Whiskey Bear Comedy Festival: Dustin Meadows

Andy Downing, Columbus Alive

For more than four years, comedian Dustin Meadows has unsuccessfully attempted to get audiences to laugh at a joke centered on the 2010 death of his truck driver father.

"And the second I say, 'My dad died,' everyone clenches up, and they're not willing to give me the benefit of the doubt," said Meadows, 32, who founded and performs as part of the inaugural Whiskey Bear Comedy Festival, which kicks off Thursday, May 12. "I'm not to a point where I can make it work yet, but I know at some point I will be. I think it's a good idea, and it's something that has very much had an influence in shaping me into the person I am. Besides, I think it's important to talk about that kind of stuff. I'm not George Carlin; I'm not going to talk about advertising and corporations and politicians, because that's not me."

One person who would have laughed at Meadow's attempted gallows humor, oddly enough, would have been his father - a man at least partially responsible for his son's particular brand of comedy. One time, for example, the elder Meadows emptied a bottle of ketchup on the floor and positioned himself on the ground as though he were dead, tomato paste spilling like blood from his head. "I think I was six at the time," Dustin said.

The Cardington-raised standup grew up with a fondness for sketch comedy, though his earliest onstage experiences actually arrived via the theater (he was active in high school drama, appearing as Hawkeye in a production of "M*A*S*H") and music. At age 16, Meadows started playing in a variety of punk bands - "I was very ideological [at the time]," he said - first as a singer and later as a guitarist. Indeed, it wasn't until 2008, midway through Meadows' time at Bowling Green State University (he graduated in 2010), that he first performed standup in a series of "Last Comic Standing"-type competitions.

Though he typically fared well, making it to the final rounds each time out, Meadows said it took a solid three or four years to really hone in on and sharpen his comedic voice, which is generally rooted in the pain and frustration of day-to-day life and tends to be colored by the standup's obsession with pop culture. One extended routine available on YouTube includes mentions of everything from Weezer'sBlue Album to Michael Bay running NASA, which, according to Meadows, is the only way he'll ever realize a childhood dream of becoming an astronaut.

"Hey Dustin, we need a fat guy to die at the end of the second act to motivate our heroes," the comedian says in the video. "Look no further, Mr. Bay. I'm your man!"

"I definitely come back to loneliness and heartbreak a lot; that's my stock in trade," said Meadows, who traced his comedic breakthrough, at least in part, to a bad breakup ("I think having some kind of pain, and some kind of real-world experience … helps to be relatable," he said). "I'm functional, and I'm not sleeping under the covers and calling off work for five days at a time just because I got sad about something, but it's always there, and it's something I think about a lot. It's why I have the perspective I do."

At the same time, he said, there's always at least a glimmer of hope in the material, and a belief that maybe - just maybe - better days are lurking just around the corner.

"There's always that hopeless romantic that thinks there's a bright tomorrow and that other part of me that thinks, 'God, I deserve to be miserable,'" Meadows said, and laughed. "And it's some marriage of those two things that shapes a lot of my perspective and my material."