“She said, ‘Craig, this is your dream, you can get there from here if you work really hard and you make some really good choices.’ She gave me a homework assignment that really changed my life. She said ‘Craig before you write any jokes, I want you to do something. I want to go down to the library and check out every biography we have on the great comedians of the last century. I want you to research your heroes and report what they did right, what they did wrong and who were some of the comedians you want to model your career after?’”
“What I never anticipated, though, was how much it was going to impact my life offstage,” noted Tornquist. “One of the things I discovered that spring was half of the comedians I studied had their lives and careers totally destroyed by drugs and alcohol.”
“Every single one was a star in their heyday and every single one of them had their careers and lives totally destroyed by drugs and alcohol,” said Tornquist. “Well this reading assignment caused me to make a decision in high school. And that was to stay completely away from drugs and alcohol for the rest of my life. And for me that was a decision that had nothing to do with a car crash, nothing to do with a tragedy in my family, For me it was a career decision because if I knew that not only did I want to do this for a job but once I got to I wanted to live to tell about it.”
And while he loves his job, the best part of his life is his wife Heidi to whom he has been married for 25 years, and their three daughters.
And what led him to doing a show for 1,000 high school students at 8:30 in the morning in Alabama rather than a comedy club in New York, L.A. or Chicago, one might ask?
Local high school students join comedian Craig Tornquist on stage for a “dance-off” to a three-minute selection consisting of snippets from his favorite tunes of all time.
“In the 1990s my career pathway took me to comedy clubs throughout the country and I was doing okay but I seemed to be having the same frustrating conversation everywhere, every night when I walked off the stage with either the club manager or the club owner,” said Tornquist. “The last time this conversation took place was in Massachusetts. I walked off stage and the manager made a bee line for me. She said ‘Craig, we need to talk right now. Craig, you have got to dirty up your act.’ But I said ‘they are laughing.’ She said ‘you need to learn something. This is a comedy club. We don’t make our money off the sound of laughter, we make our money off the sale of alcohol. We book these people drinking a lot. Drunk crowds do not want clean material. If you are going to make it in this business you either need to dirty it up or get out.”’
“I was furious!” said Tornquist. “I went back to the motel room and Heidi was with me on this trip, this was long before the girls came into our world. I said ‘Heidi, I don’t want to do this anymore.’ She said, ‘But you wanted to be a comedian since you were in high school.’ I said, ‘No, the only way I can be successful is to come up with a lot of rotten material for a roomful of people whose behavior I don’t respect in the first place.’”
“We went home and I narrowed my options to three,” said Tornquist. “You guys always have options in your lives. Option No. 1 was to dirty up my act. I knew all those words, I knew all those body parts. Most fifth- graders can write the bulk of that material but I cannot feel comfortable with those words coming out of my mouth, especially in public.”
“Option No. 2 was quitting, and I came that close to doing it, and then Heidi said, ‘Wait a minute, maybe there is a different direction you can take than from what everyone else says you have to do and ultimately Option No. 3 is the one I chose,” said Tornquist.
“I decided to see if I could still find audiences in America who still want clean stand up comedy, and now I do over 200 shows a year in schools, churches and for corporate audiences, and that decision has taken me from California, New York, Texas, Maine, and ultimately it brought me here today to Cherokee County in Alabama, and whether you guys realize or not, you are better than any comedy club crowd I have had anywhere in America,” said Tornquist. “You are smart, you are friendly and you are sober. All three qualities I find very, very attractive.”
Tornquist invited students to join in a game of “That’s me” which involved several statements to which students were asked to respond.
-I am into sports! That’s me!
-I stink at sports! That’s me!
-I am the oldest child! That’s me!
-I am the favorite child. That’s me!
- I can play a musical instrument! That’s me! -I love to sing! That’s me! “When you drive, does the phone go in the box until you get where you are going?” Tornquist asked. “The next day when you get in your ve- hicle are you going to buckle your seat belt because just because you are making great decisions doesn’t mean that everyone else is. And that will increase your likelihood of walking away from a mistake someone else is about to make.”
“All of these little decisions will determine which doors open and which doors close,” said Tornquist. “My experience has been that if you dream really big, you work really hard and you make really good choices, it can be a wonderful life.”
Tornquist had the opportunity to see one of his favorite comedians in concert, Red Skelton, who was a superstar in America for more than 60 years.
“I met him at Purdue University and later that night I saw him do a two- and- half- hour concert for 6,000 college students,” said Tornquist. “He was so good they gave him a standing ovation in the middle of his show. He still had it at the age of 80. He shared with students a thought I would like to leave you with this morning. He used to say, ‘Your talent is God’s gift to you. What you do with your talent is your gift back to God.’”