"William Lee Martin puts on one hell of a show that's funny, thought provoking, and you know after any time with him that he is authentically himself. He's a family man. He's a comedian. He's a Christian. But is not a Christian comedian. He can quote Shakespeare while drinking a beer and there is something about him that just makes you like him."
Mike Crow - Shooter FM
"He's like your favorite uncle who will pat you on the back, tell you a funny story, and then sneak you a shot of Tequila."
— Jared Mittelo, Honest Fox Media
Just trying to be authentically me.
Before I started in comedy in 1996, there was one sure fire way to have success and that was to get on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. A nod from Johnny meant that you would go from unknown comedian to the literal overnight sensation.
But Johnny retired in 1992 and despite Jay Leno getting the gig from the man who had launched his career, Jay wasn’t as giving to new comedians. And that’s really where my story begins.
After writing advertising for a few years out of college, I was miserable. And when the company where I was working was sold and everyone including myself was “let go to follow other opportunities” which sounds nicer than “fired”, it was my grandmother who told me to go find something that would make me happy.
I didn’t at first. I stayed in the fetal position for 5 ½ months. It would have been 6 but unemployment ran out in 5 ½! I had however written a book called, “Life Under the Neon Moon Now that She Is Gone and Took the Dog with her” and everyone had told me that it read like stand up.
So, after a conversation with an unsuspecting UPS driver (which I won’t get into but let’s just say he was not impressed with my sad story) and later a conversation with the fella in the mirror, I decided – I was going to become a comedian. Keep in mind, I had decided that before I had ever actually tried it!
I hit the stage for the first time in Arlington, Texas at Hyenas Comedy Nightclub on May 17, 1996 under the nickname my grandfather gave me, “Cowboy Bill” Martin. I didn’t know at the time but Larry the Cable Guy was a character created by Dan Whitney. My stage name was a real nickname and not a character (which I am not taking anything away from LTCG) but later on would prove to be difficult to explain who I really was to managers, agents, radio interviewers, tv morning hosts, and in some cases, the audiences.
But after that first night, I was hooked and decided that I was going to gamble it all to pursue a comedy career. I told my grandmother and she said go for it and I asked her, what if I lose the house? She said, “buy you another one, boy. I don’t want you to go through a “would have, should have, or could have”.
I even called my first production company BTB which stood for “Burn the Boat”. That name came from a story I heard as a kid about Vikings who used to pull up to a country and they would get everyone off the boat and then set fire to it. So, you either conquered or you died but you didn’t retreat. Hence the name, Burn the Boat. And that was my philosophy. Survive. Not Die. Pursuing a dream. That gamble cost me a house (evicted the first year) and a truck (repossessed on Christmas Day). But I kept fighting, writing, never retreated, and found a career.
I’ve been doing this now for 25 years and it has had its peaks and valleys. Early on, I was lucky. I went from open-mic night to headliner in just 3 short years. By 2005 I had opened for country stars like Loretta Lynn, George Strait, George Jones and Brad Paisley, and even went overseas to entertain the troops.
During this time, I was signed with the managers of the famed Blue Collar Comedy Tour with Jeff Foxworthy, Bill Engvall, Ron White and Larry the Cable Guy. They were exploding and were becoming the biggest thing to hit the country comedy genre since Minnie Pearl and Grandpa Jones (Google it kids).
Great for them but it made me and anyone else with a twang appear to some as a wagon jumper. Not a trend setter but a trend follower which was frustrating since I have been in boots and jeans since birth. With their meteoric rise, Management didn’t need a guy like me and besides, I wasn’t ready for the “big time” on stage, off stage and in between. I can see that now.
I never got bitter. I just kept my head down. Kept fighting. Kept writing. Never retreating. But by 2008 my career had leveled off and some say even plummeted and to top it off, all the biggest clubs around the country that were booking me went to mostly urban acts thanks to another phenomenon, Def Jam Comedy. My act got bluer but my wallet got smaller.
By 2010, I had left all of the clubs for the most part behind and went to work on the high-seas on Carnival’s Punchliner Comedy Clubs. I was absolutely reluctant to go at first but found something out there on the ocean I didn’t expect – my audience.
Despite the rumors that a ship was where you took a career to die, these were not the retiree’s I expected to find. These were middle class from all over who seemed to love my style of comedy. I’m a storyteller and on Carnival, I was doing 2 ½ hours of material on a cruise. It was like an open mic on steroids. I was making good, steady money, and the act was being overhauled.
