Calhoun, Ga., is a blip off I-75 on the stretch of highway between Atlanta and the Tennessee state line. Heavily dependent on the carpet industry based in the nearby town of Dalton, Calhoun is like many towns in North Georgia that aren’t in the metro Atlanta area: small but not isolated, rural but not backwards, reliant on manufacturing but not exactly industrial, and relaxed but not lazy. About 16000 people live in Calhoun today, but back in 1990 that number was barely 7000. One of them was Sarah Tiana, whose first stand-up special premieres tonight on Comedy Central.
Calhoun doesn’t really have a track record of producing successful stand-up comedians. In fact, if you’re from Calhoun there’s a great chance you won’t be leaving Calhoun. Its list of notable citizens includes various prominent Cherokee leaders (including Sequoya), a handful of athletes, the famous concert singer Roland Hayes, and, now, Tiana. “I thought just like everybody had a day care center in their high school,” she told Paste earlier this week. “I didn’t really realize that the way I grew up was weird or different.”
It’s also not a town that comedians tend to play. Today Tiana says she didn’t ever even consider stand-up comedy as something people like her could do. It simply wasn’t even conceivable to somebody raised in Calhoun in the 1990s. “I started stand-up on a dare like two years after I moved to LA,” she says, beginning her career in comedy in 2003. “I never really thought anything of it, I didn’t know anybody could just do it. I thought you had to have like a sitcom and then you could do the stand-up stuff. I had only seen it one time before I started it. I didn’t really know what it was or how it worked, I just kind of figured it out on my own.”
Despite its unplanned beginning, Tiana’s career has blossomed over the last 15 years. She’s traveled around the world, performing at major industry events like the Just For Laughs festival in Montreal and on over a dozen USO tours. She’s appeared on TV shows across the dial, from Reno 911 to CMT to NFL on Fox, and was a finalist on Comedy Central’s original season of Roast Battle. She’s established a niche for herself as the football and country music comedian, and as a child of Calhoun, and a big fan of the Atlanta Falcons and Georgia Bulldogs, it’s entirely honest. And every step has led to tonight’s first special, which airs as part of the Comedy Central Stand-up Presents series.
After 15 years in the business, this first special is long overdue. “It took me a really long time to want to do a special or care to do a special,” Tiana admits. “A big reason why I wanted to do this special is because I had worked on this material for so long, and I’ve worked for Comedy Central for a long time, and they were really the only place I wanted to go with it because they’ve been super loyal to me and I feel like I owe them that loyalty in return. Honestly some of my favorite comedians working today I originally saw on Comedy Central specials.”
Tiana brought back some older material that she had retired from her shows for this first special. A lot of that is the material she’d do on being single or on her relationship issues when she was younger, but that no longer felt relevant to her now that she’s in a stable relationship. She has to believe what she’s saying for her comedy to really work—“The hardest part of doing comedy, to me, is I have to really believe what I’m saying and what I’m talking about,” she says. “It’s extremely important to be honest and vulnerable in comedy. I’ve always been honest and vulnerable in my day-to-day life, so I think that’s why it was an easy transition for me, but everything I talk about is true and real and that’s why it was important for me to get rid of the single stuff [by including it in the special] because I don’t really do that material anymore because it’s not true in my heart.”
Which begs the question: is all the mean stuff she dishes out on Roast Battle true in her heart?
“Yes!” she swears. “For me Roast Battle is the peak of honesty because you’re talking about someone to their face. Which that’s not the way we grew up [in the South]. Being a Southern woman in particular, when it comes to Roast Battle, I don’t think people even realize how mean the thing I’m saying is. I think it takes them a few moments to process. They’re not immediately offended because they’re still just processing the fact that I could say something so rude with a sweet smile on my face.”
Sarah Tiana’s episode of Comedy Central Stand-up Presents premieres at 11:30 p.m. ET/PT tonight.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s comedy and games sections. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.