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Southern everyman, New York ventriloquist come together for comedy show

Ventriloquist Anthony Thomas and his sidekick Leroy will perform at the Center Street Arts black box theater in Olde Town Conyers on Jan. 14.

Ventriloquist Anthony Thomas and his sidekick Leroy will perform at the Center Street Arts black box theater in Olde Town Conyers on Jan. 14.

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Southern comedian Al Ernst will perform his show, "Jesus, Take the Wheel 'Cause I am Trying to Text," at the Center Street Arts theater in Olde Town Conyers on Jan. 14.

When the Mixed Nuts Comedy Network of Georgia touches down for two shows on Saturday, Jan. 14, in Olde Town Conyers, audiences had best come ready to laugh as the shows will feature a pair of comics with close to a combined 50 years of on-stage experience.

The concerts -- set for 7:30 and 9:30 p.m. at Center Street Arts -- will showcase performances by Al Ernst, whose down-home approach has brought many converts to his "E-Man Nation," and ventriloquist Anthony Thomas, who has a hard time keeping his sassy sidekick Leroy in line.

Here's a brief look at the two comedians who will visit the east metro area on Jan. 14:Al ErnstA native of Dalton who grew up in Sarasota, Fla., Ernst pursued careers in both the ministry and in professional wrestling before developing his "E-Man Nation" stand-up act.

"I had it all set to become a minister, but found that I felt very bound by the dogmas of the church -- not that I necessarily disagreed, just I did not like the box it put someone in," Ernst wrote in an email interview.

"I became involved as a pro wrestler completely by a fluke, as I was a YMCA director who was approached by a local wrestling outfit to do a fund-raiser. I got to be the ring announcer, and the rest just fell into place. I basically played a local guy who could be brought in to lose."

A 15-year veteran of the stand-up wars, Ernst said the Internet has ushered in the biggest alteration in his industry. There have always been plenty of comics -- good and bad -- and Ernst said that hasn't changed, but access to comedy certainly has.

"The biggest change in the entertainment business in general is the Internet," he said. "The advantage of this is that one can 'go in business for yourself' and post and promote (themselves).

"The problem with that is that you can be bad at doing it. So while I do not think the talent has really gotten better or worse, I think the ability to access all content has made it seem like the business has headed down."

Ernst, whose Conyers show is titled "Jesus, Take the Wheel 'Cause I am Trying to Text," does not shy away from calling on his Southern-bred background to get his jokes and stories across, but he thinks his brand of mirth works with or without the Dixie sheen.

"I call (my comedy) 'humor for adults; not adult humor," he said. "I use my Southern roots as a way to deliver the content, but my content really can be related to anyone and any place. And I am no prude, but I see no reason to be a person who has to be edgy, either. My point of view is probably similar to most in the audience -- (I'm) just a regular guy."

And Ernst's "E-Man Nation" is perhaps his biggest spoof as he utilizes the concept to make fun of the business of branding.

"The 'E-Man Nation' is kind of a parody on itself," he said. "I think everyone and everything just gets too much into being a 'brand.' I wanted to make it its own joke and let people do with it what they want, so I left it very nebulous.

"I also think that most of us in the middle get ruled by the extremes, so I wanted to be the guy to say 'Join the E-Man Nation, and it's a cool place for us normal people.' The older you get the cooler it is -- you choose the attitude."Anthony ThomasThe New York native moved to Atlanta five years ago and admits he's still acclimating himself to the Southeast and making himself known to audiences here.

"In this high-tech world, people really don't need to go out anymore to be entertained," Thomas said during a recent phone interview. "It's just harder to get folks out, but if you're good and give good entertainment value, people will find you."

While Thomas said he began his comedy career in 1974, working as a street performer in New York City, his ability to make people laugh came years before he picked up his first ventriloquism book.

"I've always had comedy in me," Thomas said. "In my younger days, I used to get in trouble a lot at school by joking and jiving. I started street performing like crazy, like a madman in New York, which is where I learned to hone my craft."

Referring to Leroy as "the epitome of New York street," Thomas said he doesn't mind playing second fiddle/straight man to a doll.

"Leroy's the one who takes all the abuse," he said. "I prefer being the straight man. I've found what I like to do and I feel like the luckiest person around.

"I enjoy the high I get behind the doll, but you do tend to become a little anonymous," said Thomas, who in addition to his standup has written several books and produced several videos. "(Celebrated ventriloquist) Jeff Dunham is doing better than just about any comedian out there now, and that's a breath of fresh air for all ventriloquists."

A five-week winner in the early 1990s on the "Showtime from the Apollo" television show, Thomas rarely works clubs, focusing mainly on college campuses, cruises and corporate gigs. But he's found that no matter where he roams, his protege is likely to create some trouble.

"Leroy's a fish out of water," said Thomas, who plans to begin work this summer on "Comedy on the Street," a feature film about street comedians. "It's like he just walked into a room and started talking. You really never know what you're going to get with Leroy -- he's the partner who won't come to rehearsal. We don't really plan a lot -- it's a lot of off-the-cuff fun."