The Union Club crowd was tuned up. It was only 9:30 p.m. on a Thursday, but it felt like Saturday night at closing time: Patrons chased shots of Fireball—the special—with swigs from PBR tallboys. They leaned into their tables, yelling over each other as pool balls clacked and the speakers blasted "Vicious." Most of them had arrived hours earlier to celebrate Lou Reed's 75th birthday, and when that was over they stayed and kept drinking. Caught up in the clamor, they seemed to barely notice when a group of comedians began to set up on the dim stage at the side of the room. Even when the lights came up and Krysta Campbell, emcee for HomeGrown Comedy, greeted the room with her usual boisterous, sharp-witted charm, and even as the comics filed one by one to the microphone for their five-minute sets, the crowd's indifference was palpable.
"I knew when I walked in that night that it was going to get out of hand," HomeGrown Comedy founder John Howard said later. "I could sense it. Besides doing comedy to nobody, there's nothing worse than doing comedy in front of a large, obnoxious bar crowd."
When it was his turn, Howard took the stage and started a bit about how he had just had a baby, recounting the messiness of birth and the roller-coaster ride of the first few weeks. Halfway through his set, the audience was still unruly, and someone started heckling him. Howard abandoned his jokes.
"You guys are so much fun," he said with honeyed sarcasm. "It's like, at this table, this guy's talking." He pointed to someone near the stage. "Let's just hang out with him for a moment. How are you doing, sir? You like to sit in the front and say dumb shit at a comedy show? That's nice. OK, you can shut the fuck up now, that's also good."
From the back of the bar someone yelled, "Fuck you, dude!"
"Thank you!" Howard replied cheerfully as other audience members began heckling him. "I can do this all night."
The crowd felt a little like a stirred-up hornet's nest, but the chatter finally died down and Howard eased back into his set, working some solid laughs out of the room before stepping off the stage. Campbell returned to the mic with the bravado of a ringmaster and announced, "John Howard, everyone!" Then she smirked: "Giving birth is so hard for men." The audience laughed again. People at the bar rotated to face the stage, and a few pool players took a break to move up closer. By the time the last comic took the stage the room's mood had turned. They were finally listening.
It's been six years since Howard started HomeGrown Comedy open mic night at the Union Club, and during that time Missoula's comedy scene has blown up. Open mics have emerged at venues all across town, and comics now have opportunities to perform at showcases and competitions on a regular basis. Out of that scene, a community has formed. More than 30 standup comics consistently showcase their jokes on Missoula stages. On weekends, more established comics tour together in small groups to venues across the state.
In bigger cities, those venues tend to be filled with more comics, waiting their turn, but shows in Missoula are populated with non-comics waiting to be entertained. Comics have to learn to communicate in real time, with a real audience, face to face. It's a level of engagement and a degree of risk that doesn't happen—and can't happen—on social media and the other virtual spaces where we so often perform our interaction with the world anymore.
Talking to people alone from a stage is hard. Even if a comic has painstakingly prepared, tiny differences in delivery and word choice can make or break the relationship with the audience. Good comics know how to read the room, interact with the crowd, adjust the punchline, and even then, they still might fail to connect. They still might bomb.
The precariousness of standup comes with extra risk in a time when public discourse of any sort is so wrapped around the axle of political correctness. The very term is divisive, of course. People use it all the time to excuse their own refusal of common decency, and it's also true that progressive terminology and a quickly evolving language can create landmines for the unfamiliar. Starting comics who've been told by their friends that they're funny as hell show up all the time at open mics and quickly learn that they're not so funny after all.
There's a combative element to comedy, and it often hinges on the difference between pushing the audience away and pulling it in.
Lou Reed night at the Union Club was an extreme version of the perpetual struggle between comic and audience.
So: "Why get up in front of a room full of people to potentially crash, burn, and embarrass yourself?" Howard asks. "I think it comes down to the payoff, knowing that your time and work are connecting with people on a greater level. It's knowing that by making the audience laugh, they are connecting with you, and you are connecting with them. When you're on a roll with a set and you have the audience rolling, there is a feeling of small endorphin blasts going through your body. And immediately, once you get off stage, you have the urge to do it again."
Michael Beers is holding court at a corner table in the back of the Union Club just a week after the already-infamous open mic. It's "Posse Night," an informal gathering of comedians that's been taking place every Thursday night for the past 8 years.
