Madison "Maddy" Halland is a self-described comedy nerd.
When he was at Big Sky High School, he didn't listen to music between classes, he listened to comedy.
"I don't know why I gravitated towards it," he said. Perhaps it's the "free-form thought," or "the ability to express ideas that I really gravitate toward, more so than other mediums." He's "never felt so free, or as free as I do, when I'm doing stand-up," he said.
After a youth spent studying classic comedians like George Carlin along with contemporary ones like Patton Oswalt, he had his "official" debut in the local scene about two years ago.
Audiences and fellow comedians love his work, which ranges from pop-culture jokes to his own experiences using a wheelchair, said his friend Jenny Montgomery. It could be a story about the time his young nephew asked him for running advice before trying out for peewee soccer (more on that later) or the awkward jokey comments that strangers try to make in public like, "You got a license for that thing?"
Montgomery and Halland's friends from the local comedy scene are raising money to help Halland buy a wheelchair-accessible van. His current one is prone to breaking down, leaving him stranded. The public transportation has limited hours, so he can't stay out to do shows. With a working van, he could participate more, not just in comedy, but in community life like any 21-year-old.
An interlude for a comedy bit, one that's a regular in Halland's sets, the one about his nephew, who was trying out for soccer and asked him for pointers.
"My dad is a champion high-jump coach, (a) champion track runner, he's one of the best track athletes in the Northwest, and he (his nephew) asks me for advice on how to run best. And I thought he was joking around with me, so I start telling him to do all these things," he said. Normal things, like waving his arms around in the air nonsensically.
"Then two weeks later, I was sitting at home watching TV. I didn't go to the game — because I'm an American — and my nephew comes in, tears running down his face," he said. "I ask my sister what happened, and she said he was running down the field really weird, he was running like this, with his arms way in the air, and it's like, 'Oh. No.'"
"He's awesome," Halland said, but "he's never let me forget that."
Halland, the youngest of 10 kids, was born with cerebral palsy and has used a wheelchair since he was 4 years old. He has a joke he hasn't told in awhile about how it's the "irony of ironies" that his family includes outdoorsy siblings and a successful track coach father, Mark Halland.
He credits his family for his sense of humor. His sister Abi Baumann said there are plenty of artists in the family, and he differentiated himself by pursuing humor and writing.
"I think for him it's the one time that he feels like he can truly be himself and there's no judgments. He gets to show the side of his personality that he wants to show, because so many people assume because he's in a wheelchair — different things about him, without ever knowing him," she said.
Technically speaking, he did his first comedy bit at a C.S. Porter talent show. Michael Beers, who's probably the longest working comedian in Montana and a public advocate for disability rights, mentored him back then.
"I met him then; I don't even know if I know him now," Beers said recently.
"I'm an enigma. I'm a cipher of a human being, I'm unknowable," Halland replied.
They were bantering together recently during a visit to BASE, an all-abilities, all-ages center run by Summit Independent Living Center that puts on game nights, improv workshops and more.
Beers and John Howard, another comedian who co-founded BASE, invited Halland to come out to an improv night when he was a senior. They tell many comedians that they should have a grounding in improv, and Halland wanted to do something comedy-related for a school project.
He was a reluctant, snarky teenager then but "fell in love pretty much instantly" with BASE and describes himself as an" unofficial volunteer."
Through BASE, he's gotten involved in other programs, like Beers' program Building Advocacy and Learning Leadership Skills that teaches high-schoolers with disabilities to advocate for their needs. (The acronym is intentional, as these are comedians.) Halland's also involved with Adapt, a national disability rights group, and traveled to Washington, D.C., to occupy an intersection.
He hopes he can help "BASE be a living example of why integration in the community matters, and that's also why I need a van to be better integrated into the community," Halland said.
"Let me tell you a little bit about myself. I am 17 years old. I like long walks on the beach. Figuratively speaking — 'cause we live Montana. I don't know what you guys were thinking."
