Long before Hunter Donaldson worked to make Portland audiences laugh, he spent years entertaining himself while growing up in rural southeast Arkansas.
The closest city, Pine Bluff, was only 20 miles away, but the high crime rate meant that trips to the urban center were few and far between, and more nerve-wracking than fun. So what does a kid do when there aren't any neighbors to play with or even cable TV to watch, just acres of rolling forest to roam? Get really creative.
"I would go off into my own brain," says Donaldson, who occupied himself by building villages with sticks or fight imaginary villains while pretending to be a Power Ranger. "But I mean, you have to be that way. If you live in the woods, there's literally just your family to talk to."
Now, the 30-year-old has more than just his parents, two siblings and forest creatures to share his meandering thoughts with. A full house at Helium hangs on his Southern-tinged drawl as he veers from topic to topic.
That often includes a glimpse of life in Arkansas' Lower Delta: "The scariest things you'll ever see in the woods is…a guy. Whatever he's doing there can't be good." Or his sexually liberated, too confident, yet simultaneously apprehensive stage persona, which he explains has experimented with every orientation out there: "Gay, straight, cis…racist. Cat person. Dog person. Horse girl?"
His pitch rises at the end of the last one, as if in disbelief. Then there's a pause. "And I even do ghost stuff. Ghost stuff is just, like, when you sit in a haunted house by yourself and if you get turned on. I mean, how else would you explain that shit?"
What instantly stands out about Donaldson's delivery is actually not his accent. You can't help but notice his pace: It dawdles, punctuated by long pauses leading up to the payoff, though the silence is often broken by eruptions of anticipatory laughter.
"One of the things I like about speaking slow is, it kind of loads the moment," he explains. "I'm not creating tension because of what I'm talking about, because it's basically nonsense. But the tension is in slowing it down."
Donaldson has always managed to make other people laugh. Earlier in his life, though, it was usually by mistake.
"I think I was funny on accident when I was younger because I'd been a woods kid," Donaldson says. "I was a woods kid who went to a private Christian elementary school, so I had no shot at being normal. And then when I moved to the more normal part of Arkansas for high school, I was just very out of sync with everybody else."
Donaldson quickly realized he could use his outsider status to his advantage—he started trying to be funny on purpose. He became immersed in theater and improv in high school. His first standup set was at a competition at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, where he was enrolled at the time.
Rather than crossing his fingers and just winging it, Donaldson crafted content with a writing partner. Not only did that help avert the typical, disastrous comedy debut, he actually won.
After selling the prizes, including a Kindle, for a few hundred bucks, Donaldson essentially began his standup career with a sizable payday, but also a false sense of confidence.
"I think winning a contest the first time gives you something to chase, but also the next time you do it, it's really going to suck," he says. "It's going to suck a million times more because it didn't suck the first time."
That flop came about a month later at an open mic, which caused Donaldson to stall out. He then wasted several years working at a Fayetteville pizza joint trying to convince everyone—including himself—that he was going to pursue comedy.
In 2014, Donaldson finally barged through the door he'd been reluctant to crack open. He traveled across the country performing standup, stopping at any bar with a microphone and a few warm bodies.
"It was very arbitrary," Donaldson recalls. "It wasn't like some in-depth plan. I was literally just like, I'm going to hit the road and we'll see what happens."
A terrible ride on public transit to an open mic that ended up being canceled was about all that separated Seattle from Portland when it came to choosing a place to live. That and a crazy stroke of luck—his parents won the lottery when he returned from his weekslong journey, which helped fund Donaldson's relocation.
The story of an Arkansas native putting down roots out West thanks to a portion of a million-dollar Powerball jackpot might be a bit unbelievable—it sounds more like the premise of a corny sitcom. But when you hear Donaldson onstage poking fun at his parents' spending habits once they were flush with cash (lots of dinners at TGI Friday's), just know that it's all true.
"That's real. That actually happened," he says, laughing. "And they still play. They buy fucking scratch-offs all the time."
In Portland, Donaldson has done everything from taking orders at Pine State Biscuits to teaching English to Chinese kids via webcam in the middle of the night to pay his bills. But within the past few months, he's had enough success with a podcast he co-hosts about a single board game called Twilight Imperium to ditch all those other gigs.
"I don't like telling people the name," he says, "because it makes me sound like a fucking dweeb."
Also, it's not funny. In fact, subscribers will get a little testy if he tries to goof around.
"It is very dry," says Donaldson. "I've gotten notes from listeners being like, 'You guys kind of joked around a lot at the beginning of this episode. If you could cut down on that as much as possible, like, we're not here for that.'"