As Rufus Elam discusses his life, he’s also trying new material for his standup routine. “If it works here for an audience of one, it’ll work tonight… I hope,” he quips behind his mug of coffee.
Reflecting on the last nine years, Elam finds himself in a place he couldn’t have imagined. Standup comedy was not even a pipe dream in 2010. In fact, the only “pipe dreams” he recalled were about literal pipes from his childhood. More specifically, half-pipes.
An 80s kid, Elam was a skater. He and his friends actually built a half-pipe and were part of the “skate or die movement.”That self-made, childhood half-pipe in Oklahoma was indicative of the rest of Elam’s life.
Born in Oklahoma in March 1977, Elam recalls his childhood as very typical. His father was family oriented, leading to many trips to Elam’s grandmother’s home. Her country residence provided the opportunity for “creeking,” hiking and other outdoor escapades. But the lack of entertainment options would set the stage for Elam’s midlife career revamp. Elam says he remembers hanging out with cousins, and friends and making them laugh.
He always enjoyed making people laugh.
His main comedic inspiration was Uncle Peck, whose stories could captivate an audience. Elam was impressed with the skill, even fascinated by it and says he wanted to have that same kind of presence.
But Elam’s love for bringing humor to the world would not resurface for some time. After graduating high school, Elam attended Rogers State and later transferred to Oklahoma Wesleyan in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, to play baseball. He started college majoring in television and radio, but changed to music and vocal performance with a minor in religion. After college, Elam became a youth pastor for nearly 12 years.
In 2010, as middle age came into view, life changed for Elam. Questions began to swirl in his head, some existential in nature. What do I want to do? Why do I have to do anything? His answers came in the form of a conversation with a friend.
His friend asked him what he would do if he could do anything.
Elam decided that, more than anything, he wanted to make people laugh.
Q) So how does the life of a comedian compare to the life of a youth pastor?
A) We work long, strange hours and we are never off on weekends.
There was a gentleman in the Methodist Church named Dr. Jody Calloway who would always comment after I preach: “you should have been a comedian, you’re hilarious.” Happened nearly every time.
Q) What did the moment look like when you decided you would pursue this?
A) I was working as a used car salesman in Morrilton at Hagan’s Dodge. Billy (Reeder) was doing some social media work for them. He was in getting his truck serviced as I was in the throes of my midlife crisis. He asked me if I could do anything what would it be? That’s when I told him I wanted to be a stand-up comedian. Doing that would be amazing for me.
He put me in touch with a friend, Brandon Davidson, out of Texas. He got me in touch with a man named Seth Dees in Little Rock and they got me set up for an open mic. So I went and did my first open mic, loved it, panicked, and didn’t do it again for a year and a half.”
Q) Talk about the moments leading up to that first open mic.
A) I really wasn’t nervous. I was a musician. I played weekends and had been on stage thousands of times, literally, before this. What made me nervous was I wasn’t doing what I normally did on stage. Seth gave me some advice and a set of rules, and I just tried to abide by that set of rules as best I could.
I’ve been able to tell stories, I’ve been on stage frequently telling stories, so I decided to just get up there and tell stories. It was fun. I had a blast. I don’t know why, I thought it was great, but I waited for a year and a half.
Q) Johnny Carson is revered as being the best for recovery from a bad joke. Did you have a bad joke that first time out?
A) Oh sure, yeah. Your inclination is to comment on it. Everybody does it when they first start out, but I’m learning to do nothing. Pause as if they were laughing. There are times when you can comment on it, but not very often. It’s really hard to do. You want to defend yourself. It’s your creation you put out there and they didn’t respond.
Q) So why did it take so long to do another open mic?
A) I didn’t make it a priority. I lived an hour from the closest open mic. I would talk about the money aspect and how money could be better spent. I just didn’t make it a priority.
Starting in January (2019), though, I started hitting two to three open mics a week. I’ve won two comedy competitions and was invited to compete against a group of feature comics in Wichita. I got a lot of really good feedback about some things I could change. I was told I had one of the best jokes of the night. It’s good to have people give you that feedback and learn from them.
Q) Robin Williams once said that comedy comes from a dark place. Is that true?
A) It can. I’m not going to say it doesn’t. I’ve got a lot of good material that came from my struggles and finding a way to overcome them. I was in a dark place, and I had to fight to get out of it and got some great material out of it.
Q) David Letterman once said in an interview that the pinnacle in his time for a comedian was making Johnny Carson laugh on “The Tonight Show.” What’s that pinnacle now?
A) I don’t know, a Netflix special? The pinnacle for me is when one of those jokes lands and they laugh from way down. That’s the pinnacle. I don’t care how big the room is. If I can make that happen, that’s the pinnacle.
Q) Is there a similarity in the camaraderie among comics as there is with pastors?
A) Absolutely, it’s the same thing. I mean, people try to gravitate to the people who are like-minded, and I tend to gravitate to the people who want to see everyone succeed. I wasn’t always like that. But I feel like I am now.
Q) What’s the biggest difference in you from then to now?
A) I was always focused on what lies ahead, and I gained a lot of stress and anxiety because of that. I always looked at what was coming and was never happy with now. I think most people have that sickness, and I had it pretty bad.
Now, I do yoga. I wanted to work out but couldn’t afford a gym membership. I YouTube everything. I watched YouTube yoga and did that for two years and got involved with the Yoga Studio of Little Rock. YouTube yoga was a life changer.
Q) What do you want people to know?
A) Find a way for you to be grateful with where you are and what you have. Life will be better for it.