Funeral director by day, comedian by night
By Robin L. Gardner
Stop me if I’ve told you this before. A stand-up comedian and a funeral director go into a bar… No wait they’re both the same person. Oh, and that person is William “Whit” Whitley Jr. of Whitley’s Funeral Home in Kannapolis.
No it isn’t really a joke. Whitley, who, at 53 years old, has found a way to release some of the tension that goes with the seriousness of his day job as funeral director and vice president of a third-generation, family-run funeral home.
Growing up, Whitley had a love for entertainment, and he would make Super 8 movies with his friends.
“I was always a happy-go-lucky guy. Kind of adventurous,” Whitley said.
In college, such fancy took a back seat to a more serious future. Whitley wanted to be a dentist, but eventually he graduated from mortuary school in 1979, and joined the family trade.
In 1980, he was asked to talk to a nursing home about the funeral business.
“I didn’t feel right going and talking about that at a family event,” Whitley said.
He called and told them he would be more comfortable talking about something else and answering questions about the funeral business if they had any, but they insisted.
Whitley found an amusing story in a “Reader’s Digest” about how the moon affects your mood.
“The beauty of the whole event was the faces, Whitely said. “If you could be in my body and see the disappointment of having to hear someone talk about the funeral business, then hearing me talk a bit and seeing their faces light up.”
He was severely stricken by the entertainment bug, and created a series of revues that he would put on at churches and schools. There was a 1920s style revue, with singing and dancing, and he also played a cowboy called “Black Bart” in what he described as a one-man show.
“I had a monologue about cowboys, and a gun that shot blanks that I would use. That was before schools kept me from coming in with it. It was great.
Then I would play ‘Happy Trails’ on a guitar,” Whitley said as he described the revue.
In 2003, he was in “Animal Crackers,” the first of three productions he was involved in for the Piedmont Players through 2006.
Stand-up came along in 2007. Whitley took a class at the Comedy Zone in Charlotte. They offer a six-week course to learn stage presence, timing, delivery and writing. The classes are open to anyone. It helped Whitley develop his routines, which he types out and keeps folded neatly in a book.
“He is a character. He’s very different. Like a one-man Saturday Night Live,” Comedy Zone head booker Joel Pace said. “He definitely has a future if he sticks to it. The Comedy Zone has 50 locations nationally. It depends on the person just how quickly they move up.”
It’s important to Whitley to respect his family business, and never uses it in his stand-up.
“I won’t go there. It’s disrespectful,” Whitley said.
“I don’t really follow the rules of stand-up. I don’t do current events or self-deprecating humor,” Whitley adds, “I like character sketches, humorous routines, monologues and props.”
Besides stand-up, Whitley worked on a musical short that won the International Indie Award for Best Musical Short. It was called “The Mesmerizing Affair” about a girl who wishes to be a famous harpist and vocalist and who meets the strange and mysterious Svengali who promises her fame. Patty Lake plays Tribly, the young girl, and Whitley plays Svengali.
Whitley’s father, William L. Whitley Sr., who is an 85-year-old WWII vet, comes from a different time.
“He doesn’t really comment on what I’m doing,” said Whitley.
Whitley’s wife, Karen, who is a court coordinator in the Superior Court, is very supportive, and so are their four daughters, who range from 22 to 30 years old, and all enjoy watching their father perform. The other funeral directors in town may not be aware of what Whitley practices on his off time.
“I didn’t know he did it. It’s a little unusual, but as long as it’s clean comedy it’s great,” Steve Clark, of Clark Funeral Home, Kannapolis, said.
He was a bit surprised at what his colleague was doing, since he hunts and fishes in his spare time. When he can find spare time.
“Everyone needs a release. Comedy is a good way to do it. Death and dying seven days a week, you need something to help you get away from it,” Clark said.
“I’m a novelty nutty buddy. I get a rush when I do it. It is a thrill.” Whitley said.
Whit Whitley will be appearing at Club Alive in NoDa, on Thursday, March 26. He will perform his routine in the David L’s Fresh Faces Comedy Showcase, at 2909 N. Davidson St., Charlotte. Seating will begin at 7:45 p.m. with the show starting at 8:15 p.m. For more information call 704-930-2200.
• Contact reporter Robin L. Gardner: 704-789-9140.