Chris Harmon was still en route to the stage, but the audience was already hooting and clapping and yelling his name. Harmon—a huge man—wore giant blue jeans, work boots, and no shirt, and he’d slathered talcum powder over his pendulous bare breasts. He boomed onto the stage, took the mic, and took charge. “I’m gonna tell you what really sucks, man,” he said, pacing. “What really sucks is being locked up.” He paused and faced the audience, a sea of men in white T-shirts and gray sweats. “Well, for me, being locked up and being fat are two sucks together.” He spontaneously broke into a little circular dance, his butt crack peeking out of his pants, his belly jiggling. The crowd roared, and Harmon launched into a string of fat jokes. “I’m so fat, I’m on both sides of my family. I’m so fat that when I piss, I piss on my balls. I’m so fat . . . ” He left the stage to roars of laughter, biting into an apple that had mysteriously appeared from somewhere in the folds of his own flesh.
Harmon’s standup gig in the fluorescent-lit auditorium of Brockbridge Correctional Facility was his first, and, as they say in the business, he killed. Some of the 200-odd members of his audience, his fellow inmates at the minimum-security prison, were on their feet by the end of his performance, and the room rocked with laughter. Harmon was one of six or seven inmates—with criminal convictions ranging from auto theft to drug distribution to assault—to perform in a no-holds-barred, uncensored comedy show unlike anything to have graced the confines of a Maryland prison.
The show was the culmination of a four-week comedy workshop, the first of its kind at Brockbridge. The workshop grew out of a series of writing courses organized by Lucy Bucknell, a senior lecturer in the Film and Media Studies Program at Johns Hopkins University who has run writing workshops for ex-offenders for years. In late 2009, she began holding them inside Brockbridge. “I think [the comedy workshop] really formed naturally out of readings at Brockbridge in the past,” she says, “out of the performance style of some of the readers.” When Bucknell began looking for someone to teach a comedy workshop, Fernando Quijano III, vice president of the Maryland Writers’ Association and a volunteer writing teacher at Brockbridge, suggested Marc Unger.
Unger has headlined some of the top clubs in the country, with appearances on Comedy Central and several one-man shows under his belt. He says he’s played some strange venues, from bowling alleys to miniature golf courses. But this was his first time teaching—or taking the stage—in prison. “There’s almost this idea that it’s gonna be like in the movies,” he says. “Where there’s gonna be like the Central Casting Hispanic guy, the older grizzled white guy, like Shawshank Redemption, you know. It’s more stark when you’re up close, when you hear the sounds of the buzzers when doors are opening and closing.” Unger—with the help of Quijano—taught the workshop on a volunteer basis once a week, for two hours each time. “I would say honestly this was the best group of pure raw talent that I ever taught, hands down,” he says. “You can’t teach inflection. You can develop it, you can get better at it, but you have to have a natural ear for it.”
And it really did seem that most of the performers at what the prison had dubbed “talent night” had natural comedic timing, and a confidence unusual in novice comedians. No one froze or broke into nervous laughter, and for the most part, the performers managed to avoid staring at the floor. Some of the bits were hysterical, and you couldn’t have asked for a more enthusiastic, forgiving audience. Marlin Simms, aka Marly G, a laid-back 23-year-old with dreadlocks and gold teeth, told one of the less racy jokes, about hitting on a girl: “Shortie was baaaad as shit,” he said. “I was like, ‘Wassup?’ And she was like, ‘I don’t like gangstas.’ I said, ‘I ain’t no gangsta.’ She said, ‘Well, I don’t like niggas with gold in their mouth.’ I said ‘Hold on.’” Here Simms pulled off his gold grill, revealing plain white teeth. “‘Guess I’m a part-time gangsta.’” The room exploded with laughter.
The Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services (DPSCS) allowed the comedy workshop and performance to take place because, says spokesman Mark Vernarelli, “[A comedy workshop] creates a forum for socialization, education, opportunity for rehabilitation, and an activity to reduce idleness within the facility.” Bucknell goes further. “Creative workshops offer a sort of safe space,” she says, “a setting and situation where the men can communicate with each other in a certain way, can access and express parts of themselves they may not under other prison conditions.”
Or, as Unger told his students, “Comedy’s about rebellion. This is your opportunity to say what you wanna say.”
And did they ever. The show was not for the prudish. There were religious jokes and ethnic jokes and shit jokes and sex jokes, populated by bitches and baby mamas and pimps. There were blind jokes and deaf jokes, and some long, graphic descriptions of pussy. One bit started, “My wife’s vagina is so ugly . . .” and ended with the comic on the ground below the stage, pumping his hips into an imaginary woman. Another guy made a crack about rape.
But some of the prison jokes, especially those targeting correctional officers (COs), got the most laughs. Most made fun of the COs who are African immigrants, of which there are apparently a number at Brockbridge. Arthur Harmon—a mild-mannered older inmate who identified himself as Chris’ cousin—joked about needing a translator “because I don’t speak Nigerian.” Chris Harmon ruminated about the hiring process: “They’re sending applications over to Africa, right,” he said, and put on a perky salesman voice: “Don’t be a goat herder. Be a CO!’”
In an interview afterward, the participating inmates agreed that the main skill they’d learned in the workshop was confidence. “I remember when [Quijano and Unger] first came in, the first thing they wanted to do was not teach us how to be a comedian, but teach us just to have confidence,” said Melvin Ingram, who did not perform because he objected to the hard-core nature of his fellow inmates’ jokes. “If you just think about being confident and then talk about your life and then depict from that thought the funny things out of that, then you’ll be funny.”
Several spoke of that moment onstage when the anxiety fell away. “After you get your first laugh, there’s a breaking point,” Simms said. But he marveled at how difficult it was to be funny. “I mean, I can rap around anybody, I can rap,” he said. “But sitting there trying to make somebody laugh, that’s really hard. Everybody just looking at you. See at a concert, everybody bobbing their head, feeling the beat first, then the words.” He shook his head. “In comedy, there ain’t no beat, just you.”
Chris Harmon, who improbably referred to himself as “the shy type,” expressed a desire to try comedy professionally, on the outside. “I always wanted to do it, but I never had the courage to do it,” he said. “But I think it’s something I could do, you know what I mean? It’d keep me out of trouble.”