"Let it be said that the official historians are not with us," Beers says, "but, to my knowledge, as a long-time student of Posse Night"
The table erupts into laughter.
"Am I Jane Goodall?" Beers says. "No."
"You know our habits and our diets," says comedian Charley Macorn.
"I know the mating rituals," Beers says. And everyone laughs again.
Posse Night was started by John Howard, Krysta Campbell and some other comics a couple of years before HomeGrown existed, when they were all part of an improv and sketch comedy group called Todd Lankton and the Family Band. Now Posse Night serves as a standing date for local and touring stand-up comics, a rendezvous where they can dissect the events of the week in comedy over drinks and, inevitably, make each other laugh.
Beers is one of the most established and popular comics in Missoula. He started doing stand-up in 2001, while he was still in high school, on Monday nights at the now-defunct rock club Jay's Upstairs. His comedy is self-deprecating, but it's also bold. Beers was born with a condition called VACTERLan acronym that describes symptoms: vertebral defects, anal atresia, cardiac defects, tracheo-esophageal fistula, renal anomalies and limb abnormalities. The condition's most prominent display for Beers is an underdeveloped right arm and a swagger. He often uses his arm as a punchline, but where he really connects is in allowing an audience that might be uncomfortable around people who are different, or who might worry about laughing at anything to do with a disability, to see him and hear him and interact with him normally, without the artificial distance that difference can impose. He's funny, so laughter is the bridge.
A lot of the Posse Night comedians had performed at the open mic on Lou Reed night, and they spend some time trying to understand what happened.
"I walked in and knew the night was going to go one of two ways," says Zack Jarvis. "Mike told me if you do a bit at the Union and it does OK, it's going to do good anywhere else. If you do a bit that does great, you're going to kill anywhere else. And if you do a bit that kills here, you're just going to annihilate wherever you go. If you can get this audience to all pay attention and all be laughing, you made it. This is trial by fire."
Jarvis, who grew up in Great Falls, tells a story about returning to his hometown to do a show. Two men started heckling in the middle of his set, and when he looked to see who they were, he saw they were sitting with some old friends of his who were clearly embarrassed by the situation.
"When you do a good set, an audience member might come up and talk to you afterward," Jarvis says. "When somebody heckles you and you know who they are and they stick around after the show, you go up to them."
Which is what he did. He greeted his old friends and then turned to one of the hecklers.
"What the fuck was your problem?" Jarvis asked the guy. The flustered heckler told Jarvis he just didn't think the set was funny. Then he apologized.
"You can be as shitty as you want to be online," Jarvis says. "But when you see them face to face, you realize they're a person. And that's what happened with him. At the same time, when I was on stage I was really mad at this fucking guy, but when I got off stage, the fact that he was so flustered made me stop. It was like, OK, I don't know what happened. Maybe the night got away from you, maybe you're drunk like I am, but let me impart some wisdom to you for the next time you come to a comedy show.'"
The role of the audience in any given show can be huge, but comedy is a two-way street. Comedy has a long tradition of stirring up trouble, and stand-up tracks back to a fundamental aspect of ancient Greek rhetoric, parrhesia, which translates roughly as "free speech," but encompasses a more complex meaning: speaking candidly and asking forgiveness for doing so. Philosophers and playwrights regularly deployed parrhesia, but sometimes there were consequences. Socrates was sentenced to death for his candor. From 18th century music halls to Sarah Silverman and Louis C.K., comedy's core concept of prodding sacred cows and pushing the boundaries of acceptable speech remains deeply ingrained. Stand-up comics take risks in rooms full of strangers. What they present as funny, and how they present it, can lay bare not just society's foibles and imperfections, but their own. And those imperfections can run the gamut from merely cringeworthy to flat-out offensive.
If you attend even one Missoula open mic, you're likely to watch at least one comic, often a newbie, try to turn a taboo topic into a joke—and fail miserably. An open mic can start to mimic the comments on a Facebook thread. One new comic recently stood up at an open mic and told a series of jokes about sexual assault, doubling down on the crassness even as the audience responded with hostility. A week later, the same guy came back and told jokes about people with disabilities. At some point, Howard started yelling at him, and the audience chanted until he left the stage. Afterward, comedian Aaron Juhl spent almost all five minutes of his set roasting the guy.
