The last tour comedian Clayton English embarked on was with the circus. For real. For the past year English was the ringmaster for UniverSoul Circus, a big-top tour complete with zebras, acrobats, and more. His latest tour, which stops in Charleston on Nov. 5, is a little different. English has ditched the top hat and is headlining the Last Comic Standing tour after winning this year's eponymous NBC show in September.
"It's been a whirlwind," says English. "But this is way better. I get to do what I love."
This summer, English beat out 99 comedians to win a $250,000 prize package including a development deal with NBC. The last episode saw the competitors whittled down to a group of five finalists: English, Andy Erikson, Ian Bragg, Dominique, and Michael Palascak. These five finalists make up the Last Comic Standing tour, stopping at the North Charleston Performing Arts Center.
A native of Atlanta, English's style is a laid-back one. He comments on the quirks of everyday life. In his pieces, he tackles everything from police drug dogs to relationship politics, while in other bits he showcases his repertoire of accents — including Russian and African dialects — as well as an uncanny Barack Obama impression.
But while English's relaxed delivery won him the show, he admits he's had to work to inject energy into his act, something that he learned by performing in front of crowds in Atlanta.
"When I started I was super laid back, but Atlanta is so tough on comedy. If you're not coming out of the gate, you've got about a minute to make people laugh," he explains. "Thirty seconds in, if you're not on your way to telling a joke, they're about to be booing you or telling you get to out of there."
On the Last Comic Standing show English had to tone down his act for obvious reasons. "The changes that I made were mainly for TV, with constraints on language, bringing up specific products. And you only have a little bit of time," he says. "Now that I'm done taping the show, it's back to what I love doing."
Growing up, being a comedian was never something English thought he could pursue. Though his parents let him watch HBO comedy specials, the idea of doing his own stand up seemed inconceivable. "I didn't see any comedians growing up, I didn't know anyone personally who was a comedian. I didn't even know where to begin that type of journey," English says.
Though he wanted to try comedy out, he couldn't pull the trigger. "I'd sit in the back of the comedy club, or I'd sign up the week before and then not go," he admits. It took a job at a cell phone kiosk in a shopping mall to force him to embrace his natural comedic timing.
At the kiosk, English worked with a guy named Karlous Miller. Joking while working on sales pitches, the two found each other hilarious and together dared each other to try an open mic night.
"'We should give this a shot. Let's just try to hit some comedy clubs and see what happens,'" English recalls telling Miller. He adds, "That was 10 years ago. We hit the ground running." In fact, Miller was also a contestant on Last Comic Standing, making it to the top 10 last year.
Despite the success, the show and subsequent tour have not changed the way English finds material. "It just kind of comes to you," he says. "I don't sit down and hit my head up against the wall trying to come up with new jokes. If I'm in a rut with having to come out with a new bit, I just try to get out more, experience life, watch a little news, maybe go for a long drive — that's when I create a lot of stuff."
After winning Last Comic Standing, English has remained grounded, enjoying whatever success he's gained beyond appearing on the show. "When I did Last Comic Standing, I just wanted to get to the top 10 and hopefully get a little bit more work, so I've got that — plus." Pausing for a moment, he adds, "Times 20."