Not long ago, Tanner Riley was living in his hometown of Ironton, Ohio, a small city of about 10,000 on the Ohio River. As an aspiring stand-up comedian, Riley only had about three open mic opportunities per month to practice his routine. And all of them were 25 minutes away, in comparatively bustling Huntington, W.V.
One day, Riley learned that one of his childhood friends was moving to Charleston, S.C. Did he want to come with? Riley weighed his prospects in Ironton, then decided he was all-in. In February 2018, he made the move.
He’s had no regrets.
“Besides the fact that literally everything life has to offer is better in Charleston, there are also a lot more stand-up opportunities,” he says. “It’s not New York, it’s not Los Angeles, but it’s certainly better than Ironton.”
Riley, a 27-year-old with an economics degree from Marshall, found a job at a law firm in Mt. Pleasant. It’s an 8 to 4 deal, so his evenings are free for open mics — which he frequents three to four times per week. The increased on-stage opportunities have done wonders for his growth as a comedian. “You can’t do this once a week or once a month and get better. It’s all about repetition,” he says.
Despite being new to the city, he’s already made a name for himself. He opened for Sean Patton, an internationally known stand-up who The New York Times called “dynamite,” when Patton was visiting Charleston earlier this year. Riley called that his “biggest honor thus far,” though he’s enjoyed many other accolades, too.
He was a finalist in both the World Series of Comedy (when it came to Charleston) and the Soda City Showdown (in Columbia). He’s also made appearances in the Charleston Comedy Festival and Cola Comedy Con.
Riley knows that it often takes stand-up comedians years, sometimes decades, before they’re able to work full-time. He’s only been doing it for about two years — “a kindergartner, in that regard,” as he puts it — but he’s already experienced his fair share of highs and lows. The highs, like opening for Patton, confirm that he’s on the right path. The lows have much to teach.
One of his lowest moments to date came in July, during his first appearance at an actual comedy club — Carolina Comedy Club in Myrtle Beach. He ranks his set that night among “the top five worst I’ve ever done … and what made it hurt even more was that it was a great opportunity.” Instead of folding, though, Riley has been resilient.
“There’s never been a time when I thought I’d quit,” he says. “I’ve watched so many interviews with comedians talking about all the times they’ve bombed. To think that every set you’re going to do will be great is like an NBA player thinking he’s going to make every shot — it’s just not going to happen.”
Thus Riley continues taking shots, learning as much as he can from his misses. His makes, however, offer glimpses into his potential.
Riley admittedly looks like a “live-action Bobby Hill.” He employs self-deprecation and observational humor in his routine. “You guys have been clapping for me all night,” he said during a recent set at Creekside Comedy Night. “But what I’ve learned is it’s only OK to clap for people if you’re in a crowd. Like, if you clap for your plumber, he’s probably not going to come back.”
Riley continues the joke, musing about how a purportedly fictionalized version of himself once went full-on voyeur, watching from the safety of a closet as his roommate had intercourse. After the deed was done, Riley emerged, giving them a round of applause. When his roommate responded with anger, Riley couldn’t comprehend why.
After all, he was just being polite.
“Learn to take a compliment, alright?” he says. “Jesus.”
Riley’s comedic idol is Kevin James, specifically James’ character on the sitcom King of Queens, in which James plays a “bigger guy who doesn’t like confrontation.” Riley also lists Dave Chappelle, Bill Burr, Nate Bargatze, and Brian Regan as major influences.
Riley has pored over their routines, focusing on minutiae that separates them from the rest of the pack. “I study people who I admire,” he says. “I don’t try to copy them. I read between the lines to figure out how they do what they do.”
Genetics play a role, too. His dad’s side of the family, which features talented singers, is where Riley inherited his “itch to perform.” It’s his mom side, however, that perhaps supplied the comedy gene. “My [maternal] grandpa was witty, and had a way with words. He was known for one liners,” Riley says.
“When you combine the sense of humor from my mom’s side with the performing from my dad’s side, that makes me,” he adds.
Stand-up, as Riley has learned, is often unforgiving. He was nervous about moving to Charleston because he’d heard how cutthroat comedy communities in bigger cities can be. But he’s been welcomed with open arms. “I couldn’t have asked for a better situation,” he says.
Keith Dee and Shawna Jarrett are two local comedians who have acted as mentor-type figures for Riley. Jarrett, the lead comic on the Charleston Comedy Bus, met Riley not long after he’d moved to town.
She’s been impressed with his joke-writing ability, humility, and rapid improvement as a stand-up. “[When I first saw his act], I noticed he had good instincts on stage,” she says.
“He comes across as both extremely smart and entirely relatable, which is no easy thing to do,” she adds. “He’s the kind of comedian — and the kind of human — who’s immediately very easy to like. Audiences really respond to that.”
It’s the support of Dee, Jarrett, and the rest of the comedy community — plus the thrill of making a group of strangers happy — that inspires the pride of Ironton to return to the stage, again and again.
“When you hear a crowd of people laugh at something you thought up, that you weren’t sure they’d find funny, that’s the best high you can get,” he says.