Closing in on 76, Grandma Lee is speaking the universal language

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Denise Truscello/WireImage

Grandma Lee arrives at the opening-night after-party for America's Got Talent Live! at Planet Hollywood.

Tue, May 4, 2010 (10:31 a.m.)

The comic was warned, as all are, that to use the f-word in this club would mean to surrender her payment. And Lee Strong planned to abide in this one-nighter in club in North Carolina.

But one audience member in particular pushed her too far. It was early in her career in standup, which started 13 years ago, and she had not been heckled.

“I get up there, having been told if I swear I won’t get paid, and one guy kept going, ‘Git ’er done! Git ’er done!’ after every joke,” says the woman known as Grandma Lee, who rose from a run on “America’s Got Talent” to national notoriety.

“I finally couldn’t take it anymore. I said, ‘Git ’er done? Why don’t you shut the f--- up!’ ”

Out of the mouths of babes, or in this case a grandmotherly standup comic.

“Everyone laughed,” she says during a phone conversation from her home in Jacksonville, Fla., “and I got paid.”

Grandma Lee, a finalist in the 2009 “America’s Got Talent” contest who most recently appeared in the stage adaptation of the show at Planet Hollywood, is back this month at Bonkers at Palace Station. The show is 8:30 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays (dark Sundays), tickets at $29.95 ($19.95 for hotel guests and Nevada residents with valid ID). The run concludes May 29, which is Grandma Lee’s 76th birthday.

Grandma Lee was almost literally swept into a career as a comic. She and her husband, Ben, were living in Homestead, Fla., in 1992 when Hurricane Andrew chased the couple up to Jacksonville. Lee was working as directory assistance operator for Bell South at the time, and soon after was offered a buyout to leave the company. Ben had been battling cancer intermittently, finally succumbing to the disease in May of 1995.

During this period, Grandma Lee needed something to occupy her time. Her first option was to assist at a local women’s shelter. She called, but never heard back. Her next option was to try open-mic night at the Comedy Zone in Jacksonville. Good idea. By 1997, she was on the road as a standup comic.

Lee is familiar with Las Vegas. Over the past several years she has appeared at the Plaza and (pre-shuttered) Lady Luck. She won the 2003 Las Vegas Comedy Festival competition at MGM Grand, and reached the finals of “Last Comic Standing” the next year. A clip from one of her appearances on the show was shopped to NBC by Bonkers owner Joe Sanfelippo as an audition for “America’s Got Talent.” Sanfelippo and Las Vegas producer Frederic Abcar are managing the career of Grandma Lee today.

She is still in contact with “AGT” champ Kevin Skinner, talking to him by phone two or three times a week. She enjoys being recognized in public. She’s stopped in airports. She’s pointed out by guests at weddings of family and friends she’s attended. She’s recognized while riding casino escalators.

“Everywhere I go, people know me,” she says. “I really like it.”

Lee is drawing material for the stage from all avenues.

“There is always stuff every day that you can write about,” she says. “I’ve got a new bit right now, about advertising. TV commercials. I’m not a fast-food expert, but I’ll never eat at Burger King after these commercials with the King, where he just shows up in people’s bedrooms. He just creeps me out.”

As for the use of profanity, Lee allows that it is funny to swear if you are grandmother-like. But she does have her boundaries.

“I can do it without swearing, and on TV I couldn’t swear. I’ll be honest, my show is dirty, but not graphic. I know female comics who pull out dildos as part of their act. I would never do that. But when I say f---, people laugh.”

Follow John Katsilometes on Twitter at twitter.com/JohnnyKats.

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