Every now and then, Tim Ledwith gets what he calls "the skitch."
"It's like a sketchy itch," says the 34-year-old comic. "I would go down 82nd, I'd pick up some crack, or let somebody get into my car."
Even dressed in a simple sweatshirt and jeans, the Boston-area native is the kind of guy strangers on the street are convinced they recognize from prison. He seems to wear chaos like an undershirt. Though he's physically small—a stocky 5-foot-6 Irish Italian with soft features and innocent eyes—Ledwith's presence onstage is near-intimidating in its unpredictability.
After jostling against the bar stool on the stage at a recent Helium open mic, Ledwith touched it gently. "I'm not going to fuck this stool!" he yelled suddenly, scaring a woman into moving her seat away from the stage. He then confessed to the audience that his idea of sex was formed by the 3D Pipes screen saver on Windows 95. He moved his arm, snakelike, to demonstrate.
Ledwith moved to Portland in 2009, happy to escape the violence of his hometown. "No one in Portland ever stabbed me for having eyes," he says. "That's how Boston is. You're scared people are out to harm you. You don't look in their eyes."
He came to humor, he says, almost as a reflex—forced to come to grips far too early with the darkness in the world as a survivor of childhood sexual trauma.
"I make people laugh in jail. I make people laugh in shitty jobs, in drug deals—but that's a necessity," he says, not only as a means of warding off violence but of dealing with trauma. "I was trying to make sense of it all by the time I was 10."
Ledwith describes the life that followed his abuse as "criminal," saying he did so many drugs they "damaged my brain." He was sent to juvenile hall at the age of 13 for the premeditated attempted murder of a bully.
"I was having problems with this kid. He was like 6 feet tall, I was tiny," he says. "Yeah, I brought a ratchet to school and split his head open. I guess it was premeditated, but I wasn't trying to kill him."
In juvie, he was constantly terrified, carrying a tattered Howard Zinn book around as a totem—and when he returned to the outside world, he fell into a life as a teenage sex worker. Once, he says, he unsuccessfully tried to extort money from a Plymouth city official who'd found him in an AOL chatroom.
"The town I grew up in is so fucked," he says. "They probably had the same number of child molesters as any town. But they all happened to be in the leadership of the town."
Laughter was a survival mechanism, enough of a constant that his friends pushed him toward comedy for years before he finally took the stage six years ago in Portland. In the beginning, his material dove headlong into the darkest parts of his past.
"I had a cathartic process when I first started comedy," he says. "I was able to unleash that. Nowadays, it's done. But I don't have qualms about it."
Though he's less likely now to write material about the deepest traumas, he has no problem talking about his past.
"Wherever you live," he says in one bit, "there are so many little things on the ground that look like pieces of crystal meth. But they never are! So get off your knees, America! Get back to work!"
Nonetheless, he prefers to separate the humor he uses as a defense mechanism from the comedy he makes as an art form.
"If you have nuance, if you find beauty in life, and you think it's really strange and absurd, and you also carry the burden of trauma, you can represent yourself in a more balanced way," he says.
"I think of myself as a reckless optimist," he adds. "Somehow, I've always remained an optimist without being given a lot of reason to."
Ledwith says his significant other, comedian Marina Math, once told him, "You're not a glass-half-full kind of person. You're a glass-is-full-of-poison-and-you're-pretending-it's-not-full-of-poison kind of person."
GO: WW's Funniest Five showcase, hosted by Adam Pasi, is at the Alberta Rose Theatre, 3000 NE Alberta St. 7 pm Tuesday, Nov. 28. $10.