Christian Ricketts' path to comedy began by getting drunk and sitting in a parked car with a loaded gun.
"I thought of joining the Army and suicide," he says of those days, "two things that are not dissimilar."
Ricketts' breakdown—precipitated by guilt from being unemployed and living with his parents—led him finally to leave his hometown of Escondido, Calif., and move to Portland in 2008.
"I guess I'm relishing that memory a little too much," he says. "Doesn't that make good copy? What a besotted hero that guy is!"
Ricketts had been laid off from a job as a real-estate courier, in which he hung out in empty homes and ate baby pickles out of unattended fridges. "At one point, there was this house worth $1.4 million," he says. "I'd go there and do my laundry. They had this wet bar. I'd eat a bunch of their food; I'd look at their cheese to see if it was expiring soon. I was a scumbag."
Onstage, the 31-year-old's deadpan delivery is like a coiled spring, a cheese-laced trap. Comedy comes naturally, even in casual conversation. Ricketts' eyes-wide-open, self-effacing smile gives him a mild resemblance to Andy Kaufman—as does his habit of wearing the color-therapy glasses he picked up after floating in an isolation tank. Gently shifting his weight from one leg to the other in a nervous shuffle, he exudes a deeply off-kilter, harmless bemusement that allows him to joke about thinking suicide is funny, with no gasps from the crowd. He creates hilarity out of the shame he feels for things he didn't even do. "I try to avoid being around children," he says, "because something bad might happen to them. Everyone will blame me, because I'm a…bachelor."
But as a kid, Ricketts felt ashamed of even wanting to be a comic. Born into a macho military family—his father is a Marine who taught sharpshooting classes—he felt guilty over being useless.
"I used to work at a gas station," he says, "and there was this twitchy guy who used to hang out a lot, and he said he would do open mics at the La Jolla Comedy Store. I remember feeling envy. I wanted to do that."
But even after Ricketts moved to Portland, he remembers standing outside an open-mic night, too scared to enter. "That was the night George Carlin died," he says. He didn't muster the guts until he took a comedy course at Portland Community College, for which an open-mic performance was the capstone. (He also took courses in African-American and women's studies.)
After that show, comics Gabe Dinger and Lonnie Bruhn encouraged him to keep performing. "I went to other open mics, and ate shit," Ricketts says. "I couldn't reproduce it."
But today he can craft material on the fly. In his sets, vicious things become innocent and vice versa. "If there's anything that we learned about the shootings at the Canadian Parliament," he says, "it's that the capital of Canada is Ottawa. You probably thought it was Toronto, or a blue jay. You thought it was a picture of a bird!"
He'll talk of accidentally scaring children by mimicking the Mayan-apocalypse raver philosophies of the late Terence McKenna, and then accidentally following the scared kid because she ran away in the same direction as his bus stop.
Lately, Ricketts feels he's starting to find his real voice as a comedian—something he says is more involved than just getting laughs—and learning to develop a joke rather than abandon it too soon.