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Las Vegas comedian rolls with the punch lines despite pandemic

The room is as dark as the laughter is bright.

It’s approaching 11 on a Wednesday night and linebacker-sized comedian Rocky Dale Davis, his shoulders as thick as his Alabama accent, is expressing concern over the mental deterioration of his 97-year-old grandfather.

“It’s very hard. Sometimes he’s there; sometimes he’s not,” Davis explains from a corner of the dimly lit L.A. Comedy Club at The Strat, an ocean of red carpet between him and the socially distanced crowd.

“His Alzheimer’s has gotten so bad,” he notes, setting up the punch line like an archer taking aim, “he’s forgotten he’s racist.”

Guffaws ripple through a room that’s been silent since March.

It’s the first week that stand-up comedy has returned to Las Vegas, and Rocky Dale Davis is officially back on the job.

The past few months haven’t been easy for the 27-year-old, a rising talent who’s been doing stand-up for eight years.

One of Vegas’ most promising comedians with a storytelling-based routine rooted in his Southern upbringing, Davis has appeared on nearly a dozen TV shows on networks ranging from Comedy Central to MTV. He cut his own comedy special for Epix, has toured with big names like the late Ralphie May and this year released his consistently funny first comedy album “Live in Denver.”

After moving here two years ago, Davis became a regular at just about every comedy club in town, including rooms such as the Comedy Cellar at the Rio, the Laugh Factory at the Tropicana and Comedy Works at the Plaza.

“I was working, like, everywhere in a year’s span,” he says. “It was phenomenal.”

But then the coronavirus hit, comedy stages went dark and Davis’ mood went darker still.

He was used to making $1,500 to $2,000 a weekend, at least, his $2,000 rent frequently covered in just three days of performances.

And then: nothing.

“It wrecked everything,” Davis says of the pandemic.

Determined not to shelve his career, even temporarily, Davis found ways to adapt to the toughest of times for entertainers.

He’d perform in living rooms and backyards and make videos for Facebook, where his fan base actually grew.

“It’s really weird the way the pandemic has affected comedy,” Davis says the day before his appearance at the L.A. Comedy Club, while puffing on a cigar at En Fuego Cigars & Lounge, his 6-foot-3-inch frame folded into a leather recliner. “It’s like Hollywood’s collapsing. It’s just dead for comedy.

“Comedy evolves so much. There is no playbook for it,” he continues, his voice devoid of the mirth you hear on stage. “There is nothing that can tell you what is going to happen. You have to find your own road.”

And so that’s what he’s done.

Down on the farm

When the clubs shut down, it was time to call in the livestock.

Unable to perform in traditional stand-up venues for months on end, Davis hit the road guerrilla-style, beginning in September.

One of the first stops: his buddy Boyd’s farm in Alabama.

“I did my act on a trailer that was hooked to a four-wheeler,” Davis recalls. “There were goats and a mini-horse behind me and cows to my left. I’m on stage, and there were dogs running around. It was great.”

The next night, he did his thing at the home of another friend, country star Chase Rice.

This time, it was in Nashville, Tennessee.

Also, there was a roof.

“I performed in his 7,000-square-foot house in his living room for his friends,” Davis says. “My act, I can kind of carry it anywhere. That’s what I like.”

This is what the past few months have been like for Davis: learning to adapt on the fly, from doing a set on a pool deck in a fan’s backyard in Oklahoma City to a similar gig in a tent in the rain in Atlanta to booking a slew of shows in Louisiana that got canceled by Hurricane Delta (“I was like, ‘God does not want me to do stand-up, dude,’ ” Davis quips.)

An athlete growing up who wrestled and played football among other sports, Davis initially thought he would go into broadcast journalism and be a sportscaster or something of that nature.

But when he did an open-mic night as a teenager, that was it: A career in comedy called.

“I’ve always wanted to make people laugh,” explains Davis, who relocated to Vegas in 2018 to live with his girlfriend, a professional dancer who also works here. “I wasn’t the best football player. I wasn’t the best basketball player. I wasn’t the best wrestler. But I was funny. If I could be the funny guy, there’s always a spot for that open.”

