Santa Rosa comic Oliver Graves makes smashing debut on 'America’s Got Talent'
“Gothic comedian” Oliver Graves of Santa Rosa, with a deadpan facial expression and black eyeshadow and lipstick, made a successful debut Tuesday night on the NBC-TV series “America’s Got Talent,” winning “yes” from all for judges and a green light to go on to the show’s next round.
Judge Simon Cowell told Graves after his short comedy set that many comedians have appeared on the show and most of them seem exactly the same — “apart from you.”
Eyes downcast part of the time, his voice sounding a bit depressed, he delivered some dryly witty humor and won applause and laughs from the show’s live audience with lines like “I once had my identity stolen. It’s OK. They gave it right back.”
Hearing the praise from the judges, Graves, 32 and single, cried a little onstage. “I don’t get booked to a lot of shows,” he told them. “Enjoy your free time right now, because you are gonna be a busy man,” judge Howie Mandel replied.
As Graves walked offstage, he was still crying and utterly stunned, he said in a telephone interview Wednesday morning.
“I was completely overwhelmed. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn‘t think,” he said. “I’m surprised words came out my mouth that made sense.”
Graves said Mandel’s response to his act made sense, because Mandel is comedian and knows the art form, but Graves was surprised and pleased by the response from Cowell, known for his often blunt assessments of talent.
“Simon got what I was doing,” Graves said.
Sounding a bit like Eeyore, the sad donkey from “Winnie the Pooh” cartoons, Graves paced his deceptively succinct one-liners carefully.
A sample: “I’m trying to find the woman of my dreams, but it’s a struggle, because I’m an insomniac.”
And another: “Breakfast is the most important meal of the day ... Well, not if you’re poisoned. Then the antidote becomes the most important meal.”
Born and raised in Sonoma County, Graves said he was reluctant to reveal details about growing up and going to school here. On his Facebook page, he gave himself a fictional history, saying he was from Novato and living in Nicasio.
“That is me just trying to be a little mysterious about where I’m from,” Graves said. “I’ve lived in Sonoma County my whole life.”
While Graves said he enjoys it when people who’ve seen him perform compare him to master deadpan comic Steve Wright or Emo Phillips, his inspiration for his onstage persona came instead from pop music stars like Lady Gaga and Daft Punk.
His onstage costume is a red and black Gothic version of a clown suit.
“I would put makeup on, making fun of my friends in high school,” Graves recalled. “I kept doing it and it became a thing.”
In addition to performing with promoter Jake Ward’s North Bay Cabaret variety troupe, Graves has done comedy shows at Fogbelt Brewing Company, D’Argenzio Winery and the Rincon Valley Taproom in Santa Rosa and Sally Tomatoes in Rohnert Park. He also worked at local retail businesses — “just menial labor at whatever store would have me.”
Local audiences didn’t always know what to make of Graves’ comedy act, his contacts on the comedy said.
“Oliver has always been one of those acts that not everyone is gonna like, but that’s part of what’s so great about him. He’s an original,” said Ward, founder of North Bay Cabaret.
Fellow Santa Rosa comedian Jefferson Mars described Graves’ approach as a gamble.
“I think what he does can be risky. He isn’t as relatable or engaging as story teller comedians, but he has something other comics don’t have, which makes him memorable,” Mars said.
Now that Graves is getting network TV exposure, Ward believes the “Gothic comedian” strategy will pay off.
“I’ve seen him get mixed responses from local audiences, but that’s never discouraged me from booking him again and again. I bet the same people who didn’t ‘get’ his act when he performed locally are gonna be singing a different tune now that he’s taken the national stage,” Ward said.
It’s often hard to tell how much of his real personality a comedian takes with him to the stage, but people who know him say his act reflects who he is.
“I’ve tried to have a normal conversation with him after his set only to realize that he remains fully ‘in character’ when he’s Oliver,” Ward said.
Graves doesn’t dispute the description at all.
“I think that’s absolutely me,” he said. “That’s what I‘m like.”
You can reach staff writer Dan Taylor at 707-521-5243 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @danarts.