By Sarah Stortz
Performing on the Firebird stage in St. Louis, professional comedian Tom Garland is surrounded by a purple shadow with a satin red curtain behind him.
Throughout his routine, Garland wears a white T-shirt and black button-up, hair slightly spiked, establishing a casual atmosphere for the audience. He makes his routine more interactive by sparking a discussion with those in front of him.
“How long have you guys been together?” he asks to a couple sitting in front of him.
One of them says 28 years.
“Twenty-eight years?” Garland says. “That’s awesome. Let’s make some noise for that. They’ve been on Tinder, they’ve been together for 28 minutes.”
Now residing in Las Vegas, Garland’s dedication to make others laugh on a regular basis garnered him a gig opening for Tom Green at Bally’s Las Vegas Hotel & Casino.
Originally from Cedar Rapids, Garland decided to attend the University of Iowa to study journalism and mass communication. He worked as a sports reporter for Daily Iowan TV, with his journalistic work leading him to an internship with KCRG-TV.
However, Garland’s career plan ground to a halt when he saw a performance by Ralphie May at the Englert, igniting a drive to get on stage himself.
Garland’s comedic début took place at Penguin’s Comedy Club in Cedar Rapids. During his three minutes on stage, he said, he felt like he was pushing an hour.
Since then, Garland has stayed out late almost every night to perform standup.
“Standup is very addicting,” Garland said. “You get a rush out of it. I like doing it, but the addiction is what kept me me at it.”
After three years of studying, he decided to drop out of school to become a full-time comedian. In order to support himself, he worked as a salesman in his off-hours. While working, he had an encounter with comedian Steve-O, who offered Garland the opportunity to open for him three times.
“It built my confidence in standup comedy,” Garland said. “Not only that, but it opened a ton of connections for me.”
As he has grown in his craft, he specializes in improvisational crowd work, relying heavily on audience interaction.
“The big thing about standup is that you want to stand out,” Garland said. “As a normal looking white guy from the Midwest, I don’t really stand out much. I’m pretty good at ‘wilding’ the crowd up and poking fun at them.”
He always makes sure to act quickly with the material audience members give him, he said, sometimes responding with personal stories to humor the crowd.
Greg Gettle, a fellow comedian from Iowa City, said they helped set up a comedy scene in Hawkeye Nation, noting that Garland was right there when he signed up for standup the first time.
“All of us started in small-town Iowa, and it’s kind of hard to put yourself out there,” Gettle said. “The cool thing about Tom is that he’s mostly been in Iowa for most of his career. He was an Iowa boy through thick and thin.”
Keegan Buckingham, another comedian from Iowa City, said Garland is skilled at entertaining different types of audiences.
“You come to a point where you’ve developed another sense for another audience,” Buckingham said. “Tom is excellent at that.”
Working in a field that often thrives on controversy, Garland typically tries to stay away from humor making jabs at other demographics.
“My opinion is if I haven’t experienced it, I probably shouldn’t talk about it,” he said. “The audience is smart, and they can pick up on stuff you haven’t experienced.”
The work hasn’t been without drawbacks. Garland has been booed off stage and physically threatened, and he has received anonymous hate mail. In spite of this, he simply views the backlash as a part of the job.
“If you meet a comedian saying they haven’t bombed, they’re lying to you,” Garland said.
Every day, he said, he usually expects a diverse audience from all over the globe.
“On paper, my biggest achievement is what I’m doing right now,” Garland said. “I’m basically touring the whole world without going anywhere.”
Even with that, he said, he is mostly proud of being in the business for so long.
“In reality, the biggest accomplishment is to not quit,” Garland said. “It’s such a tough business. I’ve been on and off broke. I’ve taken a few bad beats and had to start over. It really is such a gamble where I’ve got my whole life invested, [and] it can be kind of scary.”
As far as advice for aspiring comedians, Garland urges rookies to get over their initial stage fright.
“The first thing everyone gets worried about is trying it, so just try it,” he said. “I’m here to tell you that you can do it. The worst night getting booed off isn’t that bad.”
Aside from breaking into the scene, Garland stressed the importance of making smart business decisions.
“I know how to buy, sell, and act, and create a product out of myself,” he said. “Comedians are easily cut off for subjective reasons, but you’re involved with the deal, it’s harder for them to get rid of you.”
Despite everything, he is extremely satisfied with the career path he followed.
“For the most part, I’m having a lot of fun, and I’m really lucky where I’m at right now,” Garland said. “I never thought I’d make it this far.”