There was only one way Ron Funches wanted to begin his first hour-long special, and there’s only way for Paste to start this feature about Funches. And for both, it’s with Ric Flair.
Giggle Fit, which premieres on Comedy Central tonight, starts with a celestial cameo from the Nature Boy himself, the dirtiest player in the game, the greatest pro wrestler of all time and a true cultural icon in the part of America that both I and Paste call home. In that opening sketch Ric Flair is the wooing godhead that breathes inspiration into a meditative Funches—the stylin’, profilin’, free-livin’, life-givin’, inspirin’ and up-firin’ son of a gun from whom Funches receives not just confidence and a crucial endorsement, but an entrance theme and a fancy robe for his walk out onto the stage.
“He is one of the best people of all time,” Funches says of the multi-time world heavyweight wrestling champion, during a phone call a couple of days after Christmas. “He’s a legend in the world, and not just in wrestling but in the world.
“I wanted to have a special that was special and one of my mantras going into this was if I never get another special what would I want to have, and the answer to that was definitely Ric Flair. And it’s also kind of a statement. Ric Flair is the man. The saying is ‘to be the man you’ve got to beat the man.’ I’m not saying I’m the best in comedy in the world or anything like that but I’m saying I’m coming and I’m coming to be the best.”
A good comedian should be a truth-teller, unafraid to confront our institutions of power with the uncomfortable truths they try to hide and diminish. No comedian has ever told a greater and more accurate truth than when Ron Funches calls Ric Flair a legend.
Okay, as a native son and long-time resident of Atlanta, I might be biased in favor of our wrestling champion. When Hulk Hogan was helping Vince McMahon’s WWF take over the wrestling world in the ‘80s, the true world champion was holding court in Ted Turner’s Techwood Drive studio in Atlanta and on TBS every Saturday night. Despite hailing from Minnesota and playing the heel for much of the ‘80s, Flair was still a beloved icon of the New South, a hard-partying, hard-living lover of excess, and a one-man symbol of the nouveau riche. He lived his gimmick through and through, committed to it in a way few wrestlers could match. That gimmick was entirely about confidence and the rewards it can bring you: sex, money, success, a best friend named Arn with a body like a beer keg and the eternal appearance of an angry 45-year-old dad, and more.
That’s what Flair represents in Funches’s special. “In the sketch he’s talking about just being yourself and being who you are,” Funches says. “And I think his persona and who he is has always been who he is in real life. Like he says in his 30 for 30 [a documentary film ESPN made about Flair], Hulk Hogan was selling vitamins and prayers and [Flair] was selling sex and liquor. It was an easier sell for Hogan to kids and then we find out later in life one of those people is lying. [Hogan. Hogan was lying.] And I think that’s a big part of it and a big part of what I was drawn to with [Flair] and why I wanted him in: he is who he is. And he’s the best. The fuckin’ best.”
It’s the perfect opening for Giggle Fit because, to Ron Funches, this hour is more than just a comedy special. It’s the debut of a Ron Funches with more confidence, more power, and more control, and a huge step in his career from simply a popular stand-up to a stand-up who runs his own production company. After over a decade in comedy, with numerous tours, an album, a half-hour Comedy Central special, and dozens of film and TV appearances, Funches was ready to take total control of how he was presented to the world.
“I’ve been in a couple of TV shows but I learned quickly that being able to improvise or add my own input wasn’t at my discretion, and sometimes wasn’t even at the writer or director’s discretion,” Funches says. “They would take the things that I did that I’d think were funnier takes and then go with a different take in editing. And I like being in control, I like showcasing what I’m about and I thought it was time for me to stop being just a bunch of potential and to produce something. Whether people see it or not didn’t really matter to me. It’s more that I made something. And me growing up a fan of stand-up comedy, producing something meant that you make an hour special.”
As a producer Funches can also insure that he projects an accurate image of who he is in his work. And if you’ve ever seen Funches’s stand-up, you know he’s a one-of-a-kind performer, with an innate charm, calm and friendliness that’s all vital to his persona. “I kept getting these auditions where they wanted me to play either a gang member or a homeless guy or a person of lower intelligence than I want to portray,” he says. “A lot of people are like ‘that’s just acting’ but like there’s a thing about representation and showing people who you are and not only as your race but as a person. If I showed to people too many times that I’m this angry surly gang member then they’re not going to buy it when they see who I really am. I have to show them who I really am and show them that this character is valuable and this character is unique.
“That’s something I figured out early, when I was doing early stand-up where they’d try to put me in particular rooms. ‘Let’s put him in these black rooms, or put him here or there, but he doesn’t really fit in there.’ And I’m like, I’m a unique product, and I’m still performing and becoming better at what I am and getting that message across, and that’s when I really figured out that it isn’t a negative that I don’t fit in, this is a positive. It means they haven’t seen what I am before and if I can show them what I am and I can show them that there is a market for it.”
