By Maria Johnson
Eric Trundy is pacing around the stage, doing a bit about the grief he felt after his friend, Rene Luna, another comedian, died of testicular cancer last year.
Trundy confesses that he was sobbing as he was cleaning house, begging God to let him see Luna one more time. In the middle of his mourning, he saw a fly on the wall. He snaps a rag at the wall behind the stage to demonstrate what happened next: The fly dropped.
At that moment, he tells the crowd, it occurred to him: What if reincarnation is real?
What if God heard his prayer and . . .
The crowd laughs. They get it.
Trundy is a funny guy.
Not just because he’s a professional comedian.
And not just because of his hair, sort of bouffant mohawk that rides high on his white-walled head. It’s a very stand-up cut. Cough-cough. And not just because — but honestly, largely because — of port-city mouth, which spits f-bombs and carries an implicit challenge: “You-lookin’-at-me?”
It’s not even because he once worked as a professional wrestler named Rage.
No, Trundy — a fireplug of a guy who grew up in New Bedford, Massachusetts, and looks like he’d just as soon slug you as hug you — is funny because he describes himself as “a crier.”
Meaning that he cries. Easily. With tears.
“I just love feelings, you know?” he says as he reaches for another tissue. Of course, the tissue box holder looks like a Rubik’s Cube because we’re sitting on the intentionally gaudy set of his YouTube talk show, a place that looks like your grandmother’s house. If your grandmother ran a bordello. In Vegas.
The point is, Trundy loves emotions. All of them. Not just the happy ones.
“It turns out, happy is shit without sad,” he sniffs.
Now feels like a good time to say that you should catch Trundy — and a raft of other comics — at the North Carolina Comedy Festival in downtown Greensboro this month.
Why? Because they hold up a mirror with their stories. If all goes well, you laugh at them — and yourself.
“It’s why people watch comedians,” Trundy says. “There’s more vulnerability.”
Trundy is one of the most vulnerable, and funniest, guys around.
He’s a regular at The Idiot Box Comedy Club, the epicenter of the comedy festival, which will use six stages across the city. Idiot Box owner Jennie Stencel started the festival in 2018. This year’s lineup is the biggest ever, featuring 300 comedians from all over North America.
Trundy has been a crowd favorite every year.
“Eric lights up a stage and a room,” says Stencel. “He draws the audience in and gets them to laugh at life’s difficulties and his own struggles, but sometimes it’s just plain joy and silliness . . . He could be headlining all over the country.”
That’s not hype. Trundy, 45, played coast-to-coast, at some of the nation’s biggest comedy clubs until about six years ago, when he was leveled by depression, a blue note that has been sounding since his childhood, which was marred by many forms of abuse.
As a teen, Trundy soothed himself with alcohol and comedy. He devoured cassette tapes of his favorite comics: George Carlin, Richard Pryor and Rodney Dangerfield.
“I listened to comedy like other people listened to music,” he says.
The habit persisted for years, even as Trundy held down a successful career servicing industrial wastewater treatment systems in Virginia and North Carolina.
When podcasts became popular, he heard comedians talk about getting their starts at open mic nights.
That’s why he stepped on stage at The Idiot Box one Thursday night in 2011.
“I got a few laughs, and I was hooked,” he says. “It’s a small dose of what it feels like when you fall in love …except it’s a whole room full of people understanding you. It’s intimate.”
He quit his job and hit the road, which brought a new round of pressures. When Trundy and his wife divorced, a friend, comedian Anthony Lowe, let him stay at his family’s cabin in the woods.
“I don’t think I would have survived had Anthony not helped me,” Trundy says.
As partial repayment of the kindness, Trundy recently produced and directed A Bee in a Bird Suit, a comedy special for Lowe, now Annie Lowe, a transgender woman.
“I’m very lucky that one of my best friends is who she’s supposed to be, and I know for a fact that someone will watch that special and an opinion will change,” Trundy says. “The more you listen to people, the more empathy you have.”
Trundy’s developing new projects for himself, too.
He hosts a YouTube talk show called NBH, short for the ironically titled Never Been Happier. In a recent episode, he and comic pals Nick Ciaccia and DeJahzh Hedrick make fun of machismo by kicking around the idea of a birth control pill for men.
“It would need a masculine name,” says Ciaccia.
“It’s gotta be tough to swallow,” says Hedrick.
“They’re not like little pills,” Ciaccia imagines. “They’re big pills.”
“Lots of jagged edges,” Hedrick adds.
“They taste bad,” Ciaccia says, lapsing into a deep voice. “But I gotta take it.”
“Take it with a beer,” Trundy chips in. “It’s shaped like a pretzel.”
He’s also shaping new bits for the stage, unafraid to show the, um, cracks in his life.
He tells the story of rock climbing at a waterfall with a friend. On the way out, Trundy bent down to play with a cairn, a stack of rocks that marked a trial.
“This lovely, tender gentleman — I think he was Hispanic — walks up to me and says ‘Excuse me. Your pants is broken.’”
Trundy had split the seat of his pants while rock climbing.
“I had been showing my ass to everybody for a good four or five minutes. This guy was so polite. He was letting me off the hook. He said, ‘Oh, you know, it happened to me one time, too.’” Trundy, who’s planted in a wing chair on the empty set of his talk show, giggles about how a stranger tried to ease his embarrassment by sharing that he’d shown his ass to the world, too. It worked.
Trundy shakes his head. “F****in’ adorable.” OH
Trundy will headline a show Sept. 9 at The Crown at the Carolina Theatre. To learn more about the festival, which is scheduled for Sept. 2-12, go to nccomedyfestival.com.
Maria Johnson is a contributing editor of O.Henry.