When Ryan Hamilton was hit by a bus, he wanted it to be a tragedy. But really, it’s a comedy

Hamilton spent years making a name for himself in comedy until he became his own punchline. But now he’s back and turning trauma into laughs

Editor’s note: This story was originally published July 23, 2023. Ryan Hamilton is performing at the Delta Center on Nov. 24.

NEW YORK CITY — The Ryan Hamilton sitting across the table from me is a subdued version of the Ryan Hamilton I’ve seen on TV. He’s in a nondescript black T-shirt. He speaks softly and smiles sedately. He apologizes for talking too much and for name-dropping when he mentions his friends Chris Rock and Jerry Seinfeld. He asks often during the time we spend together if I need water, if I’m hungry and if I’m comfortable.

We’re at the Olive Tree Cafe, the Mediterranean restaurant above the Comedy Cellar, where comedians gather between their sets downstairs and around the corner at Village Underground. After a few minutes, Hamilton glances at his watch and announces it’s time for him to get onstage.

We make our way to the Village Underground, passing a line of antsy patrons waiting to get into the club for the next show. “Ryan Hamilton!” a few Cellar employees yell, and they embrace Hamilton as we pass. We pause in a hall filled with framed photos of comedians, Hamilton among them, then enter the dark, crowded venue where waiters buzz around tables full of customers laughing as Lynne Koplitz delivers punchlines in front of the iconic brick wall.

When Koplitz finishes, Hamilton leisurely makes his way on stage, and then, in an instant, the Ryan Hamilton I was talking to just seconds before expands into Ryan Hamilton the performer — his smile bigger, eyes wider, voice louder.

He dances, intentionally poorly, as the house band plays and spends the first minute or two joking about his overwhelming whiteness — “I dance like your cousin at a wedding” —  before testing some new material about generational differences.

Then Hamilton shares that he was hit by a bus a year ago. A number of people in the audience gasp.

“If someone says, ‘I got hit by a car,’ people go, ‘oof, I’m so sorry,’” he says. “But if someone says, ‘I was hit by a bus,’ people go, ‘oof’” .... then Hamilton imitates someone snorting to keep from laughing.

The crowd, aghast moments before, erupts in laughter. Someone squeals between giggles.

“It’s a strange accident because it feels common, but it’s not common,” he says. “We talk about it as if it happens a lot. We reference it all the time. Once you get hit by a bus, you’ll see,” he adds, which elicits even more, even louder laughter.

“It’s just the most easily accessible hypothetical death. I don’t know why. But I’m here to tell you to live your life because, you know, you might get hit by a bus.”

Comedian Ryan Hamilton walks to the Village Underground for his last set of the night after performing at the Comedy Cellar in Manhattan, New York, on Friday, June 16, 2023. | Gabriela Bhaskar, for the Deseret News

Earlier that day, I met Hamilton for lunch at the cafe at the New York Historical Society on the West Side of Central Park, where he told me he wasn’t an overtly funny child, but that he thought often about what would make people laugh.

Thinking about her son’s childhood, Hamilton’s mother, Suzanne, described him as a serious, observational child. “I always got the impression that he was just thinking about things. The wheels were always turning,” she told me over the phone, adding that she was surprised when his friends’ parents would tell her how funny they thought he was.

“I didn’t say a lot,” Hamilton explained. “But when I said something, I tried to make it funny.”

Hamilton remembers landing his first joke at a family dinner with guests. Hamilton’s sister was struggling to find her words in the middle of a story. He grabbed her arm, pumped it up and down, and said, “You’ve gotta prime her.”

Hamilton’s parents read humorist Dave Barry’s column every Sunday with their three children. As a teen, Hamilton thought Barry had his dream job, and decided he, too, wanted to be a newspaper columnist. So he called the local county newspaper — the Fremont Herald Chronicle — and asked if he could write a column. “In the ’90s, in rural Idaho, you call the county newspaper and ask them for a column, they just say yes,” Hamilton said. 

The Hamiltons lived in Ashton, Idaho, a town with one stoplight and 63 students in Hamilton’s graduating class. “When you’re from a small town there are advantages,” Hamilton said. “You can do whatever you want because nobody else is going to. So there’s room for you.” There was so much room for Hamilton that the small city paper — The Fall River Review — also wanted a column. So he wrote two humor columns a week, one for each paper, for $10 apiece. 

Soon, the NBC affiliate in Idaho Falls caught wind of the budding young journalist out of Ashton and called to ask Hamilton if he’d like to help cover sports. So when he was 15, having had an Idaho driver’s license for a full year, he drove around the state filming games, editing the reels, writing copy and slipping in some jokes for the sportscaster to read on air. 

Hamilton constantly thought about comedy, and his family encouraged his interests. His parents woke him to watch any time a comedian performed on “The Tonight Show with David Letterman.” They watched “Evening at the Improv” every week, and Hamilton was inspired by the amateur comedians he watched perform on the program. “There was this small place where you could get on stage and tell jokes, and you didn’t have to be a super famous person. It really put this idea in my head. There was a place where you could just go do this,” he said.

