It was outside Magnolias Raw Bar & Grille when the well-dressed thirtysomething pulled down his khakis. As his friends chatted obliviously, he bent over and took aim, the soft glow of his pale backside radiating directly toward my bus. None of the other passengers, fresh from viewing the Vance Monument and Jackson Building, among other well-known downtown sights, seemed to mind. The man’s backside was just another local treasure to behold on a pleasant Thursday evening in Asheville.
Of course, this outing was not made with a Bible-study group or the National Park Service. (Even if, as our tour guide explained, Magnolia’s was the “natural habitat” for a particular species, “the North American cougar“.) We were instead on the haunted comedy tour offered by LaZoom Tours, Asheville’s long-running purveyor of off-kilter sightseeing.
My journey had begun 20 minutes earlier outside the Thirsty Monk beer bar, itself, much like LaZoom, an Asheville institution. (At least, so I had read on the Internet; by the time of my tour, I had lived in Asheville less than five weeks.) I immediately recognized our transport, a large purple school bus I had spotted around town on a nearly daily basis. As the bus filled about three-quarters of its seats, passengers were read a preamble of general and Asheville-specific legalese. Prohibitions included sticking limbs out the windows, and, even more egregiously, “feeding the hippies.”
Moments before the bus began to move, our guide leaped onto the bus and introduced himself with a snarl. His shirt, ripped and stained with some sort of blood-colored liquid, was set against a succession of crazed glances and deftly executed quips. Half canine, half Rodney Dangerfield, his name was “Thomas Wolfman,” he growled–although, he really hated his namesake. The rolling stage set, off we trundled into the Asheville night.
In addition to its haunted tour, which is only offered on fall evenings and requires that passengers be 17 or older, LaZoom runs regular, PG-13 city tours most days of the week. While the content (and gags) differ between the rides, both provide a combination of entertainment and fact dispensing, says Jen Lauzon, the co-creator of LaZoom along with her husband, Jim. Performances are particularly emphasized on the haunted ride, however, since viewing material is constrained by darkness and a city that just isn’t that spooky. “Asheville is limited in its hauntedness,” says Lauzon. “We’re not Charleston, we’re not New Orleans, and we’re not Savannah.”
As a result, the action on my tour would have to be inside the bus. That brings us back to Thomas Wolfman. Drunk on a bottomless reservoir of bad puns, ’80s music overlays, and double entendres masquerading as architectural commentary, “the Wolfman” kept the group howling with chuckles for the entirety of the hour-long ride. Assisting him at various points on the tour were a handful of local apparitions, among them an inebriated ghost and a frankly unsubmissive fellow in a bondage suit named Gimpy.
They may make you laugh, but Thomas Wolfman and Gimpy are no joke. Although I’m fairly certain the bent-over backside outside Magnolia’s is not counted in the roster, a handful of the characters populating the LaZoom kingdom are actual celebrities in their own right. (To wit: Sister Bad Habit, the bike-riding, beer-swilling nun who is one of LaZoom’s oldest stars, sat down for an interview with no less than the Oxford American just last month.)
Now in its ninth year, LaZoom has had plenty of time to perfect its routines. The Lauzons founded the company after arriving from New Orleans, where they had worked as street performers and Mardi Gras float designers. Their experience has thoroughly shaped LaZoom, says Jen, from the black tassels tracing the interior of the purple bus to their sketch comedy-focused writing process.
“The first year we didn’t really know what we were doing,” Jen says. “We ran out of material a lot, and would tell the crowd to ‘just look around,’ outside the bus. It was just the couple—and their chatty toddler, who, after hearing punchlines so many times, would gladly provide them to tour passengers in advance—but by the second and third year they began expanding their cast and homing in on what worked. They start each season with a new script for every tour, but let guides add their own jokes and ad-lib as they see fit.
My own guide did not pass on such liberties. By the end of my tour no local ghost story had been left untold, no witticism left unloaded. A zombie twist was offered on a standard James Taylor joke, made as we passed the old rehab center in Montford where the sensitive ’70s star once convalesced. There was also, not entirely unpredictably, a Uranus joke. Goodnight, folks—and don’t forget to tip your Wolfman.
Photos By: Meherdil Irani
The LaZoom Tours ticket booth is located at 1 1/2 Battery Park Avenue in downtown Asheville. For more information about LaZoom, call 828.225.6932, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit LaZoom.