For many comedians chasing their dreams, the road is long, filled with false starts, promising near misses and occasional successes that hint at an opportunity to make it.
Most kicked off their often-quixotic pursuits with a sweaty open mic and invested years in live performances to crowds that initially consisted mainly of friends, family ... and hecklers out to “perfect their craft.”
Social media has altered the formula recently, but it’s difficult to dodge the need to perform in front of audiences, hone a unique world view and engender actual laughs.
Wilmington’s own Cliff Cash has broken through with a sold-out performance in November at Thalian Hall. The night was filmed and is being edited by Wilmington-based Lighthouse Films, with the hopes of shopping the special around to gain a wider audience.
The road to get there has been a, well, comically challenging and untraditional one, and a long one too. The title of the standup special is in fact The Long Road, for obvious and less obvious reasons,
The 42-year-old Cash kicked off his improbable comedic journey in 2011 at an open mic night at the former Nutt Street Comedy Room. Cash remembers that first night as, fortuitously, a slam dunk.
“If it hadn’t been so successful, I might not have come back,” he said. “I could say that was the beginning of everything, but that ignores my early years in elementary school. I would have teachers come to whatever class I was in and take me out to do a voice I had done or retell a story in another classroom.”
Cash spent roughly his first 16 years in Gastonia, about two hours from Asheville. He relates that his parents would often drop him and his older brother, Wiley, at a spot called Crowders Mountain. There they would hike and climb sheer, 100-foot rock faces – with no ropes of course.
The joy he felt in that natural environment was palpable and shaped who he was, as he moved with his family from Western North Carolina in 1998 to Oak Island.
Wiley elevated above his creative writing post at the University of North Carolina at Asheville to become a New York Times best-selling author and an inspiration to Cliff. Both he and Cliff were there for their sister, Jada (26 years old to Cliff’s 15 at the time), when she revealed that she was gay.
For a time, they kept this a secret from their parents, and at the same time Cliff Cash’s siblings were exposing him to such topics as anti-racism, gay rights and gun control.
His friend Scott Sigmon admiringly terms his humor “subversive but nonconfrontational. He’s done more than anyone I know to open people’s minds.”
There was life before the promising beginning of Cash’s comedic journey. He built a successful business flipping houses, until the real estate market tanked in 2008, naturally resulting in his starting a recycling company, Green Coast Recycling.
The business hit snags, and life threw other challenges at Cash. Within a roughly one-year-plus timeframe in 2016, he lost his business, his dog, his home, his wife through divorce and most painfully, his dad.
He could have zigged back into the conventional and safe, but instead, he zagged into something different.
“When all of this happened,” he said, “I figured out I could check out of capitalism. I looked at the unsustainable part of touring – staying in the cheapest, crappiest hotels, with all the other financial encumbrances – and how does that possibly work?”
Cash determined that a full-bore plunge into comedy was possible if he cut his expenses to the bone. He purchased a used station wagon, gutted it of everything but the front seats, added a mattress and bought a camp stove. He then began a four-year-long tour across the country, striving to bundle together dates close to each other.
This is where his familiarity with the rougher aspects of the outdoors comes in. “If I could stay with a family or snag a free hotel room, I’d do that. If not, I would find a spot in the forest where I could get my car in, set up there, hike during the day and read a book at night. At times it was hard, but also profoundly beautiful,” he recalled.
Cash wound up seeing 45 national parks out of the 63, doing shows in nearly every state and road-testing the idea that his life’s passion could survive and thrive an out-there, four-year experience. He also took possibly the only road available during the pandemic years, by doing nearly 100 socially distanced shows and house shows, which he still does. Cash adds that he has friends who convey that they envy him and his “amazing” life.
He answers them with, “Hey dude, you can do it too. All you have to do is lose everything – your job, your house, your marriage, your credit score – and miraculously you wake up in the morning and realize you’re still alive and maybe you can go still pursue your dream.”
As for the next step after The Long Road, the goal is to “sell” the finished one-hour special to an outlet like Netflix.
William “Billy” Mellon, owner of four venues (including manna and Bourgie Nights), helped secure the night at Thalian Hall and handled marketing, sponsorship and organizational details. He also provided some key financial support.
“Whenever I’ve seen Cliff, I spend pretty much the entire time laughing,” Mellon said. “And to have the chance to be a part of something historic, it’s just awesome. He has a way of taking the audience down to the most personal and emotional valleys and then bringing them back with something that has the whole room laughing. He has got a well-earned gift, and I believe it’s his time to break through.”