Comedian Ryan Hamilton performs at the Comedy Cellar in Manhattan, New York, on Friday, June 16, 2023. | Gabriela Bhaskar, for the Deseret News

He continued to obsess about comedy through high school and during his time at Ricks College, where he studied before his mission in North Carolina for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. After his mission, he spent one more year at Ricks — now BYU-Idaho — then transferred to Brigham Young University, where he studied public relations. “It just never left me. I was always writing jokes, but I just never had time to perform,” he said, explaining that he worked multiple jobs to get through school. 

In the spring of 2000, on the day he took his last BYU final, he called Johnny B’s comedy club in Provo, Utah, and asked if he could get on stage. They told him they had a spot for him that Friday. 

He didn’t tell any of his friends or family about his plans to perform. “I just wanted it to be my own little thing,” he said. Though the show went well, Hamilton was not yet seriously considering a career in comedy. His comedic aspirations only went so far as having a fun hobby. But it was all he could think about.

When the comedy club Wiseguys opened in West Valley, he started spending every evening there, then eventually got on stage and performed. “Ryan was really likable onstage,” said Wiseguys owner Keith Stubbs. “There was a certain charm to him. A likability that was very appealing.”

Stubbs invited Hamilton to perform weekly, giving him much more stage time than someone with his experience would typically have. “If comics have potential and (a) work ethic and this is what they want to do, I’ll give them opportunities they aren’t 100% ready for that they can grow into,” Stubbs said. He adds that Hamilton seized that opportunity, then created an act that perfectly suited him. “He’s supremely talented,” Stubbs added.

After graduating from BYU, Hamilton took a job at a prestigious Salt Lake City PR firm where he thought he would build a career. But he found it difficult to make cold calls from an office all day and was not passionate about the clients or the work.

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In the winter of 2002, Hamilton’s parents came to Salt Lake to visit their oldest son. Suzanne remembers walking through the Olympic displays downtown with Hamilton. She asked about his job and he told her he hated it. Then he told her what he had only just told himself — he wanted to be a comedian. 

Within a year at the firm, both Hamilton and his bosses knew PR was not where he belonged. During a conversation with his supervisor, Hamilton expressed his desire to perform comedy. In response, his manager said, “We don’t have that position here.” Hamilton was let go.

He still felt too green to seriously pursue comedy full time and started looking for another job. But the only job available was a part-time position as a parking valet. So he decided to put all his energy into comedy for one year, living off his severance pay and valet income. 

Hamilton’s life became one of long drives to perform for 30 minutes in random bars in random cities and make about $100. It was worth it, he said, for the chance to perform. “Performing is the reward,” he told me. “There’s just something about the back and forth with the audience and delivering the laugh.”

Comedian Ryan Hamilton performs at the Comedy Cellar in Manhattan, New York, on Friday, June 16, 2023. | Gabriela Bhaskar, for the Deseret News

Meanwhile, Hamilton rubbed shoulders with the headliners he opened for at Wiseguys, and one night Greg Hahn pulled Hamilton aside and told him that if he was considering doing comedy full time, Hahn believed he had what it takes. “It felt great because you’re just looking for some sort of validation,” Hamilton said. “Anything to keep you going.”

After months of performing one-nighters, Hamilton decided to move to Seattle, where he would have more opportunities to perform. Once there, he entered the Seattle Comedy Competition and made it to the semifinals. The competition included an industry night, judged by network executives and talent managers. Hamilton won the industry night competition and was approached by club managers and network executives, who told him to set up a meeting the next time he was in LA.

So Hamilton made up an excuse to go to LA. He showed up to one meeting in a suit and tie and was horrified to find everyone else dressed casually. “I was very, very green,” he said, laughing. “I didn’t know how to handle the business at all.” A manager sent him to a couple of auditions for television pilots, one of which went very well and led to a studio test. While he didn’t book the pilot, he found the experience encouraging. So he decided to give comedy his full attention for one more year. 

Then one more year turned into several more years. Which meant going into credit card debt, which he considered comedy tuition.

“It put a lot of pressure on me,” Hamilton said, explaining that the debt pushed him to work as hard as he could to book shows. He started to get corporate gigs, which paid better than one-nighters. His broad, observational comedy is a good fit for corporate work, he explained. “I’m very approachable, and I’m not going to offend anybody,” he said.

Hamilton entered and won Sierra Mist’s America’s Next Great Comic competition in 2005, and spent the following year touring comedy clubs where he served as host, introducing other comedians on the Sierra Mist tour. He entered “Last Comic Standing” — the reality television competition on NBC — and made it to the semifinals in 2007. 

Then he booked his first performance in New York for “Live at Gotham” which aired on Comedy Central. When he walked offstage, he met the young comedian Amy Schumer, who said to him, “I’m Amy. And you’re going to move here.”

Schumer was correct. Hamilton moved to New York soon after the Gotham performance. “If stand-up is your first love, there’s no better place to be than New York City,” he said.

“I didn’t realize how high his aspirations were,” his mother confessed. “Then he moved to New York, and I was very worried about him.”

Hamilton also worried. Not for his physical safety, like his mother, but for his career prospects which, despite his recent successes, he felt were flailing.

“I couldn’t get on stage,” he said, explaining that bookