For Missoula's tight-knit comedy scene, punch lines are just part of the payoff 

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."

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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.

  • photo by Cathrine L. Walters

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.

click to enlarge John Howard started Missoula’s HomeGrown Comedy in 2011 as an open mic at the Union Club. It's since expanded to competitions and showcases around Missoula. - PHOTO BY CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • photo by Cathrine L. Walters
  • John Howard started Missoula’s HomeGrown Comedy in 2011 as an open mic at the Union Club. It's since expanded to competitions and showcases around Missoula.

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."

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