Comedian Kevin Bozeman serves up lots of laughs

By Valerie Hardy

Stand-up comedian Kevin Bozeman and his family live in Downers Grove, and while some locals know him as neighbor and friend, for many, Bozeman became a household name after his performances at the Tivoli Theatre to benefit the Roadrunners soccer club. Bozeman has been a road comic since getting started in the late 1990s, traveling 40-45 weeks per year in non-pandemic times, and has performed at colleges and clubs across the nation. Additionally, he is an adjunct faculty member in DePaul University’s College of Computing and Digital Media, hosts the podcast “Ball Hog,” and has released multiple comedy albums (with another recorded in August for upcoming distribution). The day after one of Bozeman’s recent Chicagoland performances, Downers Grove Magazine caught up with him about his career and what comedy means to him.

Did you always know you wanted to be a comedian?
Not at all. [In college], I had never even thought about doing stand-up. It was not even on my radar. I kept changing my major. I was just doing kind of what people and society tell you you should do. I got a degree in communications, but I always had an emptiness, feeling I’m not doing what I was supposed to do. I worked in group homes with cognitively disabled kids and emotionally distressed kids. I sold insurance. I delivered water. They were just jobs…just checks. I never loved any of them… I just had this ability to make people laugh. I grew up as the youngest of 10 children… In some ways, I feel like I had to be funny in order to be noticed, to get a plate of food… I was not class clown growing up, per se, but I did have this moment where I used to write funny stories – imaginary stories – where I would roast my classmates. Both my 7th and 8th grade teachers would let me read them out loud. They weren’t always nice, and [my classmates didn’t always appreciate them], but I remember Ms.Gardner, my 7th grade teacher, said to the class, “You don’t appreciate Kevin and what he does.” I think she saw something in me that others didn’t see. Interview her today, and she would not be surprised that I am a stand-up comic.

If you didn’t study stand-up or set out to become a comic, what was your road to a comedy career?
In college, my roommate and I used to watch “Def Comedy Jam.” I was like, “I could do that!” My roommate was like, “Stop saying you can do it. Do it.” So, I pulled out the yellow pages and looked up comedy clubs in the area, and I went on [stage during an open mic night] in a comedy club in Madison, WI. I tried it for the first time. It wasn’t going to be an award-winning set, but it was such an adrenaline rush!

Did you fall in love with doing stand-up comedy and go after it following that first performance?
Nah – I’m not one to fall in love easily. I did it once, did it twice, then wasn’t back on stage for a year. But after that year, I was like, “Man, why don’t you try to see if you can get good…” Then every week I started going up on stage… In WI, there were [basically just two open mic opportunities] – in Madison and in Milwaukee – and I’d alternate weeks [at each]. Finally, the one in Madison gave me a paycheck, and I was like, “What?!”

Kevin Bozeman and his sons

How did you manage to go from performing at the club in Madison to doing shows in venues across the country?
I only knew I was funny but didn’t know why I was funny or how to be funny. I didn’t know the rules of the game… Then Chris Farley passed, and in Madison, they did a show for a foundation they started [in Farley’s memory]…Comics were there from “Saturday Night Live” – bigger name comics – and Comedy Central was there. From there I got the show “Premium Blend” on Comedy Central in 2003. I was in WI at the time when I got that show, and I filmed the show in Los Angeles. That was my first real legit TV credit… Then I auditioned for the new “Star Search” show with Arsenio Hall, and I got that… The judges shredded me on national television… That was humbling. When I auditioned for “Last Comic Standing” on NBC in 2015, I was better prepared. I made it to the semi-finals. They probably saw 3500 comics, and I made it to the top 40 or something like that.

