Mark Lundholm used to be like many of the inmates at Lorain County Jail. Now he just makes them laugh.
ELYRIA — About two decades ago, California native Mark Lundholm would have been sitting in this seat for a very different reason.
On this day, however, Lundholm, 48, had reason to smile. He’d come a long way.
“I get away with murder in there,” he said, popping open his bright, blue eyes as he shook his thumb at a concrete wall separating the Lorain County Jail lobby from about 500 convicted criminals.
That wasn’t exactly what you expect to hear on a Wednesday afternoon in the jail lobby. But of course, Lundholm wasn’t an average visitor.
A self-professed former homeless, jailed, volatile, repeat drug offender, wino and criminal, Lundholm had just come off an hours-long comedy routine for a smattering of the jailed inmates.
It was his third such visit to the county jail in as many years, and one of more than 500 comedy shows he’s done for free at jails and prisons across the country.
“In the ‘comedy-prison-incarcerated’ world, nobody does comedy better than me,’’ Lundholm said. “It’s my favorite work I do all year — it’s really, really personal.”
Lundholm launched onto the comedy scene in his native Oakland, Calif., some 18 years ago. Within three years, his shtick had turned professional, and he’s made appearances on Comedy Central and Showtime.
When he’s not doing shows at prisons and jails, he’s making a handsome living as a national comedian with a quirky — and often politically incorrect — angle on life.
He also seems to feel right at home among the audience behind bars.
“I represent an opportunity for them to laugh — at least initially — at some of the ways we’ve lived,” Lundholm said, clarifying: “We, as in ex-criminals and substance abusers.”
Given his past experience, Lundholm knows of what he speaks.
“That’s all history for me,” Lundholm said of his wayward youth. “But because of that history, the (inmates) will listen to me a couple sentences longer than they would someone else.
“It’s not a badge of honor — it’s a point of reference,” he said. “What I walk out of here with is their trust. That’s not something that’s easy to come by in a place like this.”
When Lundholm finished his show at Lorain County Jail on Wednesday, a jail guard approached him and shook his hand.
“You made a difference in those guys today,” the guard said. “You made ’em feel good. They need that.”
Lundholm’s exterior toughness and rugged handsomeness — shaved head, fierce blue eyes and square jaw — hint at the old demons that plagued him years ago.
“Life growing up … it wasn’t funny,” he said. “But we learn to make fun of that. It’s a survival skill. You can’t wallow in the horror of it.”
With that, it was apparent Lundholm’s edgy exterior was perhaps a prop — an “in” that showed he wasn’t a phony. It was his tenderness and compassion for a seemingly discarded element of society — drug addicts and career criminals — that was unmistakable.
“S*** runs downhill,” Lundholm said. “But so does hope. If I can give that to some of them …”
Among the motives for his prison comedy: Getting criminals and substance abusers to realize there are other options beyond the anger, the violence and the drugs.
“The material I have is so brutally honest, without being unkind, there’s no reason for them not to like it,” Lundholm said. “I hear this sentence more than I can count: ‘Dude, I saw you 10 years ago when I was locked up, and it was the first time I laughed in my life.’ ”
Lundholm finds his comedy material in the banalities and oddities of everyday life. The hit TV show, “COPS,” for instance.
“You know who the pot-smoker is in an episode of ‘COPS’?” he said. “He’s the one running from police when it’s dark out, but he’s wearing those tennis shoes that light up in the back. He just forgot he had ’em on.”
Some of his humor runs a bit afoul of the sanitized mainstream. But as Lunholm figures, the move to clean up everything isn’t helping the world.
“(Political correctness) is killing this country,’’ he said. “I have a twisted sense of humor. Normal is just another word for most. Normal people — most people — don’t talk to television screens during an episode of ‘COPS’.”
It’s the people who do talk to their TV screens that Lundholm is most interested in.
“We’re all a little twisted — people in general — but some of us just stay there,” he said. “That provides material for me.”
Contact Shawn Foucher at 329-7197 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Who: Mark Lundholm
When: 7 p.m. tonight
Where: Cuyahoga Community College auditorium, 2900 Community College Ave., Cleveland.
Cost: $25 at the door or rule62fundraising.org, the Web site for the nonprofit organization hosting the event.
Info: Proceeds benefit Lorain County Drug and Alcohol Abuse Services in Lorain and other substance-abuse treatment organizations in the area. Organizers say the show is “a PG-type show.”
Lundholm is starting a nationwide comedy tour in August, “Comedy Addiction Tour,” which will run through late 2008. The show will feature Lundholm and three other comedians whose material hits on the struggles of substance abusers and their personal lives. The Cleveland stop during the tour is scheduled tentatively for March or April. Visit marklundholm.com or comedyaddictiontour.com for updates or video clips of Mark Lundholm’s comedy appearances. And take heed: The video clips of his performances on the Web are true to his rant against being politically correct.
PHOTOS COURTESY OF LORAIN COUNTY JAIL STAFF
Comedian Mark Lundholm performs for inmates at Lorain County Jail on Wednesday.