Failing upwards

Evan Hughes on stage at Downtown Lounge

Before March of last year, Evan Hughes had never considered a career in comedy. He had, however, recently been hit by a train. Laughing at setbacks of that sort, ranging in severity from freight trains to friend-zones, would soon become Hughes’s raison d’etre and see him ride a string of opportunities to an emcee spot at this year’s Blue Whale Comedy Festival’s Okie Homie Showcase. But in Hughes’s world of self-deprecating humor, quite a few falls came before any pride. 

"That was the worst month of my life," the bespectacled and impossibly polite Hughes said of March, 2015. He was reeling from a recent breakup when a friend told him about a comedy class at the Loony Bin. 

"She was kind of scared by it, so I said ‘I’ll do it if you do,’" Hughes said. "I never thought about what that would mean, or that it would change my life."

Hughes had only given standup a cursory glance in the form of Comedy Central TV specials and Steve Martin albums, and was mortified when he learned the class would conclude with a performance in front of a sold-out room. 

Then his car was ripped in half by a train. 

"I had two black eyes, and I would wear sunglasses to the Loony Bin," he said. "And I sure as fuck didn’t want to be in a comedy class." 

Throughout the weeks leading up to the end-of-semester performance, Hughes received light treatment from his sympathetic instructor, Roy Johnson. Johnson allowed the battered Hughes to silently coast through writing sessions, but when the show was a week away, and Hughes barely performed his jokes, Johnson dug in. 

"I was on the stage in front of the class, and I said ‘I’m just not really feeling this,’ and my instructor got in my face and said, ‘tell the fucking joke.’"

Shocked by his teacher’s forwardness and armed with more aggression than he’d previously shown in the course, Hughes told his jokes. To his surprise, his classmates laughed.

With a new sense of urgency in his act, Hughes performed at the graduation show, and even though he nervously scanned for exit signs, his act netted him a set at Club Utopia, where he learned to laugh at himself, by being laughed at. 

"I told this joke about going to a Twin Peaks," Hughes said. "This waitress was ignoring me and flirting with my friend who she said looks like a cast member from ‘The Walking Dead,’ and I just said, ‘meanwhile I am the walking dead,’ ...and the crowd went nuts." Hughes says he was slightly startled at how quick the audience was to agree that he looks like a zombie, and genuinely hung his head in duress. "When I hung my head, everyone started clapping, so I had an applause break on my first real set ever, for making fun of myself." 

Hughes got over the sting of humiliation, and triumphantly returned to Twin Peaks. "I sat in that girl’s section, and said ‘hey, I’m a standup comic and I wrote a joke about you." Apparently, it was one of the creepier pickup lines she’d ever heard. 

His Utopia gig led to another one, and another, and before long, the man who had never considered stand-up was constantly on stage at local showcases and honing his self-deprecating craft at open mics. 

At one performance, he started an actual—not just a laugh—riot.

While doing a weekly open mic at Club Utopia, which awarded a fifty-dollar prize, Hughes realized picking on the audience could help you win. 

"There was this one comic that went on before me, and he really didn’t know what he was doing," he said. 

Hughes began riffing on the man, who was muscular and heavily tattooed, and the crowd loved it. 

"I kept making fun of his bad set, and I was hitting him real hard, and I could see I’d gone about as far as I should, so I just ended and said, ‘yo, forget it, you’re just a punk.’"

Hughes didn’t know the man had recently left prison, and he instantly learned "punk" means something far different behind bars.

"He stood up, and started rushing towards the stage ... and not in a funny way." 

People around the man tried to tell him it was "just comedy," and as people flooded out the door, Hughes heard a window smash. The man’s girlfriend eventually calmed him down, and Hughes bought the couple shots as a peace offering, but the club had been nearly deserted. 

"I asked who won the 50 dollars, and the owner said, ‘Um, we’re going to use it to fix that window…’" 

Though Hughes was advised to take a month off from Utopia, he continued to show his face nightly at every open-mic, punk, hip hop, jazz or-whatever show, becoming a smiling, genuine, and seemingly omnipresent supporter of all local talent. 

"A lot of people don’t know this about me, but I grew up listening to death metal," Hughes said, "and on every band photo in death metal albums you can see the members wearing shirts of their other favorite bands." Hughes applies that ethos, and in much the same way someone in Morbid Angel would wear a Malevolent Creation shirt, Hughes became a booster for anything that happens on stage in Tulsa. For his niceness, he was roasted.

"Usually roasts are designed to honor someone who’s been on the scene for awhile," read the event page for the "Roast of Evan Hughes." "But Evan Hughes is different," it continued. "He’s so FUCKING NICE it’s sickening." 

In less than a year, Hughes had gone from a recently dumped literal train wreck of a man to a guest of honor at the club at which he was once "sure as fuck" he didn’t want to be at. "It actually sold out," Hughes said of the roast. "It was insane to be recognized, because there are comics that have been doing this for five years, and they haven’t had any of the lucky breaks I’ve had."

Few people would call being hit by a train, having their appearance laughed at in public, or starting a riot as "lucky breaks," but Hughes says he’s taken something from every unfortunate instance. "I mean, after that riot, someone in the crowd offered me a gig somewhere else," he said, "and I’ve done shows to only two people where it turns out one of the people is a comic that will offer me a way better show."

I asked him what he learned from telling the Twin Peaks waitress about putting her in his joke.

"Well, I learned that I was now a comic, and there are certain things comics don’t do, like telling strangers you’ve put them in jokes. But," he continued, "I am tempted to let her know I talked to a journalist." 

For more from Mitch, read his article on the Tulsa Punk Rock Flea Market.

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