‘I’m not happy’

Davis prides himself on being the same person off stage as he is on it, a self-deprecating Southerner who occasionally goofs on his lack of intelligence with obvious intelligence. He simultaneously embraces and subverts good ol’ boy stereotypes with a Mississippi River-wide grin.

But all of this made coping with the fallout from the coronavirus shutdown even more difficult: How does he write jokes when he doesn’t feel like laughing?

“I can’t be funny when I’m depressed because I’m not a character,” he says. “People are like, ‘Just make videos.’ I can’t. I’m upset. I’m not happy. Nothing is funny to me right now. That was one of the things I struggled with hard when I was depressed. I sat in my garage and smoked cigars and was just down and out.”

Davis did make videos, though, some of them shot in his car, where he vents on calling the unemployment office endlessly to no avail (“How about we hire people to answer the phone?” ) or does bits about working as a food delivery driver during the coronavirus shutdown (“I’m polite. I only eat the fries that are the bottom of the bag.”)

The clips resonated: Davis’ Facebook following went from 8,000 fans to more than 13,000 from March to now.

A big part of Davis’ appeal is how lived-in and organic his material often feels, whether he’s riffing on his vegan girlfriend’s aversion to hot dogs or on the true story of a woman somehow getting killed by a pack of wild dachshunds (“How many dachshunds was it? … My guess was 1.5 million.”).

His comedy has an off-the-cuff vibe to it. It’s well-crafted without feeling crafted at all, which is a direct reflection of how the material comes together: Davis doesn’t sit down and write jokes, instead, most of his comedy comes from riffing with his fellow stand-up friends, hence both its conversational tone and general aversion to the predictable beats and standard subject matter that often characterize the early works of aspiring comedians.

“If you go on stage and you talk about the differences between men and women — relatable stuff — relatable destroys, but it’s just a drop in the bucket,” Davis explains of why he avoids certain types of jokes even if he knows they will get laughs. “But if I tell a story about how I used to grow up on a farm and a pig and a horse were (mating) one day and that’s why I’m not homophobic, you’re going to remember that.

“Nobody has that joke,” he continues. “I’m trying to get away from even having jokes. I want all stories. I’m trying to say something that you’ll never hear again.”

Off the couch, on the road

He equates it to getting punched in the face — a familiar sensation.

Davis has a story in his latest routine about once getting decked by a disgruntled comedy club patron after an open mic performance.

It’s a telling bit: Doing stand-up in this city can be the metaphorical equivalent of getting slammed in the nose.

“Vegas is the only place where you can have someone in the crowd and they lost $10,000 that day,” Davis says. “They’ll sit in the front row of a show, and they are in the worst mood they’ve ever been in. People are blackout drunk. They didn’t get tickets to ‘Magic Mike’ so they’re here.”

Still, there can be benefits to working challenging Vegas crowds, of trying to get a smile out of a dude who just squandered his kid’s college fund at a craps table, especially if your material consists of more involved narratives, like Davis’ now does.

“To have a long-winded story work here, it has to have constant punch lines, because you’re competing with so much more stuff,” he continues. “I’ve bombed in Vegas a lot, but it’s like a gym: You get knocked out once by a punch, you’re probably not going to get knocked out by it again, ’cause you know it’s coming. If you do an original joke here and it works, that joke will destroy anywhere else.”

With the Vegas comedy circuit reopening gradually, Davis has focused on taking his show on the road of late, leaving for a swing through Texas, Georgia and Alabama after his gigs at the L.A. Comedy Club.

When it comes to doing stand-up, he’s refusing to take a break, even if broke.

“Somebody said, ‘Why don’t you just get a job, because you aren’t working,’ ” Davis recalls, “And I was like, ‘If I get a job, I’m going to not do comedy, and I’m not going to go six months without doing it and then try to come back and get rolling.’ “It’s going to be tough,” he acknowledges. “I’m going to lose a bunch of money. But I’m just going to power through.”

Contact Jason Bracelin at jbracelin@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0476. Follow @JasonBracelin on Twitter and @jbracelin76 on Instagram

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