Ashton Womack had a bit of a homecoming last week.
The stand up comic left Houston for New York City about halfway through last year. He returned on November 10th to headline at The Secret Group.
Our interview happened three days later. I caught him after an open mic set, and asked if he'd let me pick his brain regarding his experiences outside, and the ongoing export of Houston's comedy scene.
"Hope I give a gem," Ashton said as he sat down with me, two Lone Star beers between us.
(In case you ever want to buy him a drink, Ashton prefers whiskey coke. However he revealed to me he'd never tried Lone Star. Since Ashton would soon be on a plane back to NYC I pressed him to try one. He approved.)
We were on the ground floor of Rudyard's Pub. It was Monday. Open mic night was going strong upstairs. Comics floated between the two floors. Two comics were smoking cigarettes on the patio outside, but it was cold and wet and dark, so they were the odd ones out.
"This is where I started," Ashton said as he looked around. "Well, this is where we all started. This feels like home."
He noted Houston's raw comedy scene is split between wherever open mic is happening on any particular night. Rudyard's, The Secret Group. Avant Garden. Throw a stick in the air and take your pick.
I asked him how he felt in NYC year on year. Ashton mentioned his anniversary of when he left: July 3rd 2017. The day before Independence Day.
But on July 3rd, 2018, one year to the date, not much had happened.
"I was going crazy," Ashton said. "I thought, 'What the hell am I doing up here?' I wanted to have something to show within a year. What's crazy about that date - is my plane ticket says 9:30 pm. Literally one year to the minute I was sitting on a mike at 9:30 pm. Not 9:31. Not 9:29. And I got a call."
The call was from the producer of Just For Laughs, the annual international comedy festival in Canada. Ashton was set to be on their New Faces portion.
"The reason I had been feeling down was, things were happening, but I had been there for a year, and nothing had happened," he said. "I thought I'd have a TV credit. Jimmy Kimmel said they were going to put me on, emailed my stuff to JFL, they hadn't emailed me back. It was fucked. But then I get the call. They tell me I got JFL."
To Ashton, it was serendipitous. It was a break. Something that fills Houston comics with hope and anxiety. Especially in regards of moving to different city. Houston is the 4th largest city in the US, but it's comedy scene is not directly proportional.
"I think since it’s (Houston) a smaller comedy community, it’s easier to see the assholes," Ashton told me via text months earlier. "NY comedy is so big, you couldn’t possibly police people even though they try to no avail."
Obviously Ashton is not the first Houston comic to move out of Texas. He noted Matthew Broussard, Kevin Iso, Kris Atkins and Ken Boyd, among others.
Ashton also won't be the last. We began listing some of the more recent comics to emigrate.
"Dale (Cheesman) . . . Jaffer (Khan) . . . Bob (Biggerstaff)," Ashton said. "Honestly I'm flattered you even mention me. I'm so imposter syndrome. I'm just an open miker."
Regardless of where Ashton stands in the comedy scene pecking order, he experienced something they all do eventually: the plateau.
"I moved because mentally, I felt I hit a ceiling in Houston," Ashton said. "I had been doing comedy in Houston for 5 years and I wanted to move to New York where I could eat, shit, and breathe comedy."
He stressed however, that he does not believe a comic has to leave Houston to be successful.
"To build a career, Ali Siddiq will tell you that you never have to leave and he is proof of that," Ashton said. "Comics like Eddie B started making really funny videos online and now he is touring arenas on his own name, it’s wild. Still lives in Houston."
I said to Ashton that it seemed those comedians, himself included, were making up a vanguard of comics currently heading out - like envoys of Houston's comedy scene. Ashton disagreed, listing Ali Siddiq and Mo Amer as the current ambassadors of what Houston has to offer.
He made a point to say that despite living in NYC, he wants to represent Houston to the fullest extent possible.
"I don't represent New York. I don't represent America. I'm Third Ward," Ashton said. "The last thing I want is to get popping nationally before representing locally."
It brings up another question: Does a Houston comic have to leave Houston to "make it"? The answer depends on what you want "making it" to mean. Ashton noted that Houston molds comics, but it doesn't give them a worldwide audience.
"We are an oil economy, and not a entertainment economy," he said.
Ashton also cited the insane amount of work that goes into being a comic full-time outside Houston. Answering emails. Sending packets. Double-checking with the manager. Trying to get an agent.
"New York is hard," Ashton said. "It has world class comedians. The grind is really hard and I always have to remember comedy owes me nothing. I always have to remind my ego, a lot of my accomplishments involved a minimum of 12 other people."
There was a bit of a culture shock as well, he added.
"It blew my mind that Houston comedy material-wise was more progressive or maybe just way less tolerant of hate speech," he said. "In NY they're pretty lenient on what you can and can't say in the name of art. As long as it’s good people will like it, even if it is a collage image of a Coke can made from a million tiny swastikas. I’m not saying Houston comedy censors itself, just that in Houston we don’t book or allow bigots to perform at the venues I know of."
After a bit longer Ashton was pulled away to catch up with more comics he hadn't seen in person in more than a year. As of this week he's back in NYC. He just got a Total Request Live writing credit and is currently aiming at another writing staff.
"This city creates some of the strongest comics," Ashton said. "We have real culture."