Adorable But Getting Better
Busy comedian Ron Funches co-headlines the Red Clay Comedy Festival

By Lee Valentine Smith

The Red Clay Comedy Festival returns this fall with a rock-solid lineup of comedians, podcasters, musical performances and a number of surprise guests. In late September, East Atlanta village will be laughing all weekend with great performances from some of todays hottest acts.

Ron Funches co-headlines the festival with Janeane Garofalo and the two polar-opposite comics represent the incredible diversity of the event. Funches made his mark on TV as Shelly on NBC's Undateable, continuing with roles on Powerless, The Kroll Show and Bob's Burgers as well as supporting appearances in feature films and an ever-increasing resume of voiceovers - including the Trolls franchise and TBS' Final Space.

During a delightful telephone conversation often punctuated by his signature laugh, the Los Angeles-based comedian looked back on his career and upcoming projects, including an upcoming hourlong special for Comedy Central and a new podcast, "Getting Better with Ron Funches," an audio life-journal on health and spirituality.

It was good to see your mom in the audience last year at your Smith's Olde Bar show. She's a big supporter.

Well definitely more now that it's profitable! But she's always been a big supporter of me just being myself. She didn't like it so much when she was paying my phonebill, but now…

And she's not easily offended - by your material or your feature acts.

No, and now she lives with me, in my guesthouse here in the Valley. When I lived under her roof I followed her rules. Now that she lives under my roof, she knows that anything she says can be used against her on stage at any time. But she's ok with that - as long as I continue to pay the mortgage.

Now that you're on the move, the game shows are calling. You were a champion on @Midnight, but you're also doing the network shows - including my favorite, The Match Game.

Growing up, I was always a big fan of the Game Show Network and Press Your Luck is probably my favorite game show of all time but doing Match Game was really amazing. I got to help a charity that I'm really invested in, which was fun. I got to meet a lot of real celebrities and pretend like I was one of them, too.

Do they encourage the celebrity panelists to wing it?

It's so fun and easy. You just show up, dress nice and say or do whatever you want. If you curse, they'll bleep it. You get to be on with a bunch of really good comedic minds, so any chance I can get to do it, I'll take it. Put me on all the game shows. Put me on the Wheel!

I follow you on Instagram and you're always juggling a ton of projects, usually starting out around 6 a.m., often ending up at a comedy club before your day is done.

I do try to stay busy, sometimes to my own detriment. But for the most part I just try to take advantage of all the opportunities I can. I've been doing a lot of voices for different cartoons, the Trolls sequel and I'm gonna be on the second season of Final Space on TBS. Now I get to work with people like Conan O'Brien, guys I looked up to as a kid and a teen. It's like that old adage, 'When you do what you love, you don't work a day in your life.' At the end of the day, I'm always learning.

The last time we talked, your current hour was headed toward a special. You finally filmed it a while back in Seattle. How did it turn out?

It's probably the most polished version of what I was doing when you saw me at Smith's Olde Bar. But some things have been added and some got chopped. I'm in the process of fleshing it out now, expanding things that didn't make it into the special. But I've watched the entire rough cut and I think it's really good. I hope it'll get me a few new fans and that my old fans will love it, too. It'll be on after the first of the year, but I don't have the exact date yet.

Bobcat Goldthwait directed the show. How'd you meet him?

Just from doin' comedy. We became friends and when Comedy Central asked if I had any ideas as who I'd like to direct it, I just spit out, 'What if Bobcat can do it?' I didn't think he'd be available, but he was totally about it. He understood the concept. The way he shot it, the stage and everything is tied to my act and I think it'll really stand out. There're so many specials coming out all the time, I wanted something that wasn't just a 60-minute set; it needed to have a real reason to exist.

He knows a lot about the presentation of a very specific persona because he did it for so long. Did he offer you any advice?

Yeah! Some of the best advice he gave me was to remember we were taping - so it wasn't necessarily a live performance. If I made a mistake, we could just back up and redo the joke. For some reason, even though I'd been on TV shows and acted in things, it never occurred to me that I didn't have to just nail it perfectly. When he reminded me of that, it took off a lot of pressure. The sets were good and Seattle's always been really supportive of me. There's a place in Washington that I like a lot, a homeless shelter called Mary's Place. We donated all the ticket proceeds and Comedy Central donated some money on top of that, and we ended up raising 18 or 19 thousand dollars.

In the '80s, Bobcat developed a distinctive persona that was drastically different from the real guy. Do you feel that your image is a larger-than-life character or are we seeing the real you on stage?

It's basically me, just turned up a few notches. Sometimes I have to fight against the fact that I get labeled as "adorable" or things of that nature. But I am adorable! That's just true. I'm a sweet boy. But I'm also a full-grown man and I have these other-type thoughts. So sometimes my jokes can be harsh. Sometimes I have to remind people that, 'Hey, you don't get to tell me who I am and what my art is.' Because I'm still developing it, I don't even know yet. So I'm gonna make mistakes. I'll say things people may not like, onstage or on Twitter or wherever. We're just gonna have to work through these things together. Hopefully, people know my heart if they know me as a person.

Thanks to new projects, you may be gaining fans who might not know your original intent.

Yeah, sometimes I feel I'm constantly introducing myself as a person to people who don't know me. I have to be careful in that regard. But for the most part, I think that the second you're worried about how people are gonna view you as a comedian - or any type of artist - you're already in a bad position. It freezes you up from being able to just follow whatever train of thought you may have. I like to follow those, even if I know they're negative. Sometimes there's a fun joke in there. None of us have all positive thoughts so it doesn't make sense to me to not joke about negative things.

With that comes freedom of expression which is what comedy is all about.

Absolutely! The freedom to be yourself. Look, I'm a human who makes mistakes but I'm not using that as an excuse to be a total dirtbag so I can do racist or sexist jokes. We've all seen the trend where comedians are held accountable for every little thing they say or do. There's a big difference between the real world and online but I never really have any issues onstage. That's what I care about the most. I just try to do it and hopefully people will get it. If not, I'll try to do it better next time.

The whole point of being a comic is to make the audience laugh and think.

I agree! The point is not to just give you whatever you want. It's to give what you might not have even known you wanted.

But you do radiate a cool, positive vibe - and that's especially rare in comedy.

Well you know, goin' back to Bobcat, he gave me a great compliment. When we were done with the special, he said he noticed that just being around me makes people want to be better. Personally, I don't see it - but OK, I guess I'll take it.

Ron Funches, Saturday, Sept 29; 7pm and 9:30pm Main Stage Tent Midway in East Atlanta



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