The first thing Blayr Nias did when she took the stage at Greensboro’s Comedy Zone on June 19 was let loose a high-pitched, lengthy scream.
The small performance space immediately filled with her rapid-fire, gravelly delivery and undeniable presence. She sported a short, black dress, which she joked would give the front table a direct view of her crotch — “Watch out, it has teeth!” — and leopard-print heels. It was her armor for an evening she later dubbed an uphill battle, as the whole front section of the club seemed steeled to resist all attempts at crowd work.
“Is this a party or a meeting?” she said to the mostly white audience after a race-related bit to no avail. A different joke scored better with the crowd a minute later.
“You can go home with a bad decision or Taco Bell,” she said, with the tiniest of pauses.
“Either way, you wake up in used wrappers.”
The next morning over brunch, Nias said the set had been the worst of the four she’d packed into the weekend.
“That is not my ideal show,” she said.
Nias is black, and said that after opening with her “white girl scream” and getting a sub-par reaction, she knew right away the evening would be tough.
“It was a definite, distinct discomfort with me doing race-related material,” she continued. “That one table was throwing me off. Even when I was getting laughs, all I could focus on was that one table going, ‘We don’t really like this.’”
Then she switched tones, from confessional to braggadocio.
“You don’t like me? Why not? I’m awesome! I do this all the time!”
Her cockiness is warranted. The Charlotte native has won a reasonably impressive amount of local accolades, including Charlotte Magazine’s Best Comedian of 2014, but also performed for broader audiences on FOX’s Laughs and in the Oddball Comedy Festival headlined by Louis CK and Aziz Ansari.
The Comedy Zone in Queen City is her unofficial home base, but since the chain owns spots up and down the east coast, she books gigs all over the place — her stop in Greensboro preceded a weekend in Jacksonville, Florida opening for Josh Wolf.
As she tells it, one good-looking comic galvanized her career at a 420 festival in 2011. He invited her to do a five-minute open mic.
“I only went because the guy was cute,” Nias said. “I was like, ‘I think I’m funnier than you.’”
She took eight focused days to rehearse and edit before her debut. After she exited the stage, people asked her how long she’d been doing standup, expecting her to give them a number of years instead of minutes. Their encouragingly shocked responses were a confirmation.
“I felt like I was in the right spot when I was up there,” she said.
Nias initially doubted that the stage was where she was destined back when she was scribbling jokes on napkins in her office. In a former life, Nias was recruiting IT staff in Charlotte six years ago, complete with corporate “clacker heels” and an expense account. More often than not, she worked 70-hour weeks, and even recalled a Super Bowl party during which she was answering emails in the kitchen.
“I was burning out,” she said. “Writing was stress relief. [I thought,] This would be a funny joke, I don’t know what to do with it.”
One fateful open mic, a well-timed end to that job and five years later, it’s obvious her perseverance in that tough job carried over to working tough crowds at comedy clubs like the one in Greensboro with confidence.
At the Comedy Zone, her voice vacillated between high-pitched energy, different characters and sheepish self-depreciation, bursting with unapologetic glee throughout her act.
But the tight set is about more than just a goofy hyper-persona.
“As a writer, we play with words on how things hit,” Nias said.
“I have this joke that goes, ‘If you wait too long to take Plan B, you run the risk of the baby coming out holding the pill saying, ‘I believe this is yours.’ That was improvised, then I went back and polished it.”
It’s likely her love of wordplay can be traced further back than her creative writing degree from George Washington University, back to a high school Shakespeare course and an improv group she signed up for just to get out of class.
With the end goal of becoming the female Steve Martin (meaning being able to pursue a diverse array of mediums), Nias has a path set before her: She’s signed on with a regional acting agency, and hopes to someday land on Broadway. In comedy, all it could take would be for the right person to be in her next audience, and it’s fairly possible that as soon as that happens, Nias’ popularity would skyrocket.
Or maybe the right person just needs to follow her Twitter account, @GummyBlayr.
“Men and women can be just friends as long as women are able to ignore that men are constantly trying to hump them,” she tweeted recently. “Similar to owning a dog.”
Until then, though, she’ll keep closing her show by offhandedly dropping her preferred term for a biracial child, adding offhandedly, “I know ‘zebra baby’ isn’t politically correct,” she said.
“But nothing I’ve said tonight has been.”