Ask aspiring comedian Tom Keller about anything–his love of sports, passion for journalism or time as a Spartan–but please don’t ask him to tell you a joke.
“I still never know what to say when someone asks me that,” the Macomb Township native said. “I’ve tried doing a bit from what I’ve done on stage and it never works and I just doubt that I was ever funny in the first place. Now I just pass.”
A 2003 Dakota High School graduate and Michigan State University alumnus, Keller said it wasn’t until two years ago that he seriously considered a career in stand-up comedy and began actively pursuing a life behind the mic.
“It was something I appreciated growing up, but never really thought about doing,” the 26-year-old said. “I was far too awkward of a kid to have that dream. I wasn’t a theater kid growing up. I tried out for one play and got cut without saying one word at the audition."
Studying journalism at Michigan State, where he got his first taste of stand-up in the Last Spartan Standing competition, Keller graduated in 2007 and took a full-time job covering high school sports for the News & Record in Greensboro, NC.
“I hadn’t been on stage for at least a year when I moved to Greensboro and just picked it up again,” he said. “I went to open mics and got involved in that community. I started taking improv classes at the club there and that led me to another club in Carrboro. I took it much more seriously and submerged myself in the discipline of it.”
Finding himself at the theater three to four nights a week, Keller took a chance and decided to try his hobby as career.
“It’s not been a full-time career by any stretch of the imagination,” he said. “I’ve done a lot of grunt work at the theater, scrubbing the toilets and mopping the floors, all that dirty stuff. I’ve been fortunate in the last six months have a full-time job during the day with a marketing company. It’s been a good fit for my background and they’re super supportive of my other ambitions.”
Ambitions Keller is slowly but surely realizing. Winning the Carolina's Funniest Comic competition in 2010, Keller was recently one of 20 performers from around the country invited to perform last month at the Great American Comedy Festival in Johnny Carson's hometown of Norfolk, NE.
This month, he'll return home to Michigan to perform July 11-14 at Joey's Comedy Club in Livonia.
“Coming home is really exciting for me," he said. "My family can be there and a lot of friends still live there. They’ll come from surrounding areas to see the show, so it’ll be a little nerve-wracking. I’ll be very aware people in the crowd, but it’s really exciting for me to be able to share my comedy with all these people that I know.”
While Keller admits the last two years haven’t been easy, he has no regrets about the path he's chosen.
“Leaving the newspaper was a very difficult decision for me. I love journalism, but sometimes you just have to follow a dream, I guess, for lack of a less sappy description.
"It’s very strange. I never would have dreamt that (comedy) would lead me to some of the places it has. I don’t always understand why things happen, but it’s been a very cool ride and I’m going to try to follow it as far as it will take me. I’ve been very blessed, not least of which my family who has been incredibly supportive.”