Everybody knows somebody they think could be a great comedian. Most of the time, that person will never take the leap and step on stage. Jimmy "Round Boy" Graham was literally pushed into taking his shot while recovering from a truck accident that left him recovering from a broken femur. While wheelchair bound for a year, his wife decided he needed to laugh again.
"I was kind of depressed and feeling down," recalled Graham. "Before my wife and I had kids we used to go to comedy clubs all of the time, so she suggested wheeling me into a few just to get me laughing again. We had a place right down the street, a little bar that did comedy once a month on Thursdays. We went and saw a couple of shows and it made me feel a lot better. Then one time it was just a horrible show, absolutely horrible. My friends were all like, ‘Dude, you're funnier than those guys.' I said it's easy to be funny around you, but getting up there is hard. The producer of the show heard me and said, ‘Come back next month and bring 15 people and I'll give you a couple of minutes.'"
Graham didn't think much of it, but his friends certainly did. About a week before the show, people started calling him to see if he was going to do it. Finally, he decided to give it a shot. When the other comedian didn't show up, Graham's three minutes became closer to 20. He discovered that he loved doing comedy that night. Best of all, he realized that once he was up on stage, he didn't feel the pain in his leg anymore. He also met comedian Bob Levy that night. Bob gave him his phone number and the two started working together the following weekend.
The Gloucester County native attributes his rise in comedy due to his Jersey upbringing and his years working as a football and wrestling coach. "In Jersey, we are the butts of so many jokes that if you ain't got a sense of humor you've got to leave. It's Jersey. There's not many people that live in New Jersey that couldn't have their own sitcom. We're very American people. The more we are different, the more we are the same. But we're tough skinned people. We bust each other's chops."
Graham has also had to build a thick skin due to an ever changing weight problem. In high school, he weighed 285 pounds by eighth grade and played football. He also got into wrestling and remarkably lost over 100 pounds and wrestled at 148 pounds as a sophomore. After getting married, he began to eat again and ballooned up to nearly 400 pounds. Health problems and Lyme Disease led him to finally shed the weight for good. "Put a tick in your bed and you'll lose weight," he says.
Ironically the nickname "Round Boy" didn't come from his weight. It came from the movie Beetlejuice. One night a guy in the audience called him that and Jimmy had no idea where it came from. It's actually from the scene in which Beetlejuice jumps on the interior decorator's back and whispers in his ear, "Hey, Round Boy!" Since there were several Jimmy Graham's out there — including a Big Daddy Graham in South Jersey — he felt the nickname was good enough to come along for the ride.
His early material started out by talking about his kids ("Kids are always funny," he says) and grew from there. Outside of his family, he talks about relationships with sets that are very observational. Some material deals with culture and race, sometimes straddling the line where if someone isn't paying attention that closely they may think Graham just made a racist remark. Graham says nothing could be further from the truth. "Really I'm spinning it and turning it around to the people who are saying it," he explains. "Two of my grandchildren are Puerto Rican so I can't be racist — I wouldn't be able to have Christmas!"
Graham says he generally starts out his set with a little crowd work (when a comedian interacts with the audience) and then works into his material. If he finds himself having a hard time selling his material, he'll return to crowd working.
"Crowd work is individual and it's new," explained Graham. "It's almost instantly new and audiences are quicker than you think. They can recognize when something is spontaneous. There's just something in the air. And if they feel you have thought an original thought just for them, you've earned their respect. Jersey audiences can be tough. It might take a little to warm them up but if they love you they love you. After a certain point though, if you haven't got them you're not going to get them."
When Graham began getting gigs at 55 and older communities, he discovered Jersey audiences weren't the only ones that can be tough. All comics have certain jokes they're certain to get a good response with —ones that are guaranteed applause breaks. Unfortunately, the rules don't apply during these shows.
"The older folks don't guffaw, they don't get crazy laughing," said Graham. "It took me a while to realize that. I thought I was dying there. I'm like, ‘What is going on?' That bit always gets a boom, but there's no boom in the room. I guess if they boomed they'd shit themselves! I had to learn that a smile and a head shake is enough for the older folks.
While Graham may believe that everyone in Jersey could have their own sitcom, he's actually one of the few who can honestly say they have their own sitcom. Last January, the pilot for a show called Graham Crackers based on Jimmy's comedy made its debut at the Broadway Theater of Pitman. The pilot is still being shopped around, but the show created by fellow South Jersey native Ray Mamrak has already done wonders for Graham's career by opening doors and rekindling some relationships he's had in the past. The end result is being signed for six episodes of My Crazy Love on Oxygen with the first airing the week of January 13.
"It's almost about getting your name into the realm of some people," said Graham. "There are all sorts of things that have springboarded from Graham Crackers that excite me. And Graham Crackers is still in the works, it's very possible it could pop."
Gary Wien has been covering the arts since 2001 and has had work published with Jersey Arts, Elmore Magazine, Princeton Magazine, Backstreets and other publications. He is a three-time winner of the Asbury Music Award for Top Music Journalist and the author of Beyond the Palace (the first book on the history of rock and roll in Asbury Park) and Are You Listening? The Top 100 Albums of 2001-2010 by New Jersey Artists. In addition, he runs New Jersey Stage and the online radio station The Penguin Rocks. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.