Today’s selfie culture, where you’re constantly having to “smile for the camera” on your cellphone, has provided some awkward moments for comedian Ryan Hamilton — who performs Saturday at Hawaii Theatre.
“I was a little self-conscious about this really wide, big, toothy grin that I have,” said Hamilton, in a phone call from a tour stop in Salt Lake City. “It was hard to really embrace smiling as big as I could. Like in photos, I would try to smile and I would look weird.
“Now I’m happy, and I’ve embraced everything,” he added.
Hamilton chuckles a bit at that last statement, realizing the humor of having it said by someone who named his 2017 Netflix special “Happy Face.”
But indeed, he has embraced his smile, as in the opening lines of the special.
“Where do we begin? Shall we start with my face?” he says, grinning at first then cracking that ear-to-ear smile.
“I look really happy all the time. … I think I could sell ice cream in the ’50s.”
The smile dominates his on stage persona, permeating his wholesome, self-deprecating and spot-on observational comedy. It’s helped propel him to national prominence in recent years, winning the Great American Comedy Festival in 2011, appearing on late-night talk shows, on the reality TV show “Last Comic Standing” and getting named one of Rolling Stone magazine’s “Five Comics to Watch” in 2012.
HAMILTON HAS paid his dues on the comedy circuit. He grew up in Ashton, Idaho, a potato-farming community of about 1,000 people. (Yes, he enjoyed the film “Napoleon Dynamite,” Jon Heder’s high-school comedy set in Idaho, which he said “really hit closer to home than you might think.”)
Inspired by Dave Barry’s nationally syndicated humor column, he asked his local newspaper if he could write his own column. He wound up writing it for a major part of his high school years. He then got more experience doing a comedy show for the college radio station at Brigham Young University in Utah.
Hamlton eventually decided to pursue stand-up as a career, but that was before viral videos made stardom a click away. Back then, building a career meant driving for hours, all around the Pacific Northwest for gigs at small clubs and corporate events, sometimes for little else than expenses and a meal.
“At that point, you’re just getting on stage,” he said. “Anyplace that will let you go, you go.
“A lot of those places were not audiences for my type of broad observational, what ended up as ‘clean’ comedy. That doesn’t really fly in most of those kind of places, so I stuck to the approach that if I can get jokes that work in these rooms, then I know they’ll work in the clubs.”
“It was weird, but I really didn’t think of it as weird. I was excited about it. It was this romantic notion of me being on the road, being a comedian.”
His first paid job involved a five-hour drive through the snow from Salt Lake to Montana, opening for a headline act for $100. It was memorable for what happened offstage before the show, as much as onstage during the show.
“I had driven five hours, kind of white-knuckled, through this blizzard, and I got there, and this woman at the bar, she loved to have comedians in her bar, and she said, ‘I got your name tattooed on my ass … and before you get paid I’m going to show you.’
“I was terrified and I didn’t want this to happen,” Hamilton said. “I’m just this innocent kid, so I was scared.
“So they took me into her office, and made me sit there, and she pulled up her skirt and showed me her cheeks, and it said ‘Your Name — Y-o-u-r-N-a-m-e — in some scripted font. This was a joke she did for all the comedians, and I just happened to be the one that week.”
To top the evening off, Hamilton even got head-butted that night, after refusing a drink from a drunk patron. “It was done in a way that was not funny, but also painful,” he said.
“My whole goal was to work hard enough to not have to do these kind of places again.”
Eventually, the experiences became less painful, if not just as scary, making ample fodder for comedy material. Like his bit about taking a date on a hot air balloon, where he points out, “You have a death grip on a wicker basket. They don’t make planes out of wicker!
“I had actually won the hot-air balloon ride in some sort of radio competition,” Hamilton said, “but it had an expiration date on it, so the time was coming due, and it was like I had to use it, and I wanted to take someone I wanted to impress.”
NO WONDER Hamilton has no fear handling New Yorkers. He’s been living in New York the last few years, establishing his career with his friendly, awshucks demeanor.
His Netflix special was shot at Hunter College in Manhattan, where he took plenty of shots at the city and its elitist attitudes.
“It was really important for me to have it in New York City because I’d been living there, and I just felt it would be more potent and fun to attack New Yorkers in New York City,” he said. You could practically hear him grin.
Hamilton has visited Hawaii and performed corporate gigs before, but this will be his first public show.
His show at Hawaii Theatre will feature some of his favorite bits, but it’s mostly new material.
“I’m talking about trying to give up sugar, trying to meditate and feel good about that, trying to pick up a sport and adapting to an online digital world where we have all these things to compare ourselves to,” he said.
He’ll also include some observations gleaned from his visits to Hawaii.
“Mostly this hour is about ‘whole health’ and trying to feel good.”
>> Where: Hawaii Theatre
>> When: 8 p.m. Saturday
>> Cost: $39.50-$150
>> Info: 528-0506, hawaiitheatre.com