Editor’s note: Make it Missoula has partnered with the University of Montana’s Online News class, taught by Jule Banville, to create a new Citizen Journalism feature that’s all about local views and issues. We’re excited to provide these students with a platform so they can objectively explore and report about the topics they think reflect the lives and times of Missoula and its citizens.
By TOR HAUGAN
In the ‘80s in Missoula, young jugglers would gather in Caras Park to meet like-minded people and practice throwing things in the air. Some would go out and hustle their talents, getting hired to juggle in front of car dealerships or to perform at other small, paid gigs.
No one saw it coming, but some of those kids would go on to be comedians.
Although it has grown in the decades since, Missoula is home to a modest comedy scene, with comedy nights at the Broadway Inn on the last Tuesday night of the month and at the Union Club on the first Thursday of the month. Missoula’s circuit may lack the scale and vibrancy that larger cities have, but the Garden City has served as a starting point for a sizable group of successful comedians.
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Eric Haines was juggling in Caras Park in his early days, and he picked up gigs as a singer at funerals and weddings, and as a juggling performer. Along the way, he developed skills in comedy.
Haines remembers early performances at the Southgate Mall, when he was trying hard to juggle, but couldn’t seem to keep everything in the air.
“Juggling and comedy go hand in hand because eventually you’re gonna drop something. To keep the audience on your side, you have to make a joke about it,” he said. “In the end, comedy is all about failure.”
His efforts to keep his audience were so good, people started to think maybe he was messing up on purpose.
His gigs here ran the gamut. He performed at a medical conference and at Grizzly games as the chicken mascot of a local radio station before moving on.
Haines has lived in the Seattle area for about seven years and now he performs mostly in a nine-state area in the western part of the country. He’s been on stage everywhere from biker bars to comedy clubs to family events. His skills as a performer are also multifaceted: He’s a comedian, a stilt-walker, a juggler, and a one-man band.
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Similar to Haines, Morgan Preston’s entry into the world of standup was through juggling and stilt-walking. He had a group of friends who were hustling for gigs when he was about 10 or 11 years old. They would land jobs from time to time, like the year he and a few others were hired to welcome students back to the University of Montana.
At around age 15 or 16, Preston started developing his standup chops, and juggling eventually faded out of his act. Preston moved at age 17, but trying to get gigs and stage time in Missoula were valuable experiences for the young comic. During his time in Montana, he performed in the streets and played at bars, and Preston said that Montana was a great training ground.
“I would not be the comic that I am now if I wouldn’t have lived there,” he said, referring to the hustling he had to do here.
Preston now lives in the Seattle area, as well. He has headlined shows in Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and New York City. He owns a production company, Bolt Media, which is producing the movie “One Minute Comic: The Story of Rob Sampson.” Preston is also involved in producing shows at the Parlor Live, a Bellevue, Wash., comedy club that has featured performances by Jerry Seinfeld and Saturday Night Live alum Jim Bruer.
To make a living, whether in Missoula or Seattle, both Preston and Haines had to expand beyond comedy clubs.
Morgan’s production company also produces shows of other comedians. And Haines has found a profitable way to be a comedian by performing at relatively high-paying private events. His private gigs over the years have included corporate events for Microsoft, T-Mobile, Cargill, and Pepsi. He’s also performed for doctor, lawyer, and certified public accountant associations as well as the Washington Potato and Onion Growers and Shippers association.
“When your act is good, you create a market for it,” said Haines, whose live shows have included juggling, unicycling, stilt-walking, and performing as Giuseppe the monkey, a marionette puppet he designed and constructed in two weeks. “There became a demand for me to do it. I kept adding to it, and the show got better.”
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Back in Missoula, Michael Beers is a comedian who also understands finding a niche.
Beers began performing standup comedy as a senior project at Hellgate High School. He started performing at the now-closed Jay’s Upstairs and, from there, got gigs at other bars, including Sean Kelly’s and the Badlander. For a few years, he was a regular opener for comedy nights at the Broadway Inn.
Beers has found the most demand at conferences for people with disabilities. For them, he’s performed all over the country, more recently at conferences in North Carolina, Alaska, and Oklahoma.
Beers, who has Vater Syndrome, a disability characterized by a range of birth defects that can affect the limbs, kidneys, and other body parts, still has to have a day job. He’s a transitions coordinator at Summit Independent Living Center in Missoula, working with students transitioning from high school to the workplace, college, or whatever is next in their lives.
From the beginning, Beers has talked about his physical disability onstage. It was the subject of the first joke he wrote.
In his current act, Beers talks about the strange reactions he gets, like when people use “messed-up, made-up sign language” when they are talking with him, thinking they are helping him understand what they are saying.
“My favorite thing is if you have any kind of physical disability, and you go out to a restaurant, sometimes the waiter or waitress will take everyone else’s order, and figure out who they think is charge of you and say ‘What would he like?’” he said. “‘First I wanna shove this menu up your… then I’ll have the special.”
Beers jokes about his disability — both on and off the stage — to put people at ease.
“[Talking about it] lets the audience know you’re okay with it,” he said. “You can tell the funniest joke about George Bush, but they’re gonna be staring at your hand and wondering what’s wrong with it.”
According to Beers, comedians, and people in general, still have a hard time talking about disabilities. “It’s one of those taboos, you know?” he said. “Generally people don’t know much about it. The last thing they want to do is make it funny. You don’t wanna outwardly make fun of the person who rode the short bus to school.”
“You talk about what you know, and I’m disabled and that’s what I’m gonna talk about,” he said.
Beers is content in Missoula for now, but he said his career may eventually take him to a bigger market. Here, Beers stands out from the pack. He’s made a name for himself, which may not have happened so easily if the market was more saturated with comedians.
Regardless of where he ends up, Missoula will always be the place where, as a Hellgate senior, he nervously performed his first set. He’ll be in good company: He will always be a part of the league of comedians, like Haines and Preston, who got their starts in Missoula.
Morgan Preston (NOTE: Contains adult language.)
Tor Haugan is a senior majoring in journalism at the University of Montana.