Funny ha-ha 

From setup to punchline at Homegrown Comedy

Contrary to popular belief, Homegrown Comedy is not a new strain of sativa, though local comedians all agree it's twice as addictive as a bowl of Purple Diesel and three times more fun. In November, I attended Missoula's Homegrown Stand-Up Comedy Open Mic for the first time, to find out for myself what those jokesters were all about.

The Union Club was packed that night, with comedians, their friends, people like me just along for the ride and random bar patrons all making up separate audiences. In the bathroom, at the bar, on the sidewalk, at your table, everywhere you turned, people were talking about comedy: critiquing performers, comparing favorite comedians, remembering jokes, everyone talking until it got so you could barely hear the comics on stage.

I grew up on stage, singing and performing, but I'd never seen an open mic audience like that one. It made me want to be part of the show, not part of the crowd. Except (according to one guy I dated) I wasn't blessed with a funny bone at birth.

My friend Stephanie Dyer-Luck once had me knock-kneed and doubled over with a story about a half rotten moose leg and a slow-speed escape on Alaska's Seward Highway. I've always wanted to do that, bowl people over with my wit and charm. I tried, until my teenage stepdaughter, Ella, got in the habit of saying, "Yep, that's my humor-challenged Keema," whenever my poorly-timed and awkward runaway stories caught people off guard.

Ten years ago, I learned to rock climb because I hated being afraid of heights. After I figured out what Homegrown Comedy was all about, I wanted to try stand-up for the same reason: I hated living in fear of my awkward sense of humor, because it kept me from learning how to be funny.

If not for John Howard, a comedian and the man behind Homegrown Comedy, I'd never have realized that what makes stand-up different from being funny is that you don't have to be a natural comedian or, in my case, funny at all. Most comics plan their show, using jokes they've thoughtfully crafted and revised over time, then memorized like a monologue. It turns out that, given enough time, anyone can write comedy.

Howard is a big guy with a wandering eye and stage presence oozing out of every sweaty pore. You couldn't find a funnier, friendlier, more inspiring comedy coach than John. His open mic differs from others in that he hosts two rehearsals a month at his house for comedians to run through their bits and offer improvement, like Nat Danger's suggestion: "Tighten up the line about homeless drunks in Alaska losing limbs as fast as strippers lose clothes." Or, Mathew Kettlehake: "Don't forget to pause for laughter, dork." (He didn't say "dork," that's just how I heard it.)

Only five people showed up at the first rehearsal, two weeks before the December 1 gig, and twice as many the second week. Besides me, only David Dupuis was new to the group, having just arrived in Missoula six weeks earlier from a summer job at Yellowstone. I would be the second female to take the stage in seven months.

"I still don't know how to write a joke," I confessed at each rehearsal. I could wrap my mind around "a bit" more easily than a single joke, a distinction I struggled with. Beau Newell, one of the few comedians to perform at open mic every month, illustrated the difference between them thus: "A story about how I have to explain the puke on the front of my new shirt to my girlfriend equals a bit. I had a drug test come back negative. Cool, but now I have to find a new dealer equals joke."

When I first met Howard, I asked him how to fill five minutes with jokes. He broke it down like this: Start with a random crazy story, follow up with a few things you hate, maybe throw in another random crazy story and then wrap it up with a "call back," some humorous refrain that returns to your opening joke. "Look for a story arc," he insisted. "Make your jokes build on each other."

After that? "Just like acting, you rehearse your lines," Howard said. "Out loud. In front of a mirror. All the time." And if your roommate thinks maybe you're having a nervous breakdown in your bedroom? Move to the living room and practice in front of him. "That's the only way to find out if a joke works. If your roommate doesn't laugh, you drown that dead baby."

Dead babies are jokes that fail to thrive, and I drowned two pages of them. I probably should have drowned another page rather than trying to fill the whole five minutes, but I didn't. And I had a tough act to follow: Cody Smith, a very funny comedian who'd risen in the ranks from total newbie to headliner in six months.

When it came time to face the audience, I swallowed the bile in the back of my mouth, packed the fear away in a little corner of my brain and tried to summon my inner comedian. But I don't know what an inner comedian feels like, so I settled for just running through my lines as I'd memorized them. I told jokes about fat Alaskan alcoholics (ubiquitous) and homelessness (unpleasant). I made fun of my height (short), Alaskans who talk too much about being Alaskan (me) and my cat (who suffers from both species confusion and an oedipal complex, in that he thinks his mother is a dog), then I wrapped it all up by returning to crazy Alaskans.

Probably the crowd was feeling generous, but people actually laughed for three full minutes, which is my new all-time record. Afterward, Howard pounded me on the arm and said, "You'll be back, I think."

Maybe I will. I see now what makes comedy addictive: one laugh isn't enough. When my five minutes were up, I didn't want to quit: I wanted to keep going until there were no straight faces left in the crowd.

Homegrown Comedy kicks off at the Union Club Thursday, Feb. 2, at 10 PM and continues the first Thursday of each month. Free.

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