Jim Hamilton: Painting a Picture With Just a Few Brushstrokes

Comedy Features

Like a lot of comics, Jim Hamilton didn’t exactly know what he was doing when he stumbled head-first into the world of comedy. Unlike a lot of comedians, he had an encouraging friend. An engineering major in a Wisconsin college, Hamilton saw a sign asking for comedy writers for a student-run television show. He applied, and, well… “I sent in some jokes and got a snarky reply from the producer,” he remembers. “I almost didn’t go to the meeting because I thought they hated me. Turns out, they loved the jokes and I eventually became head writer for this public access show. The host of the show was my age but had been doing stand-up since he was in high school. He kept bugging me to try stand-up until I finally did it. I got so nervous I thought I was going to be sick and didn’t do it for another year. But he kept bugging me and the interval between performances became shorter and shorter until I was doing it pretty regularly. About six years after that, I started talking into the microphone and then I really started getting some laughs. What made me think it was worth doing? I don’t know if I ever thought it was worth doing, I just had a pesky friend.”

His first time up came just before he turned 21, and the seasoned stand-up, now 35, just released his first album, Poems About the Ocean, was released on July 31 via A Special Thing Records (Paul F. Tompkins, Jen Kirkman, Jonah Ray). It was a long road to this moment, and a long road that started in Madison, Wis. Before moving to Austin, Texas and really started focusing on moving his comedy forward, he did time at some great (and not so great) clubs in the Wisconsin college town, working with and learning from the likes of Dave Attell, Lewis Black and Doug Stanhope, amongst others. Although he was biding his time in a sense, he appreciates the experiences.

“There certainly are a lot of funny people from Wisconsin,” he says. “The Onion is from Madison and I was reading that when it was just a couple of black-and-white pages they distributed in the dorms. In high school, I would come down to Madison a couple times a year to visit some older friends and they would save all the old issues for me. That was definitely an early influence. As far as what else informed my work, I don’t know. Wisconsinites tend to be a little more educated and less aggressive than people from a lot of places so I have that, I suppose. (Although you wouldn’t know it from their current political leaders.) Otherwise, you’d have to ask my repressed memories.”

In Texas’ capitol city, Hamilton met innovative comics who were trying to push the envelope of what could be considered comedy—a far cry from his experiences in The Badger State. There, he learned that “all comedians don’t have to sound the same,” and that there was a world where “unique voices were being rewarded.” From there, he moved to Los Angeles, and started getting more and more spots as he improved. But he’s truly earning his stripes along the way, still working a job that doesn’t exactly befit his budding talents. “I’ve never been able to successfully describe my job to anybody, but here goes: I work at a subtitling company. No, I don’t type the movies out. Somebody else does that. Then I take what they typed and turn it into whatever the client needs to make a DVD or Blu-ray, or show on cable TV or iTunes or whatever else they want. Again, I do not type nor do I have to watch the movies. Although, I do sometimes watch the movies while I’m working just to make the days go by faster. In a vaguer sense, I sit in a cubicle and fix other people’s mistakes and try not to completely lose my mind.”

Hamilton’s style tends toward a more standard, one-liner, setup/punchline kind of format, but not in the hack-y way that might call to mind. Rather, he exploits puns or weird, intelligent quips, and churns out what The Spit Take aptly called “comedy at its most basic: wry one-liners and short stories that take a few seconds to sink in, self-deprecating and smart in their construction, all delivered at a deliberate pace that benefits the listener’s absorption and appreciation.” But Hamilton’s happy to describe it in his own words, and those words involve the influence of Twitter. “I’d call it “dumb jokes for smart people,” he says. “I’ve always been a writer of jokes, but I was much more conventional until I joined Twitter. I was pretty much done doing stand-up for like the sixth time when I was asked by someone to do a show they used to do at this horrible dive bar called Big Fish. I figured I’d just go up and read a bunch of tweets. It went OK, but I could see there was potential for something pretty cool there. I also knew that I had to figure out a way to make it feel like a set rather than just somebody reading tweets. I think I’ve done that. Writing these really short jokes has also helped my confidence as a performer; I like knowing there is a punchline coming soon. The writing has helped my performing which has helped my writing and so on and so on. I don’t try to stick to any one formula, but I do try to paint a picture with as few brushstrokes as possible.”

The style leads to a certain prolific output, and Hamilton tries to crank out 10 jokes a day, when possible. But his hectic schedule often doesn’t allow that. And if you look at his expanding profile, the fact that his debut album is drawing warm reviews, and all the rest, well, that schedule isn’t likely to get less busy in the coming years. What’s next? “Oh boy,” Hamilton says. “I don’t know. I should probably get a manager to tell me these things.”

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