How did you come to expand your professional ventures beyond doing stand-up to podcasting and teaching as well?
I started my podcast seven years ago, and it’s called the “Ball Hog” because I don’t really have any guests. It’s sports and pop culture, rarely politics. It’s a lot about sports gambling. I love that. It’s mostly therapeutic [for me]. I have a small cult following. [As for teaching], back in 2012, the head of the film department at DePaul University saw me perform live in Chicago and said, “You should come teach comedy at DePaul.” I [initially] said no, because you can’t teach people to be funny, but you can teach them about the history of standup and about how comics go about creating material. [In the class], the students prepare material for a live audience, and I host a show for them… Teaching has made me a better comic, being ready to answer the question: “Why are you doing that?”

“With stand-up, it’s different than any other art: you’re the writer, director, producer, star. When it doesn’t go well, it hurts your soul because there’s nobody else to blame.”

What advice do you have for your students or others who might want to pursue a stand-up career?
I’d say, “Good luck!” No, I encourage them…There’s nothing better than having a job that you love to go to… [However, proceed with caution]. With stand-up, it’s different than any other art: you’re the writer, director, producer, star. When it doesn’t go well, it hurts your soul because there’s nobody else to blame. It’s almost like you’re being rejected by people that are there to be entertained, and you’re the entertainment… You should be uncomfortable. You should sweat a little bit on stage. It’s the most humbling experience. That’s what’s so great about it. I tell younger comics, “You’ve got to take a lot of little L’s to get the big W.” Sometimes you drive hours just to get five minutes on stage… If you’ve ever gotten a paycheck for stand-up, you’ve already succeeded. Kudos to you. You have to discipline yourself. There’s no time clock, there’s no punching in, no scheduled days off… That’s what weeds out a lot of the comics… I’ve known way too many stand-up comics who died to suicide or died to drug addiction… Sometimes… it’s that people turn to doing stand-up as an outlet because they had a lot of problems before, but [the life of a stand-up comic can be] very lonely and depressing… When I’m on the road…I’m literally by myself at least 20 hours of the day…Stand-up is only an hour a day; there are still 23 hours you need to fill – spent alone, or at bars with seedy people. [There are so many potential] pitfalls, so many traps, so many bad habits you can fall into.

What has allowed you to escape the pitfalls of the profession?
I came from a solid family… [Also], very seldom am I on the road more than a week at a time. Even if I’m [performing back to back in the same general area] – like Dallas then Tulsa – I’m coming home… I like to sleep in my own bed, be in my own house, see my family. I still…hang out with my friends (including lifelong friends I’ve met in Downers Grove) and do things I enjoy… I go to Humidor [Cigar Lounge] all the time. I would love to just go and be a bourbon and cigar aficionado. I’m also a foodie – I love food. That’s the great thing about travel, [getting to sample all different cuisines]… My job is the most extroverted, but I’m very much an introvert… I enjoy alone time. I can go to restaurants by myself. I can go to movies by myself…

You mentioned your family earlier. Any other comedians in your family?
I’m the only performer of the family. My family is super funny though. We sit around and laugh a lot. There’s a difference between being funny in front of friends and family and being funny in front of strangers though.

Do you include your family members as subjects of your comedy?
My kids [three sons – ages 18, 16, and 3] show up in my comedy the most. My family probably always shows up though, just in their influence and the way I view life more than jokes about them. But I have jokes about everything…because stand-up is really only funny if it is relatable… My rule in comedy is nothing is off limits until it’s off limits.

What do you think is the value of stand-up comedy for the audience?
A lot of people have talked about how miserable they were and how laughing was just so good for them. It’s therapy. It’s medicine. Laughter is a real emotion. Laughter is the ultimate sign of happiness. If you laugh, that means you’ve enjoyed yourself so much your body makes a weird noise.

Is there a quick hitting joke or segment from your shows that is one of your favorites?
How about this one: “You ever go stand up in a wedding and you know that those two people don’t belong together, but you don’t say anything [because] you really want cake?!!” Bozeman is scheduled to perform at Zanies Comedy Club in Rosemont, IL Dec. 2-5, but fans in need of a dose of laughter sooner might consider a road trip to see the comic in action. For more information about Bozeman and to view the full calendar of his upcoming shows, visit kevinbozeman.com

*Photos provided by Kevin Bozeman and Carolina Menapace*

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