Nashville comedian Dusty Slay grew up in a trailer park in Opelika, Alabama. He loved it.
He was surrounded by family, and there were tons of other kids to play with. He would spend his days exploring the vast woods that were on both ends of the property.
But by the time he entered middle school, he decided there was a downside.
“It’s telling people that you live in a trailer park.”
“Most of my friends, to me, they were all rich,” Slay recalls. “They lived in two-story brick houses. And then I started to become self-conscious. When we would have to sign up for anything, where you have to write your address down, everybody would (write), like, ‘1457 Elmwood Drive.’ And I’m ‘Lot 8, Moore’s Trailer Park.'”
Two decades later, Slay is now very comfortable talking about his trailer park past. He’s literally told millions of people about it.
For the last several years, he’s spent almost every weekend on stage at comedy clubs across the country, joking about his childhood, his scruffy appearance, trips to Goodwill and other odd topics. His car’s odometer is now past 315,000 miles.
And 2018 has been a breakthrough year for Slay. He’s done stand-up on both Jimmy Fallon and Jimmy Kimmel’s shows, and now he’s developing his own sitcom for ABC — one that would be based on his upbringing in Opelika. It’s no small feat for a comedian who’s remained based in Nashville, rather than moving to New York or Los Angeles.
He’s moved beyond the open mic scene here at home, but Slay is maintaining a presence in Nashville with a monthly showcase at Zanies. It’s called “Dusty’s Slay’s Grand Ole Comedy Show,” and it returns to Zanies on Wednesday, Dec. 12.
At the show, you might hear one of Slay’s signature bits — his story about watching the local news in Nashville during a tornado warning.
“They were like, ‘If you live in a trailer park, we want you to go to a neighbor’s house, or go outside and lay down in the ditch,’” he told his ‘Kimmel’ audience.
“That’s the real news. They’re like, ‘We don’t know what to tell you. Hell, you made some bad decisions along the way. Now you gotta deal with this.’”
From class clown to stand-up
He didn’t realize it, but Slay started on the road to stand-up in high school.
“I almost had perfect attendance, not because I liked school so much, but because I liked being the funny person in the class,” Slay said. “So when I was out of high school, I was really missing that.”
He had also grown bored with life in Alabama. So in 2004, he and a buddy moved to Charleston, South Carolina. He fell into the improv comedy scene there, which quickly led to stand-up. Six months later he quit, after several terrible gigs. Luckily, a couple of breakthroughs were around the corner.
He gave stand-up another shot in 2008. That time, it stuck. He found some bizarre new bits that really worked, decided to stop making things up about his life for the sake of jokes, and learned to embrace the awkward moments — like the time he performed in a 900-seat music hall for roughly 30 people.
“Then, in 2012, I stopped drinking,” he said. “And that opened up this whole new thing of focus.”
Soon, he was impressing established comedians, who told him if he wanted to make it, he’d need to get out of Charleston.
He spent a month in New York City’s comedy scene, which went well, but he was pointed in Music City’s direction by Nashville native and stand-up star Keith Alberstadt.
Alberstadt told him how Nashville’s close proximity to other cities would allow him to build up his “road game.”
That plan has served Slay well for four years, but perhaps even more importantly, settling in the south helped him find his comedic brand.
‘I just try to keep it simple’
“It was like, all right, we’re back in the country again,” Slay recalls. “I felt like my accent came back a bit.”
He went back to visit his dad, and found an old trucker hat from a textile company where his uncle worked.
“I did a road trip with my friends, and they found the hat in my car,” Slay said. “We were doing jokes, and they were talking about how redneck it made me look … I just thought, ‘Man, this hat makes me so fun and playful.'”
Soon, he was wearing it on stage, and suddenly, he was selling out of CDs after his gigs.
“This hat changes me,” he told his audience on Fallon. “… If I take this hat off, you’re like, ‘Oh man. I bet that guy likes rock music right there.’ If I put this hat on, you’re like, ‘Nah. He’s got a rock collection.'”
Slay might not be reinventing the wheel, but there’s wild potential in his unique ability to connect both with coastal comedy fans and audiences in middle America.
That edge led to him stealing the show at the esteemed Just For Laughs festival in Montreal, where he says he was “the only one talking about Home Depot.”
He met with representatives from ABC after that gig, and it’s since been revealed that the network is developing a new half-hour comedy series from Slay and Chadd Gindin, writer and executive producer of Netflix’s “Santa Clarita Diet.”
If picked up, the show would be centered on Slay’s trailer park roots, with him co-starring alongside characters inspired by his mother, two sisters and their families.
“What I want to show is how dysfunctional things can be, but how if you have good people in your family, even through all that dysfunction, you can still bring it together, and have a good life,” Slay said.
And based on Slay’s goal for the “Grand Ole Comedy Show,” perhaps his sitcom wouldn’t be as partisan as, say, the “Roseanne” reboot. He aims for his monthly show at Zanies to be relatively clean and politics-free.
“I just try to create this great silly hour-and-a-half to two hours of comedy that people can just come out, and laugh and forget all problems,” he said. “That’s really what I want my whole show to be, everywhere I go. I just try to keep it simple.”
If You Go
Dusty Slay’s Grand Ole Comedy Show takes place at Zanies on Wednesday, December 12, and Wednesday, January 30. Both shows start at 7 p.m., and tickets are $10.
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