Athens, Ga.-based standup Stewart Huff has been on the road for 16 years. It's a solitary experience. Some comics drink; some sleep the day away. Huff hunts for junk. He delights in the nostalgic (pictures of children crying on Santa's lap), the functional (a locally sourced brown sectional couch) and the absurd (medieval swords).
"Look at this," Huff says, leaning over the rough-hewn wooden table at Locally Grown Gardens, cell phone in hand. "I found this couch here just last week." It's dark brown, he found it in Indy and he's taking it home with him.
Huff has been in Indiana four times in the past couple years, performing at the White Rabbit Cabaret, accompanying a burlesque performance; at Crackers Downtown; at Blooomington's Dunnkirk. His 2012 IndyFringe Festival show Donating Sperm to My Sister's Wife was a blazing 50-minute set on life, love and sperm summed up by one insight, "I've been trying not to be preachy lately, but I'm failing."
And he's also found some really excellent junk around these parts. He looks for "the happy," as he calls it: armless wooden mermaids, lamps with corncob bases. The happy isn't just junk, though. It's also the collection of weirdos that Huff meets along the way. He engages them and often integrates them into his act.
"It's not my personality to get on a plane and fly over the interesting," he says in the trailer for the new documentary Road Comics, in which he stars. "It's what happens from here to there that's what I talk about."
His devotion to the road drew the attention of Indiana University associate prof Susan Seizer, who produced Road Comics. The film follows Huff, along with quiet, Nashville-based wordsmith Tim Northern and self-described "pastor's daughter gone bad" Kristen Key, as they work dozens of comedy clubs dotted all over the country.
Huff's routines include stories about the road, told in his quietly lilting Southern accent. He also talks of his two younger sisters, including one with special needs who harbors an intense love of the Backstreet Boys. The other sister, the subject of his Fringe show, has been married to her wife for over 16 years. And, yes, Huff really did donate his procreational material - his sister's wife is due on May 7.
From gay marriage, immigration and abortion to daily experiences of racism, Huff spares nary a word when harshly critiquing the structural inequalities that exist in America. But he's not a negative comic: His act includes lines about his belief in the power of the poor ("the only people who get anything done in America") and his admiration of the "unbeatable human spirit."
"The act I do, you either want to hug me or hit me," Huff says. "There's no middle ground." He's not exaggerating: Huff's been punched in the face twice onstage.
"I get so much resistance at comedy clubs," Huff says. "And I really thought (Indy)Fringe would be a big ball of acceptance, but it wasn't, at all. I had a lady at the Fringe festival who said, 'You were very good, but I don't think you should be allowed to say these things,' and then she walked away. But then she comes back, and says, 'I just don't think you should be allowed to say those things in public.'"
Not that Huff is necessarily trying to provoke. "This new show was not written to piss off rednecks," he says. "But I will say, it sure seems to do the trick."
That new show he's talking about is called I Named My Penis Linda, which he'll preview this weekend at the IndyFringe Basile Theater, alongside longtime friend, musician and fellow comedian Paul Strickland.
They've traveled the country together for years, "like a couple of misfit Johnny Appleseeds," Strickland writes. Their show Thursday will combine song (Strickland) and story (Huff). They're both working on new material; Huff plans to perform Penis in full at Bloomington's inaugural Limestone Comedy Fest. It's classic Huff: an exploration of controversial issues pinned down by "the happy."
"How can I find the key that's going to open [a bit] up?" he says. "That's going to change the mind of that one person sitting there?"