The Necessity of Laughter
An Interview with Local Comedian Sam Miller
By Tari Gunstone
I went to see a friend compete in an improv battle in Portland one night and Sam Miller performed for the intermission. I know very little about comedy, but I knew enough about the so called norms of comedy etiquette to be caught off guard, along with the rest of the room, by his fast paced, powerpoint slideshow about his addiction to methamphetamine. It was vulnerable and brashly honest, but didn’t linger the moralizing tropes stories of overcoming addiction often contain. It was unapologetic, as if he was saying, “no beating around the bush, here I am, and it’s okay for you to laugh at it.” Through his unique approach to comedy, Miller has made a name for himself in the Northwest, especially in Olympia where he hosts the well-loved weekly standup gig, Vomity, at Le Voyeur.
Up next in his hosting career is the Olympia Comedy Competition, a monthly show where ten local comedians have six minutes to strut their stuff. The crowd votes, sends the top three onto the final round in April, and all the proceeds of the preliminary rounds go to charity.
A native to the Olympia area and currently an Evergreen student, Miller’s a self-described “townie,” whose wide range of personal experiences has opened up friendships with a diverse variety of individuals. From the coffee shop where we met to the mini mart we popped into later, he stopped to chat with almost every other person we passed.
Miller tells me he’s extroverted but has anxiety, so while performing comedy for a room full of a thousand people sounds like a good time, an awkward encounter involving a failed joke with a grocery clerk can feel defeating. “Making people laugh makes the world easier to live in,” Miller tells me. “Laughter developed in primates,” he continues, “so that something that’s threatening is not as threatening as it seems. It stops you from wasting time and energy with worry.”
Simply put for Miller, laughter is part of survival, or at least a reliable shield. I’ve certainly felt that to be truer than ever in light of the current political climate; A scary, threatening storm collecting overhead where all we can do for it to not feel threatening is to make jokes about it. Miller’s right on board with his comedic timing. The facebook handle for the Olympia Comedy Competition is Make Olympia Laugh Again. “With all this Trump shit, if you do comedy, you kind of have to be in or out,” says Miller. He tells me how at Vomity the day after November’s election, he walked up to the mic and played “Mad World” by Tears for Fears on his phone for the audience. He went on to do a set with all election-result-related jokes, getting great feedback from the energy of the audience, “because everyone needed to laugh so fucking bad.”
There’s some unpredictability for comedians with how this new administration will affect comedy, but it has made Miller ask himself, “Is mine a voice that really needs heard right now?” So many of his fellow comedian community members are people of color, trans, or queer persons that he believes have a more important voice in the matter. He tells me he’s working on figuring out, “how to keep promoting myself while not being a total piece of shit.”
One way he plans to do this is to continue creating a parallel between comedy and activism. Miller shares how he was an activist before he took up comedy but that comedy helps one’s voice go much further. A past involving substance addiction and incarceration has given him a lens into systems of injustice that informs how he sees the world today. He’s studying alternatives to incarceration at Evergreen (and graduating this term, congrats Sam!), and uses humor to both wedge hard facts in for his audience as well as to change the narrative surrounding certain stigmas.
When he began pursuing comedy, he realized that he could shift his identity from a jail person to a comedy person. That’s why Miller’s all about the work being done through Youth Sound, the non profit organization that will receive the proceeds from the Olympia Comedy Competition. Youth Sound is an advocacy program that helps train at risk youth to work in leadership positions within the very systems that affect them. He’s done and hopes to do more comedy workshops with Youth Sound.
Miller identifies stand up comedy as an empowering tool that aids greatly in public speaking skills, which he says makes dealing with capitalism and its systems easier. While Miller never said comedy saved his life, it has greatly permeated his way of interacting with the world. He scrolls through 504 joke ideas on his phone to pull up one he wanted to share with me and records another that he came up with during our interview. He draws inspiration from the person in front of him in the checkout line, or the dude playing frisbee by himself on Red Square. Turning those observations into jokes to make people laugh allows him relate to those around him. Miller tells me that, “Laughter helps me understand the world better. I know that if somebody laughs at something I say, they understand me.”
Sometimes his jokes don’t work, they are too dark, too rough, or hit too close to home. In response to overhearing people say they don’t like Olympia’s homeless population downtown, he shared this joke on stage; “If you’re rich and you don’t like poor people, you should kill yourself so you don’t have to see poor people anymore.” It didn’t go over, but Miller stays true to what makes him happy and devotes hiamself to the great experiment of stand up comedy.
If you want to check out the Olympia Comedy Competition hosted by Miller, head to Rhythm and Rye this Thursday, January 19, at 8 p.m. $5-10 sliding scale donation at the door.