Sunday, November 14, 1999

Comedy act mixes crudity with erudite


Kentuckian's roots showing

BY KAREN SAMPLES
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        COVINGTON — In his spare time, Keith Sowder thinks up new ways to insult the Bengals. His latest inspiration: Rewriting Edgar Allen Poe's “The Raven” as a rant against Mike Brown.

        I knew it. Mr. Sowder is one of those guys who defies the easy stereotype. He has long hair and a substantial gut, so you peg him as a TV-addicted sports fan. Then he gets all literary and wriggles away.

        “I'm kind of a paradox,” says Mr. Sowder, 40. “By all the stereotypes, I should be wearing a Cat hat and driving a pickup with a gun rack.”

        Instead, he's a telemarketer from Covington who does stand-up comedy in clubs around Greater Cincinnati. His act is full of profanity, amusing rants and low-brow humor. People love it. Offstage, Mr. Sowder quotes Poe and uses words like “colloquialism.”

        “According to your crowd, you have to appeal to the lowest common denominator,” he says. “I love Dennis Miller, but only certain people get Dennis Miller.”

        Mr. Sowder grew up in Estill County, on the edge of the Daniel Boone Forest. His grandfather was a teacher, his mother a homemaker and his father a truck driver.

        In grade school, he was the class clown. He also read constantly — archaeology, anthropology — until discovering cars and girls.

        He spent two years at Eastern Kentucky University. After that, he sold insurance door-to-door, then found his niche in telemarketing.

        Over 15 years, Mr. Sowder has sold everything from time-share condos to ads on telephone-book covers, while cementing his reputation as a funny guy.

        To relieve tension at the office, Mr. Sowder would sing and tell jokes. Once he borrowed from Jimmy Buffett to do a number called “Wasting My Day Again Calling Steubenville.”

        In October 1998, a colleague convinced him to try stand-up at the Greenwich Tavern in Walnut Hills. When he arrived for open-mike night, he and his friend were the only white people in the room.

        No problem. Mr. Sowder says he's comfortable around anyone in any place. That's another thing about growing up in Eastern Kentucky. People assume isolation breeds bigotry, but sometimes, the opposite is true. In places where nobody has much, character becomes more important than surface traits like color.

        In Mr. Sowder's mind, ideas like these share space with some really crude jokes.

        I caught his act on a Saturday night at the First and Last Chance Bar in Crittenden. The place was packed with smoke and people. On the wall were life-sized posters of Dale Earnhart, Reba McIntyre and Marilyn Monroe.

        Of the four comedians that night, Mr. Sowder got the biggest laughs.

        He imitated Jesus as Richard Pryor and the Bible as told by Keanu Reeves to Generation X. He joked about the scary fine print on those ads for the new “fat blocker.” And he managed to insult just about everyone, including white people, Native Americans and homosexuals.

        Mostly, the audience roared.

        There was one bit, however, that nobody understood. Mr. Sowder predicted as much to the other comedians, so telling the joke became an act of bravado.

        It involved the arrest of singer George Michael for committing a lewd act in a public restroom. The way Mr. Sowder told it, some of his friends were surprised to learn the singer was gay.

        “That's like being surprised David Duke has never been to the Apollo,” he said.

        A few chuckles.

        “That's like being surprised Homer Simpson isn't in Mensa.”

        Silence.

        “That's like being surprised Marge Schott isn't a member of B'nai B'rith.”

        Nothing at all.

        Cheerfully, Mr. Sowder moved on to his next joke — something about playing baseball in the new “Tampax Stadium.” The laughter returned.

        Not many people are familiar with B'nai B'rith, a Jewish charity with a human-rights focus. Mr. Sowder knows this. He just had to let the other side of him peek through.

        He's a paradox, all right. True to his rural Kentucky roots, he's exactly what you see, and a whole lot more that you wouldn't expect.

        Karen Samples is Kentucky columnist for the Enquirer. Her column appears Thursdays and Sundays. She can be reached at 578-5584, or by e-mail at ksamples@enquirer.com.