Which is notable, if not funny, because Juhl has been known to offend audiences—and fellow comedians—as well. John Howard has sent him post-show Facebook messages encouraging him to rethink his use of the N word. Several comedians have called him to task for perceived racism and misogyny. Under other circumstances Juhl might have chosen to disregard the criticism, but he'd registered the reaction of the audience and he knew the material wasn't working. Just as important, he'd become a part of the tight-knit community of comedians, and the idea of alienating his friends didn't sit right with him.
"I realized, 'Most of these people are not impressed with my mastery of the N word, so just talk about something else,'" he says. "There's a million things to talk about. It's hard, because you grow up watching Chris Rock and George Carlin and they don't give a shit. The idea of the word is funny to me, but especially if you enjoy black people's company and have no mean things to say about them as a race, it's very fucked up still."
Juhl grew up in Butte and later attended a multiracial school outside of Baltimore where the N word was tossed around by everyone, he says. Special care with such language wasn't common among his coworkers in the military, either. He certainly doesn't see himself as sexist or racist. The jokes he tells use politically incorrect language, but at the heart of his comedy are critiques of cultural genocide, war and Donald Trump. Like a lot of comics riding the bleeding edge of cultural sensitivity, sometimes he pulls it off and sometimes he doesn't.
A few weeks ago, at a standup show at the Roxy, Juhl took the stage and announced that it had been a year since he'd used "the N word." (This time he didn't actually say it.)
Among more established Missoula comics, Juhl's comedy can be considered problematic. Put it on social media and it could cause a pile-on. But there's a sense in the Missoula comedy scene that there's leeway for comics to make mistakes. But that's not to say there are no rules. For instance, the Curry Comedy series, an annual showcase hosted by Ethan Sky, imposes a sort of no-try list on comics: rape, domestic abuse, racism, homophobia, child abuse and disabilities.
"People usually don't need the disclaimer," he says. "But it's better safe than sorry. We want to make people laugh, not feel uncomfortable."
Kyle Kulseth, a comedian who used to run a comedy show at the VFW called No Pads No Blazers, says he also asks comedians to steer clear of racism, sexism and homophobic comments.
"I tell them, 'There's places that will put up with that—this isn't one of them,'" he says. "If you see that kind of material in comedy, there are two defenses for it, and they always come from the same people. The first is that comedy needs to be this free, open, sacred cow art form in order to be a vehicle for critique of the status quo. The second argument is, 'Chill out, it's just a joke.' First of all, those are mutually exclusive thoughts, you dummy, so which is it? Second, if it's this art form that needs to be free so that it can criticize the status quo, why would it then participate in the attitudes of the status quo? And if it's just a joke, fine. But it's a lazy, crappy joke. Get off the stage. Do better comedy."
Sarah Aswell (who often writes for the Indy) has become one of the most highly regarded comics on the scene. She started doing comedy last October on a dare and found it addictive. She's called out comics who tell sexist jokes on stage, but she's also empathetic with the challenges of the format.
"Stand-up comedy is one of the few arts you perfect in front of a live audience," Aswell says. "You don't usually paint in front of an audience and have people yell at you, 'That sucks!' But, in comedy, you make mistakes in front of people. Bombing is how you get better. Offending people is sometimes how you get better, because you get publicly shamed."
She's been there, too. At one of her first open mics, Aswell told a joke about the movie Silence of the Lambs, how after watching it she never wanted to help a disabled person again because they might be a serial killer. A man in the front started yelling at her and Aswell saw that he had a disability. They talked after the show.
"When I wrote the joke I wasn't thinking about him," she says. "But now I do."
The man still shows up to open mics, Aswell says, and they still talk.
"We don't censor anyone as an artist—that's dumb," Beers says. "But over and over again we go over a chart, and everyone has heard the chart: You can say whatever you want, including the words you shouldn't say, but the more offensive you are, the more clever you have to be. And when you're offensive and not clever, that's when you're going to get called out. With Aaron Juhl, there have been times when I was like, 'Ooh. I would not have done that.' But he is without a doubt one of the most respectful human beings I have ever run into. Can I use the wrong word but start other people talking—and do it in a funny way? Maybe there's value in that."
