By Eliza Billingham
May 19, 2023
On a Tuesday afternoon in November 2019, Trey Kennedy needed to get out of Kansas City. About 200 miles out, preferably.
“I told my agent I don’t even wanna be in a town where I might even have an acquaintance of any sort witness this,” Kennedy says. “So I just drove to Des Moines three hours away to do seven minutes on stage and I drove right back.”
As an undergrad at Oklahoma State University, Kennedy started posting 6-second videos with his friends on the social media app Vine. He made fun of dads trying to be cool, Christian girls being obsessed with blanket scarves, and singers riffing at unnecessary times. (His voice, though, is no joke.) He drew more than a million followers. When Vine nosedived in 2017, Kennedy transitioned to YouTube, Instagram and TikTok, eventually amassing more than 12 million followers.
In 2019, Kennedy ditched the camera for a microphone in front of a few hundred seats in Iowa. His first stand up set was supposed to be 10 minutes, but he finished in seven. He kept at it. Three and a half years later, Kennedy is taking his second comedy tour around the country and headlining a sold out Friday night show at the Fox Theater in downtown Spokane.
“Every step of the way it’s been kind of mind blowing and not the plan at all,” Kennedy says before the show. “If you would have told me this 10 years ago when I made my first Vine, it’d have been very hard to believe.”
WHAT IS COMEDY?
Vine wasn’t a cool thing on OSU’s campus. Kennedy says he was more bullied than glorified for being the weird guy posting videos online. His first viral video was a few seconds of him doing laundry while dancing to the song “Wop,” the 2012 Japanese hip-hop collab with J. Dash and Flo Rida. He named the video “When chores suck so you tryna make ‘em fun..!!!”
“Very, very 10 years ago, but it resonated,” Kennedy says.
Kennedy’s jokes have progressed. For those lucky enough to see the show tonight, get ready to see a legit stand up set, not just TikTok dances or character bits. But Kennedy hasn’t forgotten his roots and isn’t quick to dismiss social media.
“Any kid or any person who’s building a legit following online or offline, it’s not easy to do,” he says. “I think you’re seeing the respect from the traditional industry increase for those types of stuff.”
Learning how to write a joke or tell a story is a transferable skill, Kennedy thinks. Funny is funny, whether in the kitchen or on the stage. The main ingredient is practice.
Kennedy rehearsed those first 10 (seven) minutes of stand up in Des Moines more than anything he’d done before. His prep time has steadily decreased. He’s now at the point where he has very few nerves at all on stage. This is saying something for a man who would have claimed public speaking as his greatest fear 10 years ago.
“If a joke doesn’t land, I can keep rolling. It doesn’t crush me,” he says. “Time and experiences are really the only remedy.”
Despite his success on stage, Kennedy’s affection for social media hasn’t waned. Of course we could be on our phones a little less, he says, but no need to villainize Instagram. If Facebook isn’t getting in the way of what you value, just enjoy it. Social media can be a great tool, Kennedy says, and a major benefactor — it’s given him new friends, a platform, cool opportunities and plenty of laughs. He doesn’t watch television or sports for entertainment. Instead, he scrolls through TikTok.
“If you’re purely making comedic TikToks and you’re killing it, you’re a comedian in my book,” Kennedy says.
Trolls or hecklers? Hecklers are so much better. Trolls are invisible. Hecklers are a target.
“Hey, we’re right here in the same room and I have a microphone,” Kennedy says. “Let’s do this.”
WHO'S YOUR AUDIENCE?
They’re called the flyover states for a reason. Both coasts are filled with people trying to forget mid-America. Conservatives and Christians, each a hefty demographic of the bread basket, often get a bad rep for being slow to laugh and easy to offend. Can anything good come from Oklahoma?
Kennedy (and probably Bill Hader) hope you disagree. Born smack dab in the middle of the state, Kennedy now lives in Kansas City and isn’t dreaming of the ocean. White Facebook moms (including his mom) aren’t the only people who laugh at his jokes. Putting out videos that are authentic to himself and his roots, Kennedy has found an audience that appreciates Midwestern charm and decency without being puritanical about it.
“There’s a big swath of people who want it clean but also can still take a joke,” he says. “New York City, LA, they just wanna do their thing. But there’s a whole bunch of people who need that voice and that truly funny comedian. And so that’s what I’m trying to be.”
It’s not just G-rated Disney stuff, Kennedy says. Some of his most popular videos exaggerate relationship tropes, especially around dating and marriage. A husband tries to get a wife to stick to a budget, a boyfriend can’t eat without being disgusting, or the couch is completely swallowed by too many throw pillows.
These aren’t everyone’s experience, Kennedy says, but they’re often based on his own marriage or the marriages of people around him. And they resonate for a reason. In a cultural moment where people are sensitive to generalizations and gender roles, there are plenty of people who are relaxed enough about it to laugh at the stereotypes. It’s funny if it rings true and funny if it’s the opposite.
“You learn for years and years to just trust what you think is funny and what people will enjoy,” Kennedy says. “You just find people who wanna laugh and wanna poke fun at themselves and others.”
WHAT'S THE POINT?
On his social media profiles, Kennedy lists one of his favorite Bible verses, like most hipster Christian girls do. His is John 3:30, “He must become greater; I must become less.” It’s John the Baptist explaining to his disciples that he is not the messiah and directing their attention toward Jesus and away from himself. It’s a provocative verse for somebody like Kennedy who makes a living drawing attention to himself.
One afternoon in a coffee shop, a fan introduced himself to Kennedy. The fan’s brother had cancer, and they sent Kennedy’s videos to each other to cheer up. It meant a lot to both of them. That’s a moment Kennedy decided his job was worth doing, and it was worth doing for others.
“Ultimately, there’s at least a few people who my content or my shows really make their day,” Kennedy says. “It’s a pretty great gift to be able to do that professionally.” As his confidence and conviction grew, Kennedy performed closer to home. His first tour was announced just weeks before the COVID-19 pandemic and was subsequently postponed. It was mid-2021 before he performed in Kansas City to a sold out crowd of many people who knew him, including a lot of close friends and his wife.
What made such an intimate show possible?
“I’m trying to remember, it’s about people I’m serving, not me,” Kennedy says. “I just need to be more worried about their experience than mine.”