Dusty Slay, former Charleston comedian finding success in Nashville, returns to perform at Theatre 99

Dusty Slay, a Charleston comedian, recently moved to Nashville to pursue a stand-up career. (Provided)

As Dusty Slay describes it, he’s just always been funny. It’s why the comic is funny that’s changed over the years, refining itself mostly out of necessity.

“In school, I was funny enough to make the teacher laugh. Then, once I realized I was poor, I wanted to be funny enough to not be considered the ‘poor kid,’ ” Slay, 33, says of his upbringing in eastern Alabama. “Then I wanted to be funny enough to get a date. Then I became a salesman and wanted to be funny enough to make a sale. And now I want to be funny enough to make a living. So I’ve always been funny, but I’m always getting better.”

Slay packed up and left Alabama for Charleston in 2004, carrying with him a sense of humor he regarded as nothing more than a handy ace-in-the-hole for landing jobs and making friends. The idea of comedy as a career itself was laughable.

But when Slay hit Charleston, he found the idea was closer than he thought. Just a few blocks from Slay’s newly acquired serving gig at Hyman’s, a small room over an even smaller bike shop was beginning to find an audience as an improv theater. When Slay heard about Theatre 99’s improv classes, he signed up immediately.

“I took improv classes not knowing what improv was,” Slay recalls. “I just needed to make friends because I moved to Charleston not knowing anyone. ... I didn’t immediately fall in love with it, (because) it was really scary for me. But the people of Charleston are very nice, (so) it’s a great place to do comedy.”

Like most young and single Charleston transplants, it took some time for Slay to adjust to a permanent life in a vacation destination.

“I performed briefly in 2004 with people like Bill Davis, Jessica Mickey, Jon Ballard, Dave Ugly, Brian T. Shirley and Greg Patterson. They were the real pioneers back then. I was new to Charleston. I lived on Folly Beach and worked at Hyman’s. I was doubling down on the party life, but I kept writing and re-emerged in 2008 ready to roll. I started a weekly open mic (at Upper Deck Tavern) with the help of some friends, and it was the only weekly open mic for a long time. That open mic spawned the comedy scene then, and it really grew to be something special.”

For the next six years, Slay built a reputation as a dry-witted and sharp comic with a discerning eye for the humor in everyday life. He lessened the laughter around town when he moved to Nashville last year in search of bigger opportunities. The move is paying off, as Slay has already appeared on TMZ, “The Bob and Tom Radio Show,” “Laughs” on Fox, Sirius XM and “Last Comic Standing,” and enjoyed performances with such recognizable comics as Moshe Kasher, Jeff Ross, Pablo Francisco, Aries Spears, Michael Ian Black and Rob Schneider. But for Slay, leaving Charleston was as hard for him as it was for the local audiences that loved him.

“Nashville has a great comedy community. It’s a lot like Charleston, in that everyone in the community seems to love and respect each other. But there’s really no place like Charleston. It was so hard for me to leave. There’s nothing like finishing a show downtown and then walking down King Street. It’s magical.”

Perhaps most different about Slay’s sets are his stories of a South the Old South would rather forget. His view of Southern life comes perched atop a rusted tailgate in the trailer park or on the lost subsistence farm, not from behind the wide columns of Colonial porches. ... But Slay also understands the complicated position of representing a place hindered by chronic misrepresentation, a state saddled with more than a century of having its ugliest side shine the brightest in the national spotlight.

“I just say what I think is funny,” says Slay. “I love being from Alabama. Alabama, to me, represents the Deep South, so I love traveling the country as a Deep South Southern boy. ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ has always been a great song to me because it’s an answer to a couple of Neil Young songs criticizing the South and Alabama. Lynyrd Skynyrd was saying, ‘Hey, there is some bad stuff going on down here, but we aren’t all like that.’ The Deep South has soul. It’s full of fantastic people, and the more I travel, the more I realize how much we are really all alike in America.”

And Slay doesn’t show any signs of changing his process for writing and delivering a set as he begins to tour more frequently outside the South.

“People love good Southern people all over the country. I have manners. I open doors. I say ma’am and sir, and people like that. In general, I try to be as respectful as possible.”

Slay will perform at Theatre 99, 280 Meeting St., at 10 p.m. Friday with Shannon Baucus hosting and Jeremy McLellan opening. Tickets are $15 and are available online at www.Etix.com or at the Theatre 99 box office. Go to www.Theatre99.com or call (843) 853-6687.