Tim Wilson was one of the smartest, funniest stand-up comics I’ve ever seen. His Southern cadence was caffeinated, sped up to New York standards, his observations laser sharp, his ability to mock the audience with a grin legendary. He was also a wicked songwriter and singer.
The 52 year old died yesterday of a heart attack.
The Georgia native spent most of his stand-up career in Atlanta and was a regular at the Punchline going back three decades. The man never got that big TV break. Then again, he didn’t like it when he tried. He was very opinionated, very particular. Perhaps his humor didn’t connect with the decision-makers on the coasts.
Jamie Bendall, a co-owner of the Punchline, said Wilson was well respected among fellow comics.
“He wrote great material and was a terrific songwriter,” Bendall said. “He wrote smart jokes.”
He noted that Wilson’s biggest audiences were smaller towns throughout the Midwest and South where syndicated shows Bob and Tom and John Boy and Billy were heard. He was regulars on their shows. He drove tens of thousands of miles every year, working almost every weekend, guitar in tow.
Bendall, a standup comic himself, remembers his first paying gig years ago was joining Wilson on the road for three days. “He was a big advocate for hard working underdog talent.”
Roy Wood Jr., a local comic who works on TBS’s “Sullivan & Son” and is heard on Kiss 104.1 as an afternoon host, said all Southern comics ran into Wilson at some point or opened for him. “His domain was south of D.C., east of Dallas,” Wood said. “I used to open for him on his Bob and Tom tours.” He admired the way Wilson married music and comedy. “He’d play two chords and the crowd would go wild,” he said. He heard “Dale Jarrett’s Car” so many times, he has it memorized in his brain.
“He made good money” even without TV or Hollywood love, Wood said. “Most comics would be lucky to have that kind of existence and build the fan base he had.”
Funeral arrangements have not been finalized yet but it will be in the Columbus area where Wilson grew up.
Wilson’s long-time manager Chris DiPetta going back three decades, a co-owner of the Punchline, said he is planning a memorial service at the club.
Although Wilson was often pinned or stereotyped as a “Southern comic,’ for better or worse, DiPetta felt “the only thing Southern was his accent. His humor was universal. He was the funniest guy I knew and I have worked with a lot of comics.”
DiPetta last spoke with Wilson yesterday. Wilson, who was with his brother in Columbus, said he wasn’t feeling well. DiPetta insisted he go to the hospital. “I could tell the strain in his voice,” he said. “He was stubborn. He wouldn’t go.”
When he did make it to the hospital, doctors found a blockage in an artery and said he was having a heart attack. But as they tried to unblock him, he had another that killed him, DiPetta said.
Wilson moved to Louisville, Ky. from Roswell several years ago, then Nashville, where he most recently resided. He divorced and remarried. He has two children from his first marriage with Ronit Hassan, who still lives locally in metro Atlanta.
I profiled him in 2002. Here it is:
Chattanooga — Tim Wilson is on a rant. “If I ever voted for a Democrat, I’d slit my wrists and bleed in a cup, ” he says, to guffaws from the audience at the Comedy Catch, a local stand-up haunt.
“I’m not really a Republican, ” he continues. “I’m a Libertarian. Leave all my money alone, do all the heroin you want to do.”
Wilson, a 41-year-old Roswell resident and Columbus native, has built his comedy career as a crusty independent thinker, a CNN-addicted stand-up with more edge than another Southern-fried Atlanta comedian, Jeff Foxworthy.
Onstage, he comes off as a curmudgeonly uncle, slightly scrunched over, with long sideburns, thinning hair and prodigious amounts of sweat. His diction belies deeper intelligence, his voice coarsened by a pack-and-a-half-a-day smoking habit.
“I’m 41, I look 55 and I sound like I’m 60, ” Wilson says with a smirk. “I’m the result if Richard Nixon and Neil Young had a baby.”
