Charley Macorn is the writer behind “Strike Force Dracula,” a short comic that appeared in our fifth comics anthology with artwork by Lucas Peverill. They are also a nationally touring standup comedian, a filmmaker, and an MFA student in Media Arts at the University of Montana. And soon, they will be a pioneer in the art of performing for the dead. This weekend, Charley is creating a one-of-a-kind event: Jokes for Ghosts, for which they will do an all-new standup comedy set at the stroke of midnight inside the Old Montana Prison in Deer Lodge, MT. We sat down with Charley over fried food at Missoula dive bar Flippers to talk about this spooky undertaking.
Let’s start at the beginning. Charley Macorn, what gave you this idea, and what is it, exactly, that you’re going to do?
In short, much like Johnny Cash went to Folsom prison to perform for the inmates, I’m going to the Old Montana Prison in Deer Lodge, abandoned since 1979, to perform a comedy show with an audience exclusively made up of whatever spirits haunt it.
As for how I came up with it, I wish I could remember. It’s just been something I’ve been kicking around as, like, “Wouldn’t it be funny if?” I would say probably the most likely case [is that] I did my Halloween special a couple of years ago, which has this bit where, in a mockumentary, I go to a “real haunted house,” but it’s not really a haunted house. It’s a Craigslist hookup gone wrong. And I always said I should absolutely do something in a real haunted place. Wouldn’t that be the next, natural, progressive step on this?
And I guess growing up in Deer Lodge, having that place where I spent a lot of time, doing theater, doing tech, and finding out that that place will let a lot of “ghost hunters” in—big air quotes around that. And they’re there every weekend! But it wasn’t until I was talking to the woman who’s organizing this in Deer Lodge, who works for the Old Prison Museum. She said that some of the ghosts—or some of the spirits, or whatever language she used—some of them respond to music from the time period, you know, like Elvis or Johnny Cash. And I said immediately, “Oh, maybe I can play some Johnny Cash music before I go on! Or I could put on a whole show with a band dressed up in Western duds and have my partner sing ‘In the Jailhouse Now’ dressed as an old-time train conductor.”
Is that really happening?
It is really happening, yes.
So you’re basically creating the creepiest possible show.
I hope the ghosts appreciate it. You know, it’s for them, it really is. This is a tribute. It’s a salute to ghosts. I feel Jokes for Ghosts would be the natural progression for any standup comedian, which is finding a way to make this work without an audience.
Isn’t the audience an integral part of standup?
Unfortunately, which is why I’m trying to break free.
But seriously, this is an experiment. When I’ve rehearsed or gone through things [on my own], I can’t hit that same energy in private as I do on stage. You know, I draw a lot from the crowd to perform. And so, I’m seeing if I can do that with an audience that’s not there, you know, ostensibly. And if I can possibly use fear to power my comedy.
So, the fear that you’re talking about is different than the nervous energy that you get in front of a regular crowd?
I believe so. Like an existential dread. I want to put my complete understanding of the universe and my role in it up for the gods of standup comedy, to see if something happens or if nothing happens. I’m going to give this a shot.
Are you working up a new set specifically for Jokes for Ghosts, Charley?
I am, primarily because the challenge with this is that I have to be aware that, my audience? At best, their cultural references will have stopped 40 years ago. And at worst they predate the art of standup comedy as we know it by 50 years. So, there is kind of an interesting gap of having to, you know, do what I do while explaining what I do, and also kind of shake up the format. Some of my jokes, I hope, are universal enough, and I mean universal with a capital U, I realize. But [I’m] trying to find a way to reach out.
I’m going to have a band there with me—there’s air quotes around that, future transcriptionist—a “band” with me of people all dressed up in Western duds. The driving force [behind this] is Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison, and I’m trying to replicate what the prisoners of that time, in this place, like. So it’s almost going to be sort of the Grand Ol’ Phantom of the Opry, I guess. I just thought of that. I don’t know if it works, but…
Let me give you a preview of the first joke that I’m going to tell, which is, “It is difficult writing a set for an audience whose cultural references stopped 40 years ago. A lot has changed in 40 years. For example, this is what women look like now.”
So, I’m being true to myself. I’m not trying to hide who I am or what I’m doing. I’m doing this true to me. And that’s the only way that you can really do these things. Cause I feel like, if the ghosts are beyond the veil, they’ll probably have less time for bullshit. I think they would know if I was bullshitting them.
So, are you going into this with the assumption that you will have an audience, whether you know it or not?
I don’t believe in ghosts. I think this would be an awful way to be proven wrong! But I think my belief in the supernatural, or lack of belief in the supernatural, specifically, either way, is sort of inconsequential for what I’m trying to do. Because I think, if I was going in there just like, “Well, it’s just going to be this thing I’m doing for an empty theater or for an empty gallows or wherever I end up setting up the show part of it, regardless of my beliefs, I’m just going in there under the assumptions that ghosts exist. That they are the spirits of people who died with unfinished business or died under tragic circumstances, and they haven’t had any entertainment in a quite a long time.
So that is the mindset that I’m having to put myself in to do this, which I don’t think is necessarily a betrayal of my beliefs or any of my views. It’s, I would say, more “buy the ticket, take the ride.”
