He is back. Chicago can be a lot of things, but one thing is for certain. Once you are back into the swing of that fickle Chicago weather, you fall right back into that Chicago connection. We can sense one of our own. Such is the case with Ron Funches. And he’s happy to be back, so long as it doesn’t involve this November winter weather.
“Not at all,” he tells me when asked if he misses the weather. “I was just telling Conan last night it just brings back memories of shoveling. I don’t like shoveling.”
The fact that he’s casually name-dropped Conan O’Brien within the first minute of our conversation isn’t surprising, given that he’s embarked on a cross-country tour with the famed talk show host. Conan has hand picked a group of comedians whom, in his opinion, are some of the funniest up-and-coming comedians performing today.
It’s that same tour that brings him to Chicago this morning, as we sit across from each other at 10:30 on the morning of the show at the Chicago Theatre. We are seated in the hotel’s restaurant, although neither of us wind up ordering anything.
For the past 12 years, he’s been a star on the rise. Noted for his laugh and teddy bear-like nature, whenever he walks out on that stage, the spirit of fun is absolute infectious. He is one of those guys whose good energy and just overall good vibes pulls you in and makes you feel good. There are a lot of comedians who focus more on talking about the problems and challenges in life. Ron Funches just wants you to have a good time, while learning more about him in the process.
“A big part of my comedy, when I realized that I didn’t want to necessarily focus on things that I hate is, “Oh I want to give a platform to things that I grew up loving and that I watch,” he admits to me. “The comedy that I like is when you end the set going ‘Oh man. I like that person. I want to know more about that person or I want to be friends with that person. I learned about that person.’ And that, to me, is just my favorite type of comedy. What I’m good at is just letting you in and showing you my world. And that’s what I try to do.”
As Ron Funches walks out onto that stage at the Chicago Theatre, the crowd is beside themselves. Again, they can sense one of their own. And this is where his warm, inviting personality and just as inviting giggle come in handy. Wearing a Chicago Bears sweater with his arms extended wide and a smile extending even wider, this is a homecoming moment. His first time gracing this legendary stage, nobody can take this away from him. This is his.
He says nothing. The crowd cheers. He continues to say nothing. The crowd continues to cheer. Now it’s become a power game. It goes seemingly on and on. Finally…
“Conan dared me to see how long I could stand out here wearing this without having to say anything.”
2019 has barely begun, but its already been a big year for Ron Funches. On January 4th, his first ever hour-long special, Giggle Fit was the lead-off special on Comedy Central’s Stand-Up Month. This special, which has been getting great notices from everybody on Twitter and that includes Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson, is essentially Ron Funches welcoming you into his living room, sitting you down, and inviting you into his life. And he doesn’t just do it through telling personal stories, he does it through sharing the things he loves, in the hope that some other people out there will love it, too. (This audience in particular got very responsive to a shepherd’s pie mention).
One of the most notable things about this special is its opening. As Ron sits there, in a weed-induced meditation state, he has come to his God for strength, Ric Flair.
“To me it was the most nerve-wracking part of the special,” he admits when asked about working with Flair. “I reached out to Rick and talked to him on the phone for just 5 minutes and gave him this idea and he was all about it. He was like “I get asked to do stuff every day. I’ve had 3 other comedians asking me if I’d be in their specials and I told them all ‘No’. But I know you’re funny and I like what you do. And I know you like wrestling and you respect what I do.” And so we made it work out.”
“Just the fact that he [Flair] knew who I was at all and was willing to give me the time of day meant a lot to me,” he continues. “Because Ric Flair is not just one of the biggest wrestlers, he’s one of the biggest celebrities. And he’s someone that passes generations. Ric Flair is famous to my mom who was famous to her mom and hopefully he’ll become famous to my son.”
Ron Funches doesn’t just go with where the crowd is. Just because it’s all of a sudden cool to like wrestling doesn’t mean he’s suddenly a wrestling fan. He’s always been one. Funches’ act is built on the grounds of this is what makes him happy and what makes him laugh. It’s a nostalgia trip for like-minded people. I defy you to find me one other comedian onstage talking about Wishbone.
Ron, ever the die-hard wrestling fan, even manages to find a parallel between stand-up comedians and wrestlers. “It’s similar terms of just whether you’re a wrestler or an actor or comedian or whatever, your job is to get a reaction from your audience. And they know how to get a reaction, how to make you laugh, how to make you boo them, they know how to make you cheer them. To get a pop. And my job as a comedian is to try to get the biggest pop.”
Something that goes into every special that you, as the audience, would be hard-pressed to really think much about is the perfect blend between the audience and the comedian. You’re not going to go shoot a special where you wouldn’t perform well. You want to go somewhere where you know they will embrace you and be right there with you.
“Starting up in the Northwest, Portland at the time wasn’t a very big scene at all. So Seattle was where you had to go and was where I met a lot of really, really funny comedians who are household acts now. It is where I met Rory Scovel, and they had a really nice scene. And it was one of the scenes where they really liked what I was doing and liked my style. And they supported me when I did my shows. So when I did my special, I went “I want to do it in the Northwest.”
Also important to Ron Funches with this special was that you, as the audience, had to see his gradual progression. “I come busting out of a picture of old me. And that’s pretty much what the hour is about. How my life has changed, how I’m setting goals and being more positive, and celebrating my life, which I thought would be a little bit different right now when a lot of times people are pointing out the negatives with politics and sh*t like that. I was like ‘I want to do something a little different and stay away from that.’”
