Inside San Francisco’s Cobb’s Comedy Club, Dean Delray is preparing for a sold-out Friday night show. I am led to his dressing room, where he anxiously greets me at the door. He stands about 5’ 6” with slicked hair and a thick handlebar mustache. A former rocker, he’s known to wear classic rock T-shirts, snug jeans, and a leather jacket. Tonight he’s in uniform, though his jacket is zipped so the band is a mystery.
Dubbed the “Forrest Gump of Comedy” for his colorful history and serendipitous tendencies, Delray has spent the past four-and-a-half years working his way from an out-of-work, aging rocker in his mid-40s, to a rising — and working — comedian, who has won over fans and comics with his diligent work ethic, natural charisma and a provocative comedic perspective shaped by decades of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. Though likened to a slow-witted folk hero, Delray presents as the opposite. In fact, his social intelligence is off the charts.
After a lively 30-minute set in which he discusses, among other things, the perks of sitting “nuts to butts” on a motorcycle, we sit down to chat. Immediately we hear loud laughs through the floor — the crowd is hot. Delray smiles. He knows he did his job as a feature performer well. He takes a deep breath, wipes his brow, and we talk…
Comedy is where Dean Delray lives now, but he took a long, winding road to get here. Hailing from Yosemite, Calif., he moved to the Bay Area as a child after his parents divorced. At his first comedy show as an 11-year-old, he bumped into a friendly, funny black man in the restroom, who struck up a conversation with young Dean. Moments later, Bill Cosby invited him to join him on stage. He smiles as he recalls the howls of laughter from the thousands in attendance — he was hooked.
Years later, as a teenager, Delray started a rock band and spent the next 25 years as a touring musician. Though successful enough to earn a living, he never hit it big. Between tours, Delray scraped by working odd jobs, such as a documentary filmmaker for The Wallflowers, tour host for The Rolling Stones, and Harley-Davidson salesman.
As the early aughts ushered in an era of shared music, Delray found it increasingly challenging to survive as a musician. “I would sell CDs after shows and people would say they already burned it!” he bemoans. “So we went from making great money to none because we couldn’t sell CDs. I’d come home from a year on the road and be broke. When you’re in your 20s, you don’t care about eating Taco Bell and sleeping on floor. But then you get into your 30s and 40s and you’re like, screw this!”
Dejected but not defeated, Delray drew inspiration from veteran comic Earthquake to take a shot at fulfilling a lifelong dream: stand-up comedy. Delray met Earthquake while the two were working on The Longshots, the Ice Cube film about Pop Warner football. As Delray wrestled with career prospects, he decided to accept a dual challenge from his co-star: 1. Write comedy. 2. Do open mics.
Delray sized up the competition and saw comedians half his age with twice the energy. “It’s a young man’s game,” he laments. “I didn’t realize it was. I started at 44. All the comics I like are in their 40s and they’re out of shape, and I thought, ‘I’ll fit right in!’ But they have put in their years.”
Though beginning a comedy career in his mid-40s certainly had its challenges, Delray says he would be reluctant to trade years of musical touring — which have informed his comedic perspective and stage comfort — for more experience in comedy. Where he gains an upper hand is with discipline and persistence. “I live on a shoestring,” Delray says. “I answer to no one — no girlfriend, no wife, no kids. (Younger) comedians wanna party ‘til 5 a.m. but I’m here to work. People wonder how I came up so fast. It’s cause I work my ass off!”
These days Delray does just that. He typically performs comedy seven nights a week, three to five performances a night, and has amassed nearly 2,500 performances in four-and-a-half years. To save on gas and commute time, he travels by motorcycle.
That dogged work ethic has landed Delray a second home at The Comedy Store, the famed L.A. club that produced legends like David Letterman and Sam Kinison, and currently nurtures Bill Burr, Ian Edwards, and others. Last year, Delray was passed at the club, meaning he became a paid regular. There are fewer than 500 people passed since it opened in 1972 — no small feat considering the company.
When speaking of this accomplishment, Delray lights up: “You can’t buy it, you can’t have your manager get it for you. If it was easy, everyone would do it. But you have to put in your time and work. I was there every night for three years. Even if I wasn’t performing, I would hang there every night, soak in the energy, and just learn from the masters – guys like (Louis) CK and (Ari) Shaffir.”
Despite having no agent or manager, Delray has also landed several acting gigs, including Quentin Tarantino’s Hell Ride and the IFC TV series, Maron (which he returns to in July). He says he landed most of his acting work from a pilot that never saw daylight. It did, however, get him connected with inside industry people — casting agents, producers, and directors.
Though his achievements are impressive, he acknowledges they haven’t come easy. “Everything I’ve gotten is from working my ass off and being in the right place at the right time,” he insists. “Though luck is involved, I make opportunities for myself. You gotta be out seven nights a week. Do open mics, meet people, do sketches on YouTube, do podcasts. Do everything until someone hears you or sees you and grabs you. If you’re not, someone else is.”
As we hear the show wrapping up downstairs, I wonder what it is that drives Delray to continue his pursuit. “You know what, man, I have nothing,” Delray confesses. “If I don’t get up and work, I won’t get up out of bed at all. So it’s either just sit in bed and sink and die, or get up and do something. Like today, I woke up, did two podcasts, wrote, listened to my set from last night, looked over sides for an audition, then got ready for tonight. Every day it’s like, audition, write, get gigs. I’m in-house, I do it all.”
Despite the fierce competition and cutthroat nature of show business, Delray emits a warm charisma and positive outlook that makes it easy to understand how he has won over crowds and comedians in his relatively short tenure as a comedian, and how he has survived in the entertainment industry for over 25 years. He speaks respectfully of his peers and is appreciative for the mentors and fans he’s accrued along the way: “I champion all the killer (comedians). It’s stupid not to. I think (comedy) becomes like a brotherhood, you get beat up by the business. Don’t beat each other up. Be nice to the guy next to you because we’re all getting screwed in one way or another. We need to be on our own team and just be cool.”
I wonder if he has any regrets about his budding comedy career. “I wouldn’t change one thing,” Dean says proudly. “I like how I did it because I had nothing to lose. Everyone has his own journey. Some it’s quick, some it’s long. In the end, it’s who hangs in.”
Dean Delray performs most nights at The Comedy Store in Los Angeles, is a regular on Jay Mohr Sports on FOX Sports Radio, and hosts the weekly podcast “Let There Be Talk.” He is on twitter @deandelray.