Indeed, Wilson‘s skewed takes on virtually any topic — along with his signature country-flavored joke songs like “Ricky Tidwell’s Mama” and “First Baptist Bar & Grill” — make him a regional favorite. But despite his Atlanta ties, he’s actually a bigger draw in midsize Southeastern cities such as Raleigh and Louisville, Ky. “It’s taken him awhile to catch on in Atlanta, ” said Ron DiNunzio, co-owner of Sandy Springs’ Punchline comedy club, where Wilson is headlining this weekend. “But the last three, four times he was here, he started to finally pick up and get a good steady following.”
Wilson likens himself to a hillbilly — but not a redneck. “A redneck is someone who is afraid of people and change, ” he says. “I’m not scared of nothin’. I’m a Baptist who married a Jew for 14 years. I grew up with Asian people. I love Indian food.”
After a middle-class existence in Columbus and an English degree from Presbyterian College in South Carolina in 1983, Wilson moved to Atlanta to break into music; instead, he found his calling after trying a few jokes and a Richard Pryor impression at an open-mike night in a now-defunct club.
In a case of culture clash in 1985, he married Ronit Hassan, an Israeli, who loved his spitfire honesty. She later convinced Wilson to bring his guitar onstage and sing songs, a move that solidified him as a headliner.
In 1995, he made a brief foray to Hollywood, appearing on “Grace Under Fire” and “The Tonight Show, ” but hated the superficiality. “He didn’t want to be Mr. Handsome Comedian, ” says Hassan, now his ex-wife. “He says, ‘This is not me. I’m not Brad Pitt.’ ”
Instead, as a traveling comedian, he’s under nobody’s thumb. Wilson packs in gigs almost every weekend. (He tries to spend at least three days a week in Atlanta to see his two kids.)
Over the past 14 months, he’s piled 95,000 miles on his 2001 Dodge Ram — in what has become his personal office stacked with clothes, papers and CDs. “I like this lifestyle, ” he says while sipping a flat Coke, fiddling with his CD player and driving to mail a late car payment. “But I’m sure I get gray hairs a lot quicker.”
Wilson‘s typical hour-plus performance is far less observational than many stand-up comedy routines; he’s more a social and political commentator, with targets that include Bill Clinton (“Dress it up all you want, but it’s still Arkansas”), Al Gore (“I’m Caucasian, but that is a white boy. And his eyelids don’t blink at the same time”) and American schools (“Democrats always say we need to spend more. Hell, I can teach math with a stick in the dirt!”).
Wilson also picks on audience members’ hair and clothing, aware that he himself is often the worst-dressed man in the room, typically in jeans and a T-shirt.
Fellow comedian Foxworthy, who co-wrote “Redneck 12 Days of Christmas” with Wilson, loves Wilson‘s style. “I call it sarcasm with a grin, ” Foxworthy says. “A quarter of his mouth goes up to say, ‘I’m kidding.’ ”
About 40 minutes into his routine, Wilson shifts gears, grabbing his guitar to play spoofy takes on Southern life and current events. Over the years, he has penned songs like “Chuck E. Cheese Hell, ” “Dale Jarrett’s Car” and the recent “Crematorium for Sale, ” about the North Georgia crematorium case. (“There’s easy money to be urned. . . .”)
The crowd eats it up. “He has a way of bringing out issues in a down-to-earth way, ” says Jim Hoover, a 34-year-old factory worker from Cleveland, Tenn. “He points out the obvious, but it’s funny.”
One of Wilson‘s smartest moves is taking advantage of syndicated radio shows, inserting himself into the minds of hundreds of thousands of commuters. He makes regular appearances on shows like “Bob & Tom” in Indianapolis (which runs on 120 stations) and NASCAR-lovin’ “John Boy & Billy” in Charlotte (100 stations).
“I’ve learned that having a distinctive voice is good for radio, ” he says.
Wilson also has recorded a dozen CDs over the past decade, five on Capitol Records in Nashville, with total sales nearing 400,000. He’s working on two new ones: favorite early 1970s nuggets with friends from bands like Wet Willie and the Band, and a comedy record of R&B-inflected original songs.
“I hang out with musicians, ” Wilson says. “Some people golf. I go to a recording studio.”
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