Christian Ackerman knew he'd found his shtick when he could see the fear and embarrassment on the audience's faces.
He'd been miming for years, and decided to try a new bit. He'd do an Elvis impersonation, suddenly interrupted when the CD in his boombox on stage would start skipping.
People would murmur and shake their heads. Then he'd walk over to the boombox to make an adjustment.
Then he'd pretend to be electrocuted with a full-body shake. "You use every muscle in your body," he said. And the crowd responded.
"You can see the relief in the audience," he said.
Ackerman has been doing that bit at First Night Missoula for years now, and has found he can't leave it out.
"If I change something, it's almost like a musician not playing that one song you like," he said.
Ackerman began miming back when he was a kid in San Diego. He'd wake up every morning and watch an oldies channel on cable, one that featured Laurel and Hardy, the Three Stooges, Charlie Chaplin, Danny Kaye and Fred Astaire.
He began imitating their tricks at home and at the playground.
"My first gag I think was opening a door and pretending like it's stuck and hitting myself in the face and scaring my teachers to death, and my mom and my grandma," he said.
He didn't know what pantomime was until he wanted to enter a talent show and his parents explained it.
He didn't win, but he placed, and the success drove him to take it even more seriously.
His parents divorced when he was young, and his mother moved to the Missoula area. He'd come back to visit during December. It was the early days of First Night Missoula, and his parents encouraged him to apply to perform.
"At the time, it was like, 'Oh, great, we have this high school kid who's doing pantomime. That's fun and unusual,' " said Tom Bensen, director of the Missoula Cultural Council, the nonprofit that organizes First Night. "And little did I know he'd be doing it 20 years later."
Ackerman started doing his act in lobbies before a larger show started. Soon he'd fill the lobby, and they had to move him to the stage, whether at the MCT Center for the Performing Arts or the University Center Theater.
"It's been great to see him progress," Bensen said. "He continued to get better, and that's why people keep coming back to see him."
Miming, of course, isn't a full-time job. To pay his bills, Ackerman works at Missoula Community Access Television. He's the production trainer and mentor. When someone wants to create a show, he teaches them how to shoot and edit video.
He got that job because of his other passion: filmmaking. He loves making movies. Movies with no budget.
After graduating from high school, he had plans to study media arts at Montana State University, but he had to leave school after he had problems getting a student loan.
He dropped off his resume at MCAT, but the station didn't have any positions.
So he cut his short films together, variety show-style, and called it "The Christian Ackerman Show." He was hired when a position became available.
That was in 2000, and he's been there ever since.
The whole time he made features with his friends and co-workers, writing, directing, editing, everything.
He's done a horror movie, "Terror Vortex," and a zombie movie, "Zombies of the Living Dead," not yet released. He has another in the works called "Grid Street," a black-and-white noir.
"It's therapeutic to me. Movies saved me when my parents divorced, and so I think that's why I'm so obsessed with movies," he said.
Ackerman started out making them as a kid. His dad bought him a Tyco camera that, unfortunately, needed to be connected to a VCR to record. So he bought a small TV and put the whole rig on a cart.
To edit movies, he'd use a rigged-up system with a karaoke machine and a cassette adapter.
He won a few awards at video festivals early on, which bolstered his confidence when people asked him why he continues making films.
He's fond of using the word "artist" to explain the compulsion.
"I like to make this. This is the point of an artist. That word 'artist' seems like a cop-out word, but it's where you really find out you're nuts about your art and you really will do it no matter what. Even if you're good at it or not. And that's why I call myself an artist," he said.
It's a lesson he imparts to his students at the MAPS Media Institute in Hamilton, where he teaches classes of up to 30 kids on filmmaking and editing.
"Keep pursuing what you love doing like that – like that little kid who loved movies – and it will turn into something. Eventually, you're going to find yourself. Eventually, you're going to find what you do well. Eventually, somebody's going to go, 'Hey, I'd like to pay you money to do that.' Eventually, you'll be able to provide for your family," he said.