigh, Perkinson has performed sets off and on, racking up hundreds of shows and even rubbing elbows with now-famous professionals like Jay Leno and Paul Reiser.
“Even as a grade schooler, comedians were my favorite TV people,” Perkinson explained. “I’m talking Bob Newhart, George Gobel, George Burns, Buddy Hackett, Godfrey Cambridge, Dick Gregory, Carlin, Jonathan Winters. I thought to ability to cause laughter was a great gift.”
After a recent bout with some medical issues, it occurred to Perkinson to look at his problems through a comedic lens, and in turn came up with the idea for a comedy show he calls “Circling the Drain.”
“I can be as needy and pitiful as the next person, but that ain’t going to make people laugh,” he said. “I’d much rather ask someone I don’t know if he or she would be willing to part with his or her heart and then berate them for having no compassion when they refuse.”
The “Circling the Drain” Comedy Tour (“tour” itself is a funny word in this context, there’s one date) comes to the Temple Theatre on June 2, and tickets are available online or by calling (919) 774-4155. The Rant recently asked Perkinson a few questions ahead of the show. The interview is transcribed below.
How long has it been since you last performed? Your press packet for the show mentions some medical circumstances that were “as funny as they were dire.” Is it just second nature for you to turn your challenges into a comedy set, or is this something that others encouraged you to do?
The show is titled to reflect the state of my physical well-being. My life expectancy is week before last. While I was on the transplant list and up until now I find the classic physics law applicable – for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. I can be as needy and pitiful as the next person, but that ain’t going to make people laugh. In fact, it ultimately drives people away. Screw that. I’d much rather ask someone I don’t know if he or she would be willing to part with his or her heart and then berate them for having no compassion when they refuse.
The last stand-up I did was at the Temple with James Gregory, who somehow has the idea that he is the funniest man in America. When I saw the church buses from Willow Spring parked at the theater, I knew damn well I wasn’t the reason for their presence.
For those that don’t know you or haven’t been exposed to your brand of humor, can you describe the structure of a typical Ron Perkinson joke, or what makes one funny?
My style, if I have one, is observational with a health slice of satire – which I much prefer to sarcasm. I am afraid I lapse into satire on a daily basis but not in performing. If satire is done well, the object of the material can’t quibble. Stephen Colbert has this style mastered.
The topics I find fit my style include the legal world, my origins in Warren County, fitness obsession, religion (dangerous in the South, but funny), my health, and others to be named later.
How’d you get into comedy after working for so many years as an attorney?
The first time I had people laugh at what I said and not at me I was – if an 8 year old can have a rush – my first one. In my third year of law school, I was asked by the staff of a law school magazine to write a monthly column titled “In Contempt.” I had immunity from the dean personally. I suppose I was perceived as a chance taker – or maybe one who refused to be in the cookie cutter image of law students. That was my first effort at being funny, because that was the mission, instead of saying funny things from time to time.
With the opening of Goodnight’s in Raleigh in 1983, comedy came to North Carolina. I had a wife and three children by then. My wife encouraged me to go do open mic night. I had four or five minutes of material, and if you had heard it you may have thought I was exaggerating. Three friends went with me that first night, and they were sworn to secrecy if I flat out sucked. And it went from there.
Although Sanford may not be the first place most people think of when it comes to live comedy, we’ve seen a number of nationally-known comedians come through in recent years, including Pauly Shore and famous fruit smasher Gallagher. Do you think we can become a regional hub for touring comedians?
Well, there’s a huge difference in getting the recognizable name with nothing going on except the greatest hits act and the acts who are hot. This year I’ve been to DPAC to see John Cleese and to Raleigh to see Patton Oswalt. Tickets were roughly $80 at each show, so for 2,000 people that’s a $160,000 gross. But the Temple can provide really talented unknowns who can kill for $10,000.
Comedians Ronnie Bullard and Todd Yohn – both of whom will appear at the show – seem to have pretty lengthy resumes. Can you share some memorable experiences you have with these guys, and tell folks what to expect out of each of them?
I met Todd and Ronnie through Goodnight’s. I’ve done multiple weeks of shows with each of them, and they’re both headline acts across the country. They usually don’t work together because they’re both closers. Ronnie is a classic man and mic straight ahead on. He delivers on time and just right. Todd is a more physical act and incorporates music into his set, as well as facial expressions and voices. Both can and will have the Temple rocking.
Can you share some of the memorable experiences you’ve had in 35 years of professional comedy?
Over the years I’ve had the chance to work with some incredibly talented people. The best known, by far, was Jay Leno. This was before he took Carson’s place, but he was already considered to be the top touring comic in the country. I did three or four shows with him. Paul Reiser was a great stand-up, but most folks know him as an actor now. And whether I’m proud of it or not, I can’t deny that I did a show or two with Carrot Top. The best female I worked with was Felicia Michaels. She talked in a little girl voice, had done a four page Playboy pictorial, and her material was squeaky dirty. We did a week together. Tough duty. The guy that awed me night after night was Jake Johannsen. At one time he had appeared on Letterman more than any other stand-up. My best experience was working with David Wood and Glenn and Ken Price to put “Lint: The First Redneck Opera” on the stage of the Theater in the Park in Raleigh.