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

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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.

click to enlarge Matthew Kettelhake, who has been doing stand-up since HomeGrown Comedy's start, performs with his signature autoharp at a recent competition at the Public House. - PHOTO BY CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • photo by Cathrine L. Walters
  • Matthew Kettelhake, who has been doing stand-up since HomeGrown Comedy's start, performs with his signature autoharp at a recent competition at the Public House.

"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."

click to enlarge Missoula comedy shows feature regular stand-up headliners and hosts including, from left, Clinton Lawson, John Howard, Sarah Aswell, Gilmore McLean, Michael Beers and Kyle Kulseth. - PHOTO BY CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • photo by Cathrine L. Walters
  • Missoula comedy shows feature regular stand-up headliners and hosts including, from left, Clinton Lawson, John Howard, Sarah Aswell, Gilmore McLean, Michael Beers and Kyle Kulseth.

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.

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