ABERDEEN, S.D. — It wasn't Folsom Prison and Spencer Dobson wasn't crooning the blues.
It was Missouri River Correctional Center and Dobson was working for some laughs.
"Prison sucks. To be able to laugh, really let your guard down and feel like a human being for even a half an hour, that has value," Dobson said during a recent visit at a coffee shop.
"It’s not my favorite thing to do, but it’s a little Johnny Cash-ish," he said.
Dobson, a professional stand-up comedian from Aberdeen, did a North Dakota prison tour Dec. 18-20. He had performances at the Missouri River Correctional Center in Bismarck, a minimum-security facility; the James River Correctional Center, a medium-security prison in Jamestown; and two more at the North Dakota State Penitentiary, the state's maximum-security prison, also in Bismarck.
A comedy show in a prison might seem a bit far-fetched, but there's a purpose, and it only starts with keeping up spirits.
"The launch point is that the people in prison are going to be your neighbors at some point. (Shows) keep people socialized, engaged. Especially in minimum security. You want them as socialized as possible with people. You want them to feel like human beings," Dobson said.
Minimum security generally incarcerates inmates who have shorter sentences and are more apt to be released, versus longer and life sentences at other facilities.
He was contacted by someone at Missouri River Correctional Center who floated the idea. Things came together and a mini-tour was hatched for just before the holidays. It gave Dobson some time to craft an appropriate routine.
"You do your show for the most part. There’s a new minefield of issues that you didn’t have to take into account at a normal show. You still want to stay away from religion," Dobson said. "They did say, don’t go too deep into sex stuff, don’t graphically go into drug stuff. It’s amazing how much you touch on things (in regular shows) that you don’t think about."
He does a little crowd work in his routines where he interacts a bit with his audience. He tries to avoid asking about tattoos, because those can have personal and sometimes bad memories associated with them. Talking about family or his own marriage is also usually avoided because the men he's performing for can't be with their own families. As Dobson describes some of the banter, it's clear the shows maintained an R-rating.
What goes over well are comments on loneliness and odd things only prisoners might get. Dobson has a bit on ramen. It's nearly a currency in prison, he said. Each inmate seemed to have his own way of dressing up the instant noodle packets.
One inmate, a guy who went by the name of Chrome, got into it with Dobson verbally. It got tense, but later Dobson said he came to find out that Chrome's fellow inmates chided him for letting the comic get the best of him. And Dobson also knows Chrome and other inmates can put on their own show to get by in prison.
"There is an element of danger. I played Dickinson, (N.D.), during the oil rush. It’s the same amount of dudes, same testosterone, but at least in prison they have guards," he said.
It didn't come off as a joke.
Dobson treats prison gigs like any other. He's still working for the paycheck, but he has compassion for his fellow man, even those behind bars.
"Most aren’t actually bad people. They are in prison because they were working with the best tools available to them at the time. I really get the impression they are doing a lot to rehabilitate people," Dobson said about the prisons he visited.
It's just a gig, and Dobson is just a comic. And as with any comic he's got his favorite reactions.
"When you see a smile go across a really hard face, there’s something great about that," he said.