James Gregory has been described as one of the most successful comedians of whom no one has ever heard. I had never heard of him until my brother-in-law introduced me to his trademark “fat lady” routine on YouTube, which had me laughing so hard that I couldn’t catch my breath. When I decided to buy a couple of tickets to his appearance at Mayberry Days at the Andy Griffith Playhouse in Mount Airy, North Carolina, on Sept. 27, I was delighted to witness one of the best comedy shows I have ever seen. My friend Darlene Mabry had never heard of him either but was so glad she came along as my guest.
The 71-year-old comedian who still lives in his home state of Georgia offered a 90-minute set to a nearly sold-out crowd of 341 out of 357 available seats filled. Darlene and I got especially lucky because of a wheelchair-bound woman who won tickets to the show on the radio. A very nice lady named Antonia from the Surry Arts Council asked me if I would mind giving up my wheelchair seats in exchange for a seat in the front row. I was not about to pass that up. However, our situation became even better when three seats in the center of the front row were open, allowing us to take advantage of the best seats in the house.
For those who knew James Gregory, it was all about his greatest hits. The “fat lady” routine ended the show as it does every night he performs with a few lines you won’t hear on his DVD, Beef Stew for the Brain. After yelling into the kitchen for a piece of cake, the fat lady defends her choice.
“That’s a carrot cake,” she says. “My doctor said I should eat more vegetables.”
“He also said I should eat more fruit,” she added. “When I get home, I’m going to make me a peach cobbler.”
“I asked my doctor why all this fluid seemed to be gathering around my ankles,” the obese lady goes on. “He said it was because it couldn’t go any further.”
Gregory performs the famous routine to riotous laughter night after night with his on-cue burping and laborious breathing.
“I have to be careful when I do this routine,” he confessed to the Mayberry audience. “I fell when I was doing it in Greensboro recently and it was not pretty.”
He even tickled himself at one point during the routine.
“I was making a joke about it,” he said as he took a deep sigh. “And my chest started hurting.”
James Gregory has always been heavy and he still is, but it is apparent that he has lost some weight and has obviously had a stroke in recent years. He had trouble remembering some parts of routines, getting ahead of himself at certain times, but just laughed it off and kept going. The audience was unaffected by this and laughed as hard as they ever have. He noted that he made fun of obese people because he was one of them and disagreed with the current government calling obesity a disease.
“What do you think I call this?” Gregory said as he slapped his belly. “I didn’t get it from standing next to a fat person who sneezed.”
Through his comedy, Gregory made some excellent points about the status of current society versus that of the previous generation. He poked fun at the government targeting fast food restaurants such as McDonald’s by blaming their advertising for childhood obesity. He noted that the ingredients and recipe for a Happy Meal had not changed since its introduction in 1979. The only thing that has changed is the parents’ ability to say no to the child.
“When we were growing up, parents knew that children had no money and could not drive a car,” the comedian noted. “They just made us go outside.”
I thought this was a very astute observation, as my 3-year-old daughter gets a Happy Meal from my in-laws at least once a week. She considers it part of a tradition with her grandparents. In the generations to which Gregory refers, Sunday traditions with grandparents included sitting on the front porch or playing in the front yard.
“Children today would have a much better future if they grew up on front porches as Opie did in Mayberry,” the wise comedian observed. “If Opie had grown up on a deck as modern homes have, he would be on drugs today.”
It was on those same front porches where three generations gathered on Sundays that, if the phone rang, there was not a race to see who was on the other end of the line. While in today’s society, people put their lives in danger by texting and driving for fear of missing a message or call, life was much simpler when we were just on our front porch.
“Did you ever wonder why they didn’t run in to see who was on the phone?” Gregory asked. “Maybe it was because everything that was important to them was already right in front of them.”
Instead of laughter, the audience broke into a spontaneous round of applause. It was a very poignant moment in a very laughter-filled night from the funniest man in the world. James Gregory has been doing live comedy for 35 years and has been given the title of “Funniest Man in America” by a fellow newspaper columnist whose last name was also Cooley. While I wish it had been me, I can pretty much agree. Meeting James Gregory after the show was a great honor for me and I was very pleased to hear that he said he would be returning to Mayberry Days as he does every year. His next visit to Mount Airy will be Sept. 28, 2018 at the Andy Griffith Playhouse.
A columnist, novelist and author of various other book genres, Zach Cooley lives in Wytheville with his wife, Emily, and daughter, Bella.