Charley Macorn's introduction to comedy was rocky. Macorn, who is the Indy's calendar editor, identifies as gender non-binary and prefers the pronoun "they." Macorn's comedy often incorporates issues of gender identity. In Missoula, it's not hard to find a receptive audience for progressive ideas about gender. But take that act on the road to small-town Montana and things can get out of hand.
In one of their first experiences doing standup, Macorn was put on a bill for a Lolo comedy night. Partway through the set, Macorn could hear someone in the back yelling "Faggot." Macorn ignored the heckler and carried on, only to find out later from other patrons that the heckler had been even more explicitly derogatory.
"That was rough," Macorn says. "That was the moment I realized I had to be prepared for when people don't like me."
Several months later, at another show outside Missoula, Macorn heard someone call out "Faggot" again. Macorn paused, cocked their head, squinted into the crowd and yelled back, "Is that you, Dad?" The crowd erupted in laughter. It was a tactic that helped unify the audience on Macorn's side—and left the heckler to decide how big a crowd he was willing to try to bully.
The self-deprecating approach has helped Macorn do two things: deflect the heckling, and keep the crowd thinking about gender identity and sexual orientation. And while Macorn is frequently very funny, comedy isn't always exclusively about laughs.
For instance: Macorn recently bombed with a set about gender identity in Great Falls. Afterward, the show's host admitted that the audience probably wasn't quite ready for the material.
"But it's really important," he told Macorn, "that Great Falls sees you and hears you."
In 2012, Clinton Lawson got slapped with a DUI and ended up in the Missoula County jail. He was deeply ashamed, he says, and he spent the next 24 hours in lockup writing about what happened. Even though he'd never done stand-up before, he wrote about the experience in the form of comedic bits.
"It's kind of the sad clown story," he says. "But I had a need to do something with the experience, and not just have it wasted or have it be a bad memory."
He wrote his set with a tiny pencil on his cellmate's petition for dental care. When 24 hours was up, he put on his street clothes, pocketed his writing and got a ride to the Union Club. It was Thursday night open mic.
"I got up on stage," he says, "and I did this set about going to jail. It was about being pulled over while trying to go to McDonald's, trying to get a sandwich, and how the cop was anti-sandwich. Weird stuff. It was my first show, but it worked. Taking that experience and getting people to laugh at it made it less—I don't know. I just needed to share it with the community."
Lawson has been part of the scene ever since, often headlining shows. His comedy is smart and absurdist, and for the most part he doesn't look to antagonize the crowd. The truth is, comics want the audience on their side. They need them there. And a lot of comics have learned that there's a sweet spot where humor and empathy meet.
"For me, it kind of gets beyond the material, where you're having a conversation with people," Lawson says. "There's a warmth, like you're sitting around a table and you just break the table down with laughter. I stay away from [antagonizing] because that's going to interfere with my goal."
Lawson knows his Missoula audiences well. At a recent show at the Roxy, he told a joke about how he'd read an article saying that milk is racist. You could feel the tension in the room as some people—especially those unfamiliar with Lawson's act—braced for the worst.
"Milk with the cream on top is the most racist," he said. "But cheese—cheese isn't racist. It's progressive! And hot dogs, well, they don't know any better." The audience dissolved into laughter.
Kyle McAfee has a similar style. His comedy probes at boundaries, but for the most part he's a sympathetic character for a liberal audience in a largely college-educated town. During one set at Missoula's newest open mic comedy night, Revival Comedy at the Badlander, he talked about his 2-year-old daughter not being able to make up her mind. "Just like women," he said, hamming it up. Then he waited a few uncomfortable beats before saying, simply, "Sexism." Just like that, he'd won the audience back.
"I love the chaos of it," Lawson says. "I embrace it. I love the rawness of the interactions. Like, somebody says something and they get screamed at, maybe somebody starts crying, a really drunk person comes in. It's just a traveling carnival, especially at the open mics."
It's a chaos that makes comedy nights feel more like a community of people learning how to talk to each other in an unmediated, human way.
"It almost should be in the marketing for an open mic," Lawson says. "Two people are going to make you feel that you can do comedy because they're so terrible, somebody is going to say something racist, and we're going to have a weird, charged interaction. Because that's part of having the bigger conversation. It's messy."