Funny thing about Greg Kettner’s Wine Valley Comedy: Even though he created the organization as a vehicle to bring stand-up to Walla Walla, the longtime performer has never actually been its headliner.
That is, until this week.
Before Thursday’s performance at Walla Walla’s Courtyard by Marriott, Kettner had been either an opener or emcee for the shows.
Infused with new material, he promises a full performance that will have new comedy even to those who have seen him in action.
The goal, he said, is to give the audience a respite from the worries of the world.
“Using humor and laughter to reduce stress — laughter is pretty much the best medicine,” Kettner said.
And for a joke-teller, it also brings a high better than any drug.
There’s no school, per se, where you train for comedy, he said. It comes from seeing the world in an unusual way, reading the audience and hitting them with the perfectly timed story or line.
Kettner, 47, was a touring, full-time comedian for about six years before he made his way back to Walla Walla.
He toured North American casinos, comedy clubs, pubs — even a hospital — and opened for some of the most famous funny people to grace the stage: Gilbert Gottfried, Robin Williams, Jim Gaffigan, Norm MacDonald.
His foray into humor was an unlikely one.
He was born in Hong Kong, where his father was a missionary doctor. He spent his first six years there before the family moved to Creston, B.C. Kettner came to Walla Walla for school at then-Walla Walla College, where he studied business and first met the woman whom he later married. More on that in a moment.
After college he returned to Canada, where he launched a career in sales until one open mic night, he had the gumption to take the stage.
“I’ve always been able to tell a joke, one-to-one,” he said.
That first period on stage lasted just a few minutes — “it was magical,” Kettner said. That’s all it took to want to return.
He became a regular, crafting longer performances, eventually catching the attention of people who wanted to book him for events. One of his first major jobs was a company Christmas party for 500 people. It proved to be a fateful performance.
Having traveled to Vegas for a sales kickoff, Kettner sat in the back of a room with 3,500 other sales people in his company while, the story goes, comedian Greg Proops was booked to perform. When one of his jokes bombed, recovery became impossible. Proops left the stage, Kettner said.
Left with open time, someone remembered “that guy from the Christmas party,” and Kettner was brought up to entertain. The reward was big.
“That year, if you hit your sales goal, you got to go on this big cruise.”
Kettner didn’t hit his number that year, but the president of the company who was in the audience at the time promised he could get on the boat.
“Afterward, I got a standing ovation and a $10,000 cruise,” Kettner marveled.
Even bigger: he got the bug to take his comedy full-time. Incidentally, the value of the cruise for the 15 minutes he got up to perform he likes to say is the equivalent of about $40,000 an hour. It’s a number he reflected on years later at a pub, when he found himself telling jokes for a few dollars and a beer.
“I tell people I made close to six figures,” he said. “Five is close to six, right?”
By the way, Kettner later heard Proops recount this same story during a podcast and immediately wrote to the comedian to tell him how the story turned out.
“Greg, I’m glad my worst day was your best,” Kettner said was Proops’ response.
Comedy took him all over Canada, meeting some of his own idols. On a trip down to California, though, he met someone who would turn out to have an even bigger influence in his life.
He’d struck up with a former college classmate who happened to be living not far from where he was staying in Oregon. Their reconnection moved from social media to in-person.
When she made the move to Walla Walla, so did he, planting roots in 2016 with his bride, Becky Kettner, and leaving his touring act.
Now employed as director of member services for the Walla Walla Valley Chamber of Commerce, he continues to make people laugh on a local scale through Wine Valley Comedy.
Some of his jokes have changed, too. No longer living the bachelor life — he just celebrated his third wedding anniversary — he draws inspiration from being a husband and stepfather and tests his jokes out on two of the funniest people he knows at dinner.
“They’re both very funny,” he said. “Sometimes I have to ask if I can use their lines.”
Proud of the crew that’s building through Wine Valley Comedy, he is intent to share the funny, even if it’s not touring the country.
“That’s it. It’s that left-handed hook that gets people when they don’t expect it,” he said. “If I could do it full-time and make a living, I would.”