— From a 2016 performance at a BASE talent show
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The van fundraiser was started by Montgomery, a Summit board member, who met Halland during the planning for the Silver Summit all-abilities playground in McCormick Park. Montgomery's son, Heath, uses a wheelchair, and after they moved to Missoula she began the push to build such a playground. They reached out to kids with disabilities to get their ideas about what they wanted.
Now, Halland, Montgomery and her son do improv and comedy, respectively, at BASE.
"He's just incredibly quick-witted. He's got a great ear for pomposity and the absurdity of popular culture, and he's able to play a number of characters really well," Montgomery said. During improv, he can throw out references to literature, history, video games and more.
"Certainly, his comedy isn't limited to disability topics, but he manages to really bring people into his own experience in a hilarious way, that yeah, it's very eye-opening," she said.
She believes that's an example of what inclusion in the arts can accomplish.
"That's another reason it's important to get him out and have comedians with disabilities be a part of the scene, because then we get to laugh, we get to laugh at ourselves, if we've been the perpetrator of those uncomfortable situations, but we also get to identify with Maddy, so it's a wonderful art form," she said.
Since he wrote a joke about it several years ago, Halland said he's been asked whether he has a "license" for his wheelchair at least six times. He quickly added that he's never rude in response ("I try to be polite as a rule, because, you know, why not?"), since people often don't even realize that they how cringe-y the question is. Regardless of intent, comedy is the creative outlet through which to filter these experiences.
He's written long bits about things like these, and studies comedians on their flow and arc to keep the audience interested.
"It's like soda going flat, basically. Like if you don't keep it tight and compressed, it's going to lose all its effervescence and the room is just going to become flat," he said.
He's always looking to sharpen things and get better.
"If you refuse to improve or change and you're not good, then you won't ever be good. You need to be able to change and evolve. Even if you're awesome, it's not going to work forever," he said.
So I think we are far from equality in this country, and I'll tell you why. It's really because I get asked at least once a month, how I poop. Like, I don't know if people are expecting a Dr. Seuss-type contraption, like the flim-flammer goes through the ding-dang."
— From a Roxy stand-up set
Montgomery said she realized the scope of the transportation problem when a group of disability activists flew back from Washington, D.C. Because of a delay, they didn't arrive until early in the morning, and they weren't sure how Halland would get home.
"He was considering just driving on the roadside, which didn't seem very safe," she said.
She said grants are available but are limited and competitive and likely will be required to cover the cost, but their GoFundMe with a target goal of $9,000 is a start. Existing accessible vans with ramps aren't in high circulation in areas like Montana, and Baumann said their parents are always keeping an eye out for one.
Halland lives in a neighborhood off Expressway Boulevard in an Americans with Disabilities Act-compliant house. He loves the area, but it's difficult for him to drive his powered wheelchair farther than the AMC Theater. He can travel roughly 5 miles on a single charge and getting to town can take roughly two hours round trip.
Halland's current van has been breaking down repeatedly — he's never quite sure if he might be stranded once he gets to his location. He can't reliably tell anyone that he can make it to anything.
"I can't spontaneously decide I want to go somewhere. I have to plan things a week in advance, basically," he said.
Mountain Line's Paratransit service requires advance scheduling and is limited in its hours. He can't stay out late enough to perform — many comedy shows go until 10 or 11 p.m., and he can't stick around for the camaraderie, part of the appeal of doing it in the first place.
"Lack of wheelchair van transportation can be severely limiting," Montgomery said, "in terms of participating in everything, from education to employment to recreation, to doing what you do best, which in Maddy's case, comedy is one of those things, and people are really eager to have him come out and participate."
His sister, Abi Baumann, said the bus service can involve delays. It's dangerous, too, if he has to wait outside in the cold since he has limited mobility to keep his body warm. If does need a lift, there are limited numbers of people who can help transport him because his chair is bulky and weighs several hundred pounds.
Once he's gotten enough money to buy a van, he'll need someone to drive it for him — a series of moves toward independence and spontaneity and comedy.
"It's not a luxury," Baumann said. "It's a necessity. It's something he's done without for so long, but what 21-year-old wants to be stuck at home all the time, and limited to where they go, when they can go places?"