When radio personality Kristi Lee, the longtime news director on the nationally syndicated Bob & Tom Show, goes on the road to host stand-up comedy showcases around the country, she never counts herself in as one of the main attractions. She barely even accepts credit as one of supporting comedic acts.
“I never purposefully pursued or ever thought I would ever do anything with comedy,” Lee, born Theresa Renee Rose, tells Charleston Scene. “I don’t ever sit down to write jokes. What you hear on the radio in the morning is so off the cuff and unpredictable. Someone once commented that I was witty, and I thought, ‘Oh, OK.’ ”
Local fans tune into Q104.5 FM Monday through Friday from 6-10 a.m. to hear Lee and her quick-witted cohorts comment on current affairs, bizarre national news, sports highlights and curious cultural trends.
On a daily basis, The Bob & Tom Show welcomes veteran and up-and-coming stand-up comedians for interviews and on-air skits.
With a dedicated following and firmly established reputation, the show is one of the longest-running and highest-rated radio programs in the country.
“Being around comedians as much as I have been over the years, you learn by osmosis and start thinking like a comedian,” Lee says. “That’s how I learned.”
Since joining hosts Bob Kevoian and Tom Griswold in 1984 as part of the Indianapolis-based Bob & Tom Show team (10 years before the morning show went into national syndication), Lee has developed her role into a key character: a straight shooter role that balances the smart-alecky, often goofy antics and antagonizing of her close colleagues and various special guests.
On the air, Lee’s often the only sane person in a slightly insane situation.
“I am a reactor on the show, a follower and not a leader,” Lee says. “I’m a straight person. That’s my role. To a lot of people, I’m the den mother. I always joke that I have two little girls at home and the three big boys who I have to deal with in the studio six hours a day.”
Lee, Griswold, Kevoian, sport guru Chick McGee and their revolving cast of characters manage to touch on raunchy topics in a clean way, whether it’s basic, immature bathroom humor, gross-out jokes or sexual innuendo. It’s a tricky skill.
“I think Tom Griswold prides himself on the fact that the show can be clean, although he can be really disgusting at times,” Lee laughs. “He’s a huge fan of the late, great comedian Robert Schimmel (a veteran stand-up who regularly appeared on Rodney Dangerfield’s classic HBO specials and The Howard Stern Show), who would tackle subjects that were entirely disgusting and dirty, but handled them cleanly.”
Break out from boys
From week to week on The Bob & Tom Show, Lee inevitably rubs elbows with all sorts of contemporary comedians, but she remains loyal to some of her favorite female comedians from her childhood, mainly pioneering performers such as Lucille Ball, Mary Tyler Moore and Carol Burnett.
“Those women were very influential and inspiring to me growing up,” Lee says. “I especially loved the dynamic on Carol Burnett’s variety show. But, you know, I also love great modern-day comedic actresses like Tina Fey and Kristen Wiig.”
Those in attendance at the Charleston Music Hall on Friday might catch a glimpse of some of Lee’s original humor during her brief sets and introductions on stage.
“There’s a little bit of my own thing going on, but I think people expect to see Kristi Lee, you know?” she says. “One time, when I first started going out and hosting these shows, I went out on stage and used a bad word. Afterwards, a friend said she’d overheard some attendees talking about the show, and she said they couldn’t believe that I’d cursed. It just didn’t seem like something Kristi Lee would do, even being away from the boys. That resonated with me, so I try very hard not to do that anymore. If ever do say a bad word, it’s effective and not just for the sake of saying it.”
Watching Lee blush or giggle at a rare utterance of profanity might be entertaining, but the gist of her act will most likely lie within her genuine, unguarded amiability.
“It’s empowering getting a laugh on stage without the boys’ support,” she says. “It’s like, ‘Wow, this is fun.’ But I could never do this for a living.”
Traveling road show
Lee likes to emphasize her supporting role as part of The Bob & Tom Show team, but away from their radio headquarters, she provides key leadership as the host of the ongoing The Bob & Tom Comedy Show series.
“I like traveling like this because it gives me a little bit of a break from the guys on the show,” Lee says. “But you’re never going to see a Kristi Lee special on Showtime. The little bits that I get to do are fun and easy, but they’re not the main part of my persona. The world of stand-up comedy is not one I’d fall into if I lost my job tomorrow.”
Lee might downplay her connection to the contemporary comedy scene, but she can’t deny her duties as a cheerleader for some of the show’s recurring acts.
On Friday, she’ll present stand-up comedians Donnie Baker, Drew Hastings and Tommy Johnagin to local fans at the Charleston Music Hall.
“One of the best things about The Bob & Tom Comedy tour is that you get to see three headliners,” Lee says. “Any of these guys could hold their own. They do hourlong shows all the time. Here, you get to see all three in one show, which is almost unheard of. You’re getting really high-quality comedy in one spot.
“A lot of our featured acts are friends and part of the family,” Lee adds. “Let’s face it, Drew Hastings is part of the family. I could book a show tomorrow, call him and tell him to be there, and he’d be there ... I think.”
The Ohio-based Hastings made a splash in Los Angeles in the 1990s as a bespectacled purveyor of sharp-tongued observational humor. He recently returned to Ohio and ran for (and won) a position as the mayor of the rural farming town of Hillsborough. His latest album is titled “Farmageddon.”
“Drew has really evolved over the last couple of years, and he’s a man who’s worn many, many different hats in his time. He’s done more in his life than anyone I know,” she adds. “And now you add being mayor to that? He takes it as seriously as anything else, and he’s actually gotten a lot of comedy out of it.”
The rednecky Kentuckian Baker (aka Ron Sexton) is a Bob & Tom Show regular who frequently calls in or performs hilariously hickish anthems and odes in the studio.
“What can I say about Donnie?” chuckles Lee. “He still has a boat, and he’s still a big pain in my butt. But, by God, he’s there, and we love him. Donnie does a great job every night.”
One of the newcomers to The Bob & Tom Comedy Show is young upstart Johnagin, an Illinois native who’s been on the road and on the airwaves plenty over the past five years.
Johnagin appeared on a 30-minute “Comedy Central Presents” special in 2009. He competed in NBC’s “Last Comic Standing” in 2010, landing in second place. And local audiences caught him opening for Daniel Tosh at the North Charleston Performing Arts Center on 2011.
“Dealing with Tommy is so fun because it’s like watching your little son grow up to become a megastar,” Lee says. “I can remember his first appearance on our show. From day one, he has hit it out of the ballpark. He is a fun, young up-and-comer, and I’m stunned he hasn’t gotten his own sitcom already. He’s so talented, and I’m proud to be on a bill with him.”