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From Navy to BET, Smiley keeps 'em laughing

Robin Hamilton | 2/23/2010, 9:30 a.m.

Gary Owen has no problem being in a room where he doesn’t look like everybody else. In fact, he says that’s what makes him funny.

“It’s fine,” he quips. “It’s paying the bills. It’s not like it was some plan of mine, to have the black audience find me first.”

Owens is one of the few successful white stand-up comics to have cross-over appeal, having conquered the black comedy circuit, and hosting African American venues like BET’s ComicView.

This week, he will be performing in Boston at the Wilbur theatre with comedian Earthquake, and says he is looking forward to checking out the Bay State.

 “I like to get in the city, and ask about the city itself, so when I get on stage, I can show that I know what I’m talking about,” he says.

The Cincinnati native always knew that he was funny, and earned some prophetic, if not dubious distinctions. “I was class clown, and most obnoxious,” he chuckles.

Owen began to think that he had found his calling while in his teens, but wasn’t sure how to reach the destination. “I always wanted to be a stand-up,” he says. “I didn’t know how. I didn’t know you could start in a hometown. I thought everyone started in LA.”

So after graduating from school, he decided to enlist in the military.  His rationale? “I joined the Navy,” he explains, “because they had bases in California, and I thought that would be a great way to get into LA.”

He didn’t get there right away. Instead, he was one out of four young men, selected from a pool of 300, to be part of the Washington, D.C. Honor Guard.

The post meant holding flags during ceremonies for Presidents George Bush and Bill Clinton. But Owen admits that straight-laced position didn’t suit his demeanor. “My nickname was Smiley,” he says, “because I was always smiling.”

He decided to join the Navy Police Academy, which stationed him out in San Diego. While there, he got the nerve to test his comedy routine, trying his act on his fellow military colleagues. People liked what they heard, and later awarded him the title “Funniest Serviceman in America.”  

During his off time, he left the military base, and tried stand-up at various locations. He was having a tough time getting bookings at white nightclubs, but black nightclubs were giving him more opportunity.

“I just wanted to tell jokes, and at the black places, I could get up 4 to 5 times a week,” he says. “And the other white establishments couldn’t offer me that much time.”

He says the secret to his crossover appeal is that he doesn’t try to be anyone but himself. “With the black audiences, there are no skeletons in the closet,” he explains. “I don’t pander to the black audience. I’m going to be me.”

His presence as a white man on a black comedy circuit could make for dangerous territory, considering recent racial tensions. Musician John Mayer’s racist conversation in a recent magazine raised eyebrows despite the fact the musician claimed he was just being “clever.” And recently, the University of San Diego came under fire when its white students held a “Compton Cookout”  that instructed invitees to wear gold chains, and eat watermelon and chicken.

Owen says those incidents weren’t funny — just inappropriate. “They went too far,” Owens says. “You have to know how far to push it. I will never use the n-word on stage.  But I can reference it. It is almost funnier. You have to have common sense on stage.”

The married father of three says he’s just happy that whatever he is bringing to the stage is allowing him to live  the life he always wanted — and making people laugh in the process.