Before he hit the stand-up circuit 25 years ago, William Lee Martin was just a small-town kid.
“You know, I grew up skinny and buck-toothed and picked on relentlessly,” he says of growing up in Blue Mound, Texas, just outside of Fort Worth. “Back then, the only folks I could make laugh were my family. Back then, we were called nerds.”
After graduating from college, then getting a job in advertising, the skinny, buck-toothed kid knew he needed to make a change.
“I wrote advertising out of college and I hated every minute of it,” he says. “You know, I used to look out my fifth-floor window thinking, ‘Fifth floor… yeah, that won’t kill me. It’ll just break my leg.’”
At 29, just as he had purchased a home and started a family, he lost his job.
“I lost my job. We all did. We got sold to a different company,” he says. “And I called up my grandmother. She said, ‘What do you want to do?’ and I said ‘I don’t know.’ So, she said, ‘Well, go home and look in the mirror and ask yourself ‘Are you happy?’”
After a lot of soul searching, and a lot of talks with God, Martin decided he wanted to do stand-up.
“I called my grandmother up and I said, ‘You know, since I was five years old, all I wanted to be was on stage and television and radio and print,” he says. “And she said ‘Go for it.’”
His mother, he says, wasn’t so impressed.
“I called my mom and I said, ‘you know, Mama, I decided that I’m not going to look for another job, and that I’m going to be a stand-up comic,’” he says. “And she goes ‘Really?’ and then she muffles the phone and turns to my dad and says ‘He wants to be a comedian. I don’t think he’s that funny.” But then she came back on like she’d never said it and like a true Southern Baptist girl would say, she said ‘Your Dad said go for it!’”
His first night on stage, he says, was May 17th, 1996.
Now some 25 years later, he’s had comedy specials on CMT and Amazon, and recently released a show full of new material that fans can stream for $5 per view.
It was the work ethic he inherited from his small-town days that he credits with his success.
“I tell young comedians all the time,…I’ll hold up my finger to my thumb, you know, about three inch gap. And I’ll say ‘if you work, uh, that hard just that hard, you’ve beat everybody from my thumb down to the ground because there’s so many people that won’t put in any effort at all,” he says. “I think that really I am just dedicated to the craft, and I think that all came from my country background.”
His religious background – he’d started singing in church with his mom at the age of five – also influences his comedy, he says.
When he was just starting out, he was known as Cowboy Bill. As the act progress, he says, the language got worse and worse, until one day, he stopped to talk to God about it.
“One day I was mowing the grass, and I was thinking about the act and how there was just something missing,” he says. “So I was praying about it and I said ‘Lord, why don’t you let me grab the brass ring?’… And a voice inside my head said ‘I know you’re waiting on me, but I’m waiting on you, son.’”
He knew then that it was time to drop the cuss words and clean up his act.
Since then his routines about his wife asking him to get a vasectomy as a Christmas present for her, and learning how to be a cowboy on his grandparents’ farm as a kid, have entertained audiences from cruise ships to cable networks.
“This wasn’t a character that I created, you know, it was based on true stories,” he says. “I’m not a one-liner kind of guy, all my stuff is based on my real life.”
In 2011, he was asked by a friend to perform at a golf tournament for a young girl in treatment for cancer. Meeting her and being a part of her journey, had a real impact on him, he says. It was the inspiration for his non-profit “Cowboys Care Foundation.”
Designed to give support and smiles to boys and girls with cancer and other life-threatening illnesses, the organization’s main goal is to give a brand new cowboy hat to young cancer patients. Since its founding in 2012, the organization has given away more than 10,000 cowboy hats, he says.
Now living in Newkirk, Texas, population 887, Martin says he’s finding new things to laugh at every day.
“It’s funny because people were asking me, ‘Are you getting all this new material being home for Covid?’ And at first I was like, No, not at all,” he says. “But it turned out that God was messing with me again, the whole time. Because once I started writing it down,… it just came out… The relevant jokes that people are talking about and experiencing right now. What an opportunity that is as a comic to get that stuff out there before a lot of comics have even gotten back on the stage.”