As the pandemic dragged on last year, Tory Ward grew increasingly desperate for conversation.
She began to experiment with a few new outlets to connect with others: recording sketches with a fellow comic and uploading them to YouTube; going back to college, taking virtual classes at Portland State University. Ward also started taking her clothes off for strangers.
That's not the main reason she decided to find temporary work camming for a sex site, but it was a welcome bonus, even if all the talking happened via keyboard strokes. Ward had not performed inside a comedy club since March, and most of her jobs in the service industry that required human contact were lost to COVID-19. The internet gig restored some form of communication in the 32-year-old's life.
"It was really fun," Ward says. "I lost 80 pounds in the last year and a half, so I felt I was getting a lot out of it. And there are people who are really nice and tip you a lot."
Those are the ideal makings of the kind of bit you would expect Ward to recount onstage at some point, whenever it's safe to laugh together in the same room again. She falls in the category of comics who mine their lives for material—Ward would simply call her sets an elaborate, socially acceptable form of oversharing.
"I talk to myself compulsively," she says. "It's usually stuff that's embarrassing. I'll just repeat what happened over and over again to try to make it funny. I think it's to try to relieve the agony."
Among the more memorable, awkward encounters Ward has workshopped out loud was the time she accidentally dated an 18-year-old, who lied about his age, when she was 26.
"So we had sex, and he was like two seconds," she says. "And I was like, 'Is something wrong?' And he said, 'No, that was great! Let's do it again.' And I'm so stupid. Instead of being, 'I clearly just fucked a child,' I thought, 'My ex-boyfriend must have been some kind of sex god, and this is just how everybody else has sex.'"
Whether she's walking you through an interaction with her physician about her five new antidepressant prescriptions or describing bad sex, Ward has the gift of placing you in the episode as if you'd been a witness. It both underscores the listener's own neurosis while also distracting from it once she reaches the joke's turn.
Divulging uncomfortable experiences in order to self-soothe is just one factor that prompted Ward to pick up a microphone. But it really had more to do with her late father, who loved comedy, fully encouraged her enthusiasm for it, and had a venue where she could develop a stage presence.
A decade ago, Ward's father saw something in a vacant Lincoln City mortuary that nobody else did. The building made national headlines in the mid-'80s after police discovered the owner had been lying about cremating bodies and instead stacked them in the garage "like cord wood," as the local newspaper put it. No one would touch it after that, but Ward says her dad was always a "bargain hunter" and envisioned a new life for the space as an events center.
After restoring the structure and renaming it The Eventuary, he started hosting everything from weddings to touring standup comics, including performers like Arj Barker, Tony Camin and a pre-fame Ron Funches.
Ward logged a lot of stage time during her first two years at a show there called "Laughs and Lasagna." Her duties as host were more complicated, though, since she'd be taking orders and clearing plates at the same time. A friend and comedy vet who came one night to watch immediately offered what needed to be done differently.
"He was like, 'You're supposed to be the host. You're not supposed to bus tables and then go run onstage,'" Ward says. "So I tried to tell my dad that, and my dad's like, 'Well, when your dad owns the venue, you do it.'"
By 2018, Ward was no longer pulling double duty and instead working on the most ambitious project of her career: the Undertow Comedy Festival, a three-day event featuring dozens of comics at clubs and bars across Lincoln City. Ward secured a grant and, together with co-producer Amanda Arnold, recruited impressive names, such as 30 Rock's Judah Friedlander, Jeff Dye, and a now-famous Ron Funches. It was a huge accomplishment to pull off in a small town better known for its kite festival than standup scene.
But in the middle of planning Undertow, Ward's life was upended. Her father was diagnosed with leukemia after initially going to the hospital for flu-like symptoms. He died a month later.
"[The festival] didn't go well for me," she says, "because I have it all wrapped up in this experience that sucked."
Ward has considered reviving the event elsewhere, perhaps even setting it on the beach. But right now she's just trying to envision what comedy will look like post-pandemic.
If you were to place a bet on Ward's return to the stage, odds are you'll find her back up with a mic in her hand. She's missed the roar of the crowd far too much to give up comedy for good, a fact that became evident during that stint on a sex cam site during lockdown last year.
Naturally, it's an experience she has no problem talking about.
"People respond in the chat window. When you say something funny, they'll go 'Hahaha,' 'LOLOL,'" Ward says. "So I'm there with my tits out, feeding off of them laughing. I realize the whole time I'm trying to get jokes in. 'Ahhhhh, finally! I need these laughs so much.'"