Funches realized this was the right time for his first hour-long after over a decade in comedy because his life, like his career, is at an inflection point. His son, Malcolm, who he talks about often in his comedy, is now a teenager, which will irrevocably change their relationship. Funches himself has lost a significant amount of weight over the last few years. His comedy is personal, and much of those jokes no longer reflect the reality of his life anymore, so he had to get them out into the world and move on to new material. “I write about my life, mostly just personal jokes and personal material, and my life was changing and my material was changing and I had to move along,” he says. “I don’t like it when I can tell someone’s lying. I don’t like it when I can see the strings in their acts and so I like to make sure that my act reflects my life or at least as close to it as I’m willing to publically tell people.”
It’s not just that he’s not in the same places in life that he was when he wrote these jokes. His body isn’t the same body anymore, and that impacts the way he tells those jokes, and the physicality of his act. “Even the way I speak has changed a bit just from losing the weight that I lost and my energy levels. I just started to notice that that same material and the same jokes weren’t working for me and I had to change.” He’s lighter on his feet and has more confidence and professionally has seen nothing but benefits from losing weight. “I was like the third lead on an indie movie and I made out with a lady. it wasn’t supposed to be like ‘ew gross she’s making out with this guy,’ it was like she’s just making out with this guy ‘cuz he’s a hot guy, and I’m like, I like that!”
In Giggle Fit Funches jokes about how he doesn’t like it when people tell him he’s an inspiration for his weight loss, because he did it for himself and nobody else. In real life he doesn’t mind when fans say that to him. It keeps him on his weight loss game and keeps him honest, reminding him that he just can’t go back to eating pies and Philly cheesesteaks all the time.
What really bothers him is how people congratulate him, or when his friends say things like that. “That’s more a joke about how quickly I learned that some people identified me by my weight,” he says. “And how quickly sometimes people, male or female, how their opinions of me changed when I was still the same person. I’m still the same guy but the shell just changed. And they’re all like ‘oh it’s so great’ and then I learn that for a lot of people I was their fat barometer. They were like ‘oh now that you’ve lost weight I have to lose weight.’ And like, fuck you! I’m special. This was hard to do. [laughs]”
Giggle Fit will be airing on Comedy Central, which was also the home to Funches’s previous half-hour special. Although still one of the biggest players in the world of comedy, the network has faced a direct assault from Netflix over the last few years. Sometimes it feels like Netflix has bought the entire stand-up industry, lock stock and barrel, with new specials arriving every week, and a variety of formats letting the streaming service work with comedians at every level of their careers. Before streaming, Comedy Central could offer a comedian almost unparalleled exposure; today, in a world where viewers can find thousands of hours of stand-up on demand through Netflix and other streaming services, Comedy Central can feel archaic, with its specials airing at specific times, requiring a cable subscription, and rarely ever showing up on streaming services. Netflix might offer less money than Comedy Central to a comedian of Funches’s stature, comedians who are known and have a following but aren’t close to the level of a Chris Rock or Jerry Seinfeld, but it can offer a guarantee that viewers will be able to find and watch that special whenever they want. Going to Comedy Central or HBO limits how many eyeballs a special will get, which can impact the growth of a comedian’s career, but it might be more valuable in terms of money or experience. It’s a trade-off, and a decision no rising comedian should take lightly.
For Funches, though, Comedy Central made the most sense for where his career is today. “If I wanted to I could’ve done a Netflix half-hour, but then again I wouldn’t have learned those things I learned about the production company,” he says. “I wouldn’t have challenged myself to do an hour. And that’s what it’s about for me, it’s more about my personal journey and my personal growth as a comedian. And I’m definitely taking a solid bet that less people will see my hour than will have seen it if I just did a half-hour, but I wouldn’t have been as good of a comedian. And I certainly wouldn’t have made as much money. At the end of the day you’ve got to weight things out and I’m way more about getting better at comedy and getting money than I am about getting famous.”
That sounds like the confidence of Ric Flair talking. (Although Flair would want that fame almost as much as he’d want that money.) Right now Ron Funches wants to be the best, and on Giggle Fit he proves he’s clearly in the conversation. He’s confident he can potentially sacrifice the size of his audience because he knows working with Comedy Central on an hour-long will bring him closer to that goal, and also because he’s confident in his own abilities. Like Flair, Funches knows the power he has over people, and exactly what to do with them once he has them in the palm of his hands.
“The best thing about my comedy,” he says, “is that I go up at The Comedy Store, I go up at my shows, I go up wherever I go, there are some people who get it, some who don’t, but the people who really love it, they love it. And they come up to me and they don’t say ‘this is my favorite joke’—they go ‘I love what you’re about. I love who you are as a person.’ And that means the most.”
I’ve seen Ron Funches do comedy live, and how the audience reacts to him afterward. I’ve also seen Ric Flair slowly walk down a terminal at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson Airport, drawing the complete attention of everybody in the building, hugging all the women and shaking the hand of every man. They might be two very different men in two very different professions, but when they’re in front of their people, they can hold their attention and attract their devotion like almost nobody else. Funches might never be able to beat Flair, but to his fans he’s already the man.
Giggle Fit airs on Comedy Central tonight at 11 p.m. ET/PT, and will be available on Comedy Central’s app, website and on demand afterward.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s games and comedy sections. He’s on Twitter at @grmartin.