If I go in there, you know, too cool for ghouls, I’m going to be disingenuous to the history of that place. And knowing the history of our country and our state, people who died there definitely didn’t deserve it. I don’t think anyone deserves to die in that place. [But] people did. People that didn’t belong to be there were there. That’s something that I have to keep in mind. And to do that, I have to be respectful to the spirits. To the spirits that are there. And so that is the way that I’m balancing it out.
I have a very interesting opportunity here, like I always do, to say something. And what am I saying that matters? So, yes, I’m doing this. And the worst version of this would just be me doing my old bits, or me doing a bunch of awful puns, or whatever it is. If people are going to watch this, I need this to be funny, and I need to say something. I need to say something that’s true to me. And so that’s sort of my balance. That, no, I don’t believe in ghosts, but there are absolutely ghosts that haunt prison, Montana, the world.
You grew up in Deer Lodge.
Do you feel like part of this is you speaking to Deer Lodge or your childhood?
Part of me wants to say no, that’s not going to be part of it. But I know that that would probably be disingenuous. I think that my growing up there, my own history with the prison, with the people of Deer Lodge, and even people that might still live in Deer Lodge and still make their living with the new state prison just outside of town…They’re all going to be a very big part of that.
Did you know, in Deer Lodge, the high school mascots were the fighting wardens?
I didn’t know that. Is it embraced, or is it ironic?
It’s almost like it’s blended. It’s just sort of like blended in. Like, “Oh yeah, we have the old prison.”
When I was in high school, they did summer stock theater in the prison. And I did lights. I was a techie for it. And that’s actually where I started performing. By the third show, everyone had dropped out because they were miserable. And so I got a role in Lend Me a Tenor
They say all theaters are haunted, but this one…
Exactly. And the history of Montana is in the prison. It had a beautiful theater that William Clark built in it in 1910 for performances and boxing and movies. It burned down in the 70s, but the frame of it is still there.
I believe that the arts can save you. I believe that it’s a way to find that inner spark and want to put the best of yourself forward. And I think that, while media is definitely shifting and maybe it’s my own version of shifting that, I think that it’s important. And the history of both of Deer Lodge and my own childhood, I would say are definitely gonna be very present in [the show].
So, I hear you’re going to turn the show into a film. Are you planning on submitting to film festivals?
That’s the plan. I am in the MFA program in the College of Visual and Media Arts at the University of Montana. And part of that, which I really appreciate, in the MFA program is they’ve really allowed me the space to do my own thing. I started out like, “Well, I’ll be a filmmaker, I guess.” But then I got there, and suddenly I had a ton of amazing opportunities for standup comedy. I’ve had various levels of success in those areas. They were very supportive. And they pointed me towards great places to help finance some of this stuff.
I was awarded a Bertha Morton scholarship, which, I was just at the awards reception for last night. It was me and 30 other grad students from all the different schools. And we ended up having this moment where we were like, “Hi, I’m going to use this money to travel to Mongolia to study how climate change is affecting birds there.” Or, “I’m a PhD student and I’m working with Native groups to return artifacts from museums to the family lines they were stolen from.” Then I’m there, and I’m like, “Hi, I’m an MFA student and I’m going to go tell some jokes to ghosts.”
I felt the most out of place, but it was sort of a moment that, afterwards, everyone was very intrigued by it. So, I had a lot of conversations with a lot of very high-ranking people at the University of Montana who wanted more details and wanted to know how they could interact with it. I feel kind of weird about that, because I’m not studying the human genome to cure cancer. I’m being a weird arto.
If it goes well, and you feel after the experience that this is worth doing, is this something that you would like to pursue? Doing shows like this in other defunct-slash-abandoned-slash-haunted places?
It is something I’m thinking about. Yes. I could do a whole series.
You could just watch a season of Ghost Adventures and go to all those places.
They did one at the prison, it’s on YouTube. I’ve never seen the show before. I kind of hate it.
There’s things I want to avoid. The tropes. Cause that’s not really what I’m doing. But it will have a story. It will have a lot of me. And it will have a lot of humor in it.
I’m not trying to prove the existence of ghosts—or not—with this. You know, there are ghost hunters at the prison every weekend. It’s part of the way that that place makes money. I’m just there to do a show to history, I guess. To the concept of history.
It’s that weird feeling that no one is doing what I do. No one has really done anything like this, to my knowledge. And it’s just a weird feeling that I might be the first to do something.
I really liked what you said before, about the idea that it doesn’t matter if they’re literal ghosts or the ghosts of history. They’re society’s ghosts.
Yeah. The prison was built in 1871, and within one month it was overcrowded. And it stayed that way for almost a century. It went through crooked wardens, murderous riots, and all the things that happened with the prison in our really ineffectual, fucked up, system of quote unquote rehabilitating people. All of that happened.
And those other people, those other nameless people who go in and make these [ghost-hunting] shows? I think it’s in kind of bad taste. And I mean, I know what I’m doing is definitely…I know I’m going to piss people off.
On the Ghost Adventures episode, my mom’s neighbor’s on it, talking about how her father died [in the prison]. Like, oh, shit. That’s right. These were real people. Put faces to it.
Thanks so much, Charley!
Watch the live-streamed video of Jokes for Ghosts on YouTube!
Check out Charley’s short comic, “Strikeforce Dracula” in Oneshi Press Anthology #05!
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