He continues. “One thing that I don’t like when you see a special and you’re like “Oh, this is just a random set on a Thursday or a Friday. If I go see him at the Improv or wherever, that’s what I’m going to see. “I want it to be like “This is special.” It’s a big deal. I’m suited up. My whole goal going into that special was if no one ever gives me a chance to do a special again, I did everything that I wanted to do with this first one.”
We are living in the era of Netflix and streaming specials. It is ever-evolving and changing, much like stand-up. A look at the stand-up culture 10 years ago, and you’ll see just how far we’ve moved and how much things have changed. But Ron enjoys being on Comedy Central, even when a bunch of his peers are elsewhere.
“How I put it was I was a Sega Genesis boy when people were playing Super Nintendo. So I’m used to being on the other side. It’s just about my work. If my work is good, people will find it. And that’s enough for me. And I’m going to promote it and get people to watch it. But if the work is good, the right people will see it, and that’s all that matters.”
Another staple of Funches’ act is him telling stories about what he knows. He knows what it is like raising a son with Autism, so he tells stories about that. And these aren’t stories that are mocking Autism, obviously, but it also doesn’t sugar-coat it or talk down. He brings total honesty and humor into have a son with a disability.
“My son is the most important thing in my life,” he tells me, “so the last thing I want is for people to think ‘He’s taking advantage or making fun of his son who has a disability.’ And since then, I’ve gotten hundreds from people who either have children with Autism or family members or I’ve had people who have Autism at my shows who are just like ‘Thank you. Thank you for doing some representation of us and not mocking us and also not making it a pity party.’”
He is also the first to call people out who use Autism as a put-down. “People look for new words that are buzz words to get a reaction out of people. And also things get more politically correct so they can’t say “retarded” like they want to say, so now they just say “autistic”. And I make it a point, especially if I’m on shows, I’ve had this happen many times where the comic before me throws around the word “autistic” and then I go up there and I’m like ‘My son has Autism.’ And they’re usually there. They see it. And they feel like sh*t. And I tell them ‘Aw, it’s okay.’ [Giggle Fit].”
A lot of comedians, as a result of being so vulnerable and open onstage, have complete strangers coming up to them and it feels as if they actually know them in real-life, not just from beyond the stage lights. There is that weird inviting nature with a comedian, because they just exposed themselves to you. You feel as if it’s a one-on-one connection, completely ignoring the thousand other people sitting around you. Ron Funches is not immune to that, but he does get it in his own way.
“I mean mostly the thing I get is that people want to hug me,” he admits. “And I really like that. And I’m great at hugs, so they are reading me correctly. And I do it. Guys will just come up and hug me. But ladies are always nicer. They go “Can I hug you?” And I’m like “Thank you for asking.” But if you want to, just ask. I’m happy to.”
As for whether or not he gets recognized all that much when he walks down the street? “If you had asked me a couple of weeks ago, I would’ve said maybe. But now that I’m walking around with Conan, I’m going to say no. [Giggle Fit].”
That response is not surprising, as Conan O’Brien doesn’t necessarily blend in with the crowd at 6’5. And as if on cue, it’s at this moment that I notice the easily-recognizable pompadour emerging from the NOMI Lounge elevators, with a box of Puffins under his arm.
“Hey Coco!” Ron calls out to him.
“You’re going to have to leave, sir,” Conan O’Brien deadpans to me. “Like right now. This man is bad news.” Immediately, I have been pulled into one of his bits. Much like Funches’ good vibes are infectious, so is Conan O’Brien’s love of doing bits and riffing.
“Here’s the whole thing in my life, I’m not even allowed to have fucking Puffins,” Funches admits.
He’s referring to his recent weight loss. Remarkably, a few years ago now, Ron lost over 125 pounds. Obviously, something like that is going to drastically change your life. Hell, it’ll even change your comedy. “I lost a lot of weight and it kind of changed even my rhythm. My rhythm was a lot slower when I was heavier, because I couldn’t breathe. [Giggle fit]. So now it’s like finding my rhythm and also finding my voice as a comedian again.”
“I hope you’re getting all of this,” Conan O’Brien says to me as he picks up my phone and yells into it “PUFFINS ARE CORN BASED!”
“That’s going to be a major part of the interview,” Conan adds, as he walks away.
Even after being on the road with him for the past month, Ron Funches still can reflect on just how much of an impact Conan O’Brien had on him growing up. “He was for me like Johnny Carson or David Letterman [to other generations]. To me THAT was comedy. When I grew up, that’s what I loved – Masturbating Bear, Preparation H Raymond, Pimpbot, all that stuff. That was the kind of thing that I cut my teeth on comedically and it formed who I was comedically. And then it ended up being the first T.V. show I did comedy on and that was a big deal for me.”
Our time is wrapping up, Ron has a tour of his Chicago roots planned for his girlfriend, which includes visits with his family. However, his final anecdote he leaves me with manages to sum everything up beautifully. It tells you exactly who Ron Funches is, without much more needing to be said.
“Someone told me a story about a comedian who had written on their wall in sharpie ‘Comedy is life. There is nothing else.’ And the way they said it, they’re like ‘That’s so cool. That’s all he cares about.’ But the way I looked at it was if you took anything else but comedy and put any other word in there, you wouldn’t think that’s cool. You would think that person is insane. You’d view that person like ‘Ice cream is everything. There is nothing else.’ There is so much else. And that is what I try to focus on. I just want to have a good life. I love being able to take my mom traveling. I love being able to buy my son video games or take him to E3. Those are the things that make it fun for me. And just the act of doing comedy, getting better at comedy. People who are around me know what I’m about. That’s all I can say.”
Ron Funches Giggle Fit is airing on Comedy Central as part of Stand-up Month, it can be found on demand and on CC.COM now.