CINCINNATI — Most comedians would kill for the response Chuck Esterly received from the first standup routine he performed at Go Bananas Comedy Club on Oct. 14.
A video of his seven-minute set received a million views and counting after professional comedian Mark Chalifoux posted it on YouTube and it was shared anonymously on Reddit.com the next day. It also garnered multiple positive write-ups and reviews on websites like Buzzfeed, Huffington Post, and Time.com.
Watch this 89-year-old man crush his first standup set https://t.co/0C2XoaCkug
— TIME.com (@TIME) November 6, 2015
"I’m overwhelmed by the Internet thing," Esterly said of the response.
The now 90-year-old (his birthday was Nov. 10) said he performed on a whim after signing up for a three-week comedy writing course offered through the Sycamore Senior Center, a place where he sometimes goes to play pingpong.
Getting on stage and performing the material was "graduation" from the course led by Go Bananas' Chalifoux and fellow comedian Cam O'Connor.
"To be real frank with you, I had never been to a comedy club" before signing up for the class, Esterly said.
Esterly said he decided to possibly make himself look like "an embarrassing old man" that night because he wanted to show the audience that "the fun doesn't stop. You can make it stop, but if you let it in, it's there."
Chalifoux, who also introduces Esterly in the video, said he was impressed by the 90-year-old's comedic chops.
"I was thrilled he performed as well as he did," he said. "I have never seen an open-micer that calm before his first set, and watching him win over the entire crowd with his poise and delivery was truly remarkable. Going on stage and trying to make strangers laugh terrifies most people, so to see him not only go after it, but succeed beyond everyone's expectations was incredible. All of the comedians at the club that night were blown away by his performance and treated him as one of our own."
The first-time comedian was traveling the country, visiting his four daughters when his stand up performance went viral online. The trip ended with him celebrating his 90th birthday in Cleveland with them. It wasn't until he attended a Veteran's Day event at the senior center that he learned about his online celebrity status.
A host of people tried to reach Esterly at the center because the viral video's description mentioned the center.
"Just people I never expected to hear from tried to contact me. I guess a couple of these might be agents — L.A., London, New York," Esterly said while going through the messages kept for him by Cynthia Holloway, the director of programming and events at the center. Holloway was also the person who set up the comedy-writing course.
She said she took messages from people representing America's Got Talent, Inside Edition, Huffington Post, Slate.com and other media outlets.
“I’ve got other senior centers and nursing homes asking if we can book Chuck,” Holloway said of the deluge of phone calls she received.
Esterly said most of the feedback he received online and in messages was positive. The headline on a Huffington Post article re-sharing the YouTube video read "Chuck Esterly, 89, Slays Audience With Perfect Stand-Up Debut."
But, as Esterly said he's learned over the past couple of days, online fame can also bring out the critics.
"I received a message from a person from BrowBeat at Slate.com who called me a 'joke thief,'" he said.
That person was Forrest Wickman, a senior editor at Slate. Wickman's piece, "That Viral, 89-Year-Old Stand-Up Is a Shameless Joke Thief," not only accused Esterly of stealing jokes, but broke down where some of them came from.
Esterly admitted that he expressed no shame in his response to Wickman who asked him to address the accusations. He also thanked the journalist for the publicity, good or bad.
"My response to him was most of my jokes were from friends," Esterly said. "How do I know they are stolen? Most of the young comedians, they do things that I don’t really understand. They are modern, they are fast and maybe a little dirtier than me. I just told a few jokes I heard. I may have tried to direct them toward old folks. I had no intent of making a career out of this."
When asked about his exchange with Esterly, Wickman stated that "judging from some of the more angry replies I got on Twitter, not everyone got the humor in my post (I’m still working on my own comedy chops), but I intended it more as a lighthearted bit of media criticism than anything. To his credit, Esterly showed a good sense of humor about it, which was no surprise, and I hope I still have half the sense of humor that he has when I’m 90."
Wickman added his intent is always to reflect the truth when reporting the news. In Esterly's case, that meant calling out media coverage that made it appear the senior was a comedic genius who wrote all of his own material.
Esterly joked after the exchange that "even the guy who accused me of being a shameless joke thief had something nice to say — that even though they were stolen jokes at least I told them well."
Chalifoux added it "was also fairly indicative of the Internet today to see some of the backlash that comes with anything popular. (Esterly) really got to see a condensed version of what fame is like these days, both the overwhelmingly good and the persistent minority of negativity that lives in that space. In the end, I'm happy people reacted so positively to his video."
In the past few weeks, there also has been some speculation on what Esterly might do with his newfound fame.
“Chuck doesn’t know it, but I’ve become his agent here,” Holloway joked after dealing with all of his media and contact requests.
The 90-year-old, though, said no thanks. Or more succinctly, when looking at messages from those L.A. and New York agents, "I need an agent like I need a hole in the head."
Esterly said he plans to spend most of his time like he did before the video. That includes playing pingpong at the center, staying in touch with his children, and caring for his wife of 70 years, whom he described as "handicapped" and averse to going out too often.
"I don’t have any intentions of going any further," he said. "One of the comedians, Chalifoux I believe, said, 'You made a million people smile with that video.' That sounds great. I’m very happy if the video has helped the senior center or Go Bananas. I’m very happy with that."