About a decade ago I was shadowing Dane Cook for a magazine feature as the Boston comic was at the height of his popularity. While backstage before a sold out show in Trenton, N.J., Cook introduced me to his close friend and support act, Robert Kelly. After discussing the city slogan, “Trenton Makes, The World Takes,’ Kelly hit the stage and killed it.
“I was part of a really talented group of guys who broke out of Boston,” Kelly says. “Dane was the first to break out. He was the first to go to New York and he was immediately successful. Fans have always loved Dane.”
Kelly isn’t exaggerating about the caliber of his class of Beantown comedians; Bill Burr, Louis C.K. and the late Patrice O’Neal were part of that stellar group.
“All of those kids are great comedians,” revered Boston comic Lenny Clarke said. “Each of them had something extraordinary to offer.”
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Burr became a star courtesy of “Chappelle’s Show” – and a legend after destroying a Philadelphia audience that had booed one of their own, Dom Irrera, during an off the rails “Traveling Virus” show. C.K. is at the top of the comedy food chain and O’Neal was the finest physical comedian of the bunch, with a wit as large as his belly.
And then there is the gifted but underheralded Kelly, who will perform Friday and Saturday at Goodnights Comedy Club in Raleigh.
Kelly is a lethal combination of real and cerebral. Kelly pulls no punches. Unlike his close friend Cook, who is less about material than performance, Kelly has plenty of the former, and he can work a crowd as well as any comic.
“I’m always trying to get better,” Kelly says. “You’re never where you want to be as a stand-up. There are always things that I can improve. You don’t want to just be a comic that goes up that can only do crowd work. You want to be able to do it all.”
Kelly has a myriad of great memories from rising in the comedy ranks.
“A normal person would probably not have the same view I have of living in New York,” Kelly says. “I look back and laugh when I think about living in the crappiest situations. It was horrible. I had no space. My bedroom was in a hallway. I had nothing. But what I did have when I moved to New York was stage time and that’s all that mattered as a comedian.”
Kelly is also an actor who has appeared in C.K.’s series “Louie,” as well as “Nurse Jackie” and “Law & Order.”
“I’m fine with acting,” Kelly says. “I had a lot of fun on ‘Louie.’ I love being a comedian. It’s hard to make a person laugh and it’s really hard to make it in this business. There’s nothing like paying the rent purely from comedy, but I accomplished that. It’s great making a living doing what you love.”
Comedians are arguably the most misunderstood of all mainstream entertainers. Many have issues dating back to childhood. Being cool and being funny are typically mutually exclusive. That’s probably why it’s impossible to imagine icons like Johnny Depp, Brad Pitt and Scarlett Johansson cracking wise on a small stage at an intimate club.
“It takes a certain kind of human being to be a comic,” Kelly says. “But if it’s in your blood, you’re compelled to do it and it’s the greatest.”
Who: Robert Kelly
When: 7:30 and 10 p.m. Friday, 8 and 10:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: Goodnights Comedy Club, 861 W. Morgan St., Raleigh
Cost: $20-$28 Friday, $35-$99 Saturday
Info: 919-828-5233 or goodnightscomedy.com