Emmett Montgomery was voted Best Comedian in the 2015 Best of Seattle Reader Poll. To view the other winners, go here.
When I arrive last month for my Capitol Hill coffee date with comedian and performer Emmett Montgomery, 15 minutes early, he’s already installed on a bench outside with muffin, java, and cell phone in hand. The hour is uncharacteristically early for a guy who makes his living in late-night comedy clubs and on improvised stages. A dozen years back, not long after moving here from Utah, he might’ve been stapling gig flyers onto telephone poles—like any young Seattle artist/musician/comic/striver.
Times have changed. The cell phone is his office, and Montgomery is now studying his Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram feeds—all goosed by his new fame on NBC’s Last Comic Standing. He’s the only Seattle contestant in the ninth season’s initial cut of 100 stand-up performers (from 2,000 who auditioned nationally), but he’s hardly a newbie to such competitions and social media.
“NBC advised us to make Facebook fan pages,” says the famously bearded, Mormon-Viking-like performer. The program’s weekly format means he has to keep mum about his progress, and that of his fellow comics, as the Wednesday-night elimination shows proceed toward the series’ September finale. “For me, it’s a very positive experience, but so exhausting,” says Montgomery. “I’m still trying to wrap my head around it. It’s essentially like the Seattle International Comedy Competition, but amplified.”
Now a seasoned local performer with a droll, conversational style, Montgomery hosts his Weird and Awesome variety show every first Sunday at Annex Theatre. He’ll also be back at Bumbershoot this year, curating and performing on a stage devoted to long-form comedy—the metier where he truly excels, as opposed to staccato one-liners. He even braved the daylight throngs at Sasquatch! earlier this summer; and last October, in what then seemed his biggest career break to date, he opened for Dave Chappelle during the latter’s four nights at the Neptune.
“I’ve been doing this for 10 years,” says Montgomery, who still loves the focused joke-telling necessary to hold a large audience waiting for Chappelle or watching Last Comic Standing. (Variety reports that the opening round on Wednesday, July 22 was seen by six million viewers; many more will stream it later on Hulu and other platforms.) Yet Montgomery is all about the process, the work necessary both to create innovative comedy and get locals to see it. Managing a career is “a real slow burn. I’ve been around enough and am consistent enough that I’m on a list somewhere. But how’d I get on that list? I have no idea.”
He auditioned for Last Comic Standing shortly before the Chappelle gig, he explains. “The process was long, such an intensive experience, so surreal and great. I got a call inviting me to go down to L.A. There is something really fun about getting flown to Hollywood and getting picked up by a driver at the airport.”
Though he’s used to performing live in a variety of formats, and has ventured into new media here in Seattle, he describes the Hollywood process of doing live TV in HD as a real eye-opener. “It was the first time I’ve ever had hair and makeup done, and that was kind of fun. I learned all about TV magic.”
The pace is more relaxed as we sit in the shade outside Analog Coffee. A longtime Capitol Hill resident (now with his wife), Montgomery is constantly greeted by passersby. One senses that the TV show has nothing to do with such friendly rapport; he knows everyone’s name—and their dogs’ names, including one he brands “the dog mayor of Capitol Hill.” His beard, which helps him stand out on Last Comic Standing, gets many admiring comments. “It’s like a topiary garden,” he tells one woman.
Our chat inevitably turns to rents, real estate, and the cost of living in Seattle. With a dog, he admits, a house with a yard might be nice. Gentrification pressures are felt both on the performance front—where venues are closing—and the residential side, where artists are being displaced. Montgomery has toured enough to know what’s coming. “I’ve seen the changes,” he says. “San Francisco is kind of the dark future of Seattle.”
Montgomery also cites the recent closure of the Feedback Lounge. Venues—“That’s our big struggle,” he says. “Is there space for us to tell our jokes?” Even if he’s got more techies at Amazon and beyond now following him on Twitter and Facebook thanks to Last Comic Standing, where can they see him, and his comedy peers, perform? “There’s no arts space down there in SLU.” Even Annex, we glumly decide, probably has a limited future on pricey Capitol Hill.
Still, Montgomery says he’s generally upbeat about the diverse local comedy scene. “It’s not just the white 20-somethings anymore. There’s no main producing entity. It’s the wild West. The scene has gotten so big that I don’t know every comic’s name. I used to. It is really easy to do comedy as a hobby.” Yet he’s no hobbyist at this stage in his career. For him the twofold mandate is “First, do something wonderful. Then, how do I survive? How do I get paid?” In this new comedy ecosystem, he also approves of the push into podcasts, laptop video editing, and technology in general. “What I’m very excited about now is that there’s so many tools,” he says.
Speaking of tools, is managing Facebook and Twitter now part of his job? “I think so. It’s interesting to see what hits on Twitter and Facebook”—meaning his jokes. “But the real job is to be funny, to create something wonderful and beautiful onstage. The main thing is word of mouth. It’s always been word of mouth. You have to do something to make other people advocates.” What about the downside of tech—people using phones during comedy shows? “It is always a blow when they’re on their phones,” he admits. “But they could be Tweeting how great the comics are.”
Like most in his trade, Montgomery has gradually adjusted to social media. Back in the day, he recalls, “I joined MySpace because I have six brothers” and had to keep track of them. Now, “I have Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.” As we talk, he’s contemplating a new app called Periscope, recommended to him by other comics. He was initially opposed to Twitter, but “there’s something about limiting the number of characters. I don’t really do one-liners anymore.” Twitter allows him to keep those muscles sharp.
Then there’s Hulu and the shock of seeing himself on Last Comic Standing: “I could push a button—and I could see my beard! And millions of people could, too.” Suddenly he was inside the favorite box from childhood, on the other side of the glowing screen. “It’s both weird and fun,” he concludes. “It’s one more piece of evidence that I have a real job. It’s concrete, tangible. It’s something I’ve been working for for a long time.”