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"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."