But in 2015, my wife, Michele, was at the dinner table and I said, “I can continue doing these cruises for the rest of my life, or we can swing for the fences and try to get me on television” and to her credit, she too said, “go for it!” We rolled the dice and self-financed through my new production company, Cowtown Drive-In, a one-hour special “Let the Laughter Roll” which was picked up by CMT. It received rave reviews and put me back on the proverbial map but didn’t exactly make me into a household name.
I stayed on the cruise ships some but by 2016, the comedy landscape changed once again. Move over Johnny Carson. The 2010s and 2020s will forever be known as the years of the “internet sensations”. Now anyone with a phone and “point-of-view” could garner millions of views and just as many followers without ever going to the open mic.
I was not an internet sensation but I met a guy who was – Chad Prather (who I believe also just tried to run for Governor of my great state of Texas). Yes, the same Georgia boy who had turned his pickup truck philosophy to millions of views on Facebook.
The problem was, he had no way to make a living from it. So, after he came to my office, we decided to team up. I was coming off my CMT special so I would headline and since he had never done stand-up even at an open-mic, he would emcee. I helped him write his first 10 minutes and we called it the “Kings of Cowtown Comedy Tour”. We brought in other comics to feature and off we went. It lasted about 14 months.
At the end of that tour, I was exhausted and not only that I felt like something was still missing. Notwithstanding the success of the CMT special and my experience with the Kings of Cowtown, I knew that I wanted to be as authentic as possible. After 22 years of trying to explain that “Cowboy Bill” was not a character, I decided to change back to my maiden name – William Lee Martin.
With my rebranded name, in 2017, I toured with my very good friend and Latin Kings of Comedy member, Alex Reymundo on the Tex-Mex Comedy Tour. Alex and I co-headlined, flipping the closing spot every other show and had an amazing time doing it. I can honestly say, in a dog eat dog world of show business, Alex is a true gentleman. He has taught me so much in my career.
But by 2018, I was back on my own. And this was the biggest change of all. See, I started out five years of my career working clean. As the years went by, I worked bluer and bluer. By 2015 when the CMT special came out, I’m not saying I swore a lot but they bleeped it and at some point it sounded like the telegraph working on the Titanic. But by 2018, my act hadn’t changed, only my name.
Once again, I went to prayer – just like in 1996. And I asked the Lord, “Why can’t I grab the brass ring? It can’t be cussing. Other people cuss and you let them grab it. Obviously, there is no morality clause. Why not me?” And the voice in my head said, “Listen son, I put you on a cruise ship for 8 years and you could change anything about your career and the only thing you were willing to change was your name. While you are waiting for me, I’m waiting for you to be the best version of William Lee Martin you can be.” And from that moment, I took out the swear words and I can honestly say, the show (FOR ME) is much, much better.
Now it was time to roll the dice again. Once again, my wife and I financed (thanks to our good friend, Pete Carr) two more hit specials “Standing in the Middle” and “The Nutcracker – A Christmas Standup Spectacular”. Both under my real name and neither require a bleeper.
They both were picked up by Comedy Dynamics and placed on Amazon Prime, Apple TV, and many more streaming platforms in November 2019 and December 2019.
But then as we all know, in March of 2020 the world shut down and instead of touring to support the new specials, I was deemed “nonessential” by the politicians and shut down. This time however I had experience in my head, my wife by my side, and faith that it is all part of the grander plan.
I’m kidding! I panicked like everyone else! Here we were once again on the hook on not one special but two. I had already hired a marketing team and now everyone is shut down.
The marketing team suggested a zoom comedy show. I quickly turned that down. A comedy show without an audience is a lecture. But then they told me to just turn on the computer and talk into it. I unceremoniously said, “that is the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard!”
Two days later, I turned on the computer at 4 pm and talked into it, live on Facebook. I didn’t talk about the virus itself or hoaxes or which side was right or wrong. I simply talked about how to get through the day with a smile on your face. How sometimes you have to get through the minute to get through the hour to get through the day.
I talked about what my grandmother taught me. The faith my wife showed me. The humor my friends showed me and that laughter, while may seem trivial to some, is absolutely essential to your health and the health of this country. I also went from 40,000 followers to right at half a million.
And like an explorer who sets off to find a treasure only to find something else more valuable, I discovered the brass ring I was searching for was not the fame I've sought. It's what I found. Because the truth is, it really doesn't matter if I am Cowboy Bill or William Lee or even if I work clean or dirty. It's that I am just authentically trying to be the person God created.
Thanks for sharing the ride with me!
William Lee Martin