The art of the joke

 Justin Shaw is pictured. (Photos by Kristi Evans)

Justin Shaw is pictured. (Photos by Kristi Evans)

by Kristi Evans

The living room of a Hewitt Street home in Marquette was transformed into a performance space one recent night. A half-dozen local comics took turns at the microphone situated near the front door, testing out their material on a small group of friends who filled the sectional couch and spilled over into the kitchen. Between bites of pizza and sips of beer, the audience response ranged from polite silence to giggles to an isolated, good-natured groan.

While one man cut short his act with “I’m struggling up here,” this wasn’t the proverbial “tough room” that comics dread. This house shows allow locals to gauge the strength of their stand-up routines before they potentially open for regional comics or national headliners at the monthly Breakwall Comedy show at the Ore Dock Brewing Company in Marquette.

“Having some representation of an audience to perform for is so much better than standing alone in front of a mirror,” said Sean Johnson, who had returned to Marquette after spending time in California. “The more you can project your stories, the easier they are to tell. You can also work on cadence and stage presence and see if the audience laughs at what you consider funny. Sometimes they don’t. Or sometimes you’re so familiar with the material you don’t think it’s funny, but you find out it is based on their reaction. This is the seed for amateur comedians to be able to practice and express themselves—basically to be geeks in front of each other.”

Breakwall Comedy founder Bryan Hampton’s stage name pays homage to the street he grew up on in Marquette. He said a house show provides a stage-like atmosphere without having to drive three or four hours to a club. They are also ideal for fine-tuning content. Most are recorded so comedians can replay and constructively critique their performances. If a joke tanked, they might determine that it was because of poor timing, lackluster presentation or, as he put it, simply because “the joke sucked to begin with.” Reluctant to label his brand of comedy, Hampton said he likes to riff on short subjects and also share longer stories peppered with humor based on his real-life experiences.

When interviewed for this story, he was searching for a good punch line to wrap up a tale about the angst of turning 30 and sensing his body falling apart after he hurt his back and soiled his pants lifting a 10-pound weight. Hampton has been performing comedy for six years.

“They say most comics are broken in some way and their humor comes from a dark place,” Hampton said. “That’s not 100 percent true, but if you hang around comedians enough, you figure out they all have some story. Usually they were nerds and picked on and probably have some inner desperate need to impress people. I grew up with a bad lisp and social anxiety disorder. I’m not sure whether it was that or a bad breakup, but I started writing jokes and going on stage when I was 24.

“At my first real show in Madison, I bombed in front of 250 people. It was a very long drive back,” he added. “The audience didn’t do anything; they just sat and stared for, like, four minutes. When I learned it was because I wasn’t projecting or talking into the mic, and they couldn’t hear what I was saying, I figured I’d give it another shot and see if people who could actually hear me would find me funny.”

Hampton schedules Breakwall Comedy shows at the Ore Dock during the week so that comics touring the Upper Midwest can make a stop in Marquette between weekend appearances elsewhere.

“Comedians come here for shows and expect the worst,” Hampton said. “They assume no one will be here on a weeknight or that they’ll get a bad reaction. A Detroit comic told me that when you do comedy anywhere else in the country—it doesn’t matter where and whether there’s a professional headliner—you get, for the most part, around 20 people. He was shocked how many people here show up for a good time and ready to laugh. A Wausau comic said the Ore Dock crowd is so good, if something doesn’t work here, you really messed up. So the comedy scene is very promising in Marquette. We’ve sold out quite a few shows.”

The Wednesday, November 2, Ore Dock event will be headlined by Dave Landau of NBC’s Last Comic Standing and Comedy Central’s Live at Gotham, with featured regional comic Kristopher Olson. Tickets for the 8 p.m. show are cash-only and $6 for NMU students with ID, or $9 for general admission. Local comics Hampton, Vincent Schultz and Justin Shaw will deliver the opening acts to warm up the audience. Shaw was among those who performed at the house show described earlier. Originally from central Wisconsin, he’s relatively new to stand up, with about a year of experience.

But he is no stranger to performing in front of an audience.

“I was a musician for a lot of years and enjoyed being on stage,” Shaw said. “But as we got older and some of my band mates had family responsibilities, I looked to comedy because I was always interested in it. I figured that would be a good way to still feel the thrill of performing for people, but by doing my own thing without having to rely on others’ availability.”

Local amateurs typically moonlight in comedy outside of their “real” jobs. For example, Hampton works for a contractor and “never jokes about work or tells jokes at work.” He maintains a separation between his career and hobby. Hampton said he was inspired to launch the Breakwall Comedy shows based on the three years he lived in Baltimore, Maryland.

“There was a group there called Color Me Funny that put on comedy shows,” he said. “It definitely proved to me it’s doable if you have the right venue. The Ore Dock is a great atmosphere; the people there have been awesome to work with and the audiences appreciate the chance to see live standup.”

The monthly Breakwall Comedy shows at the Ore Dock are held from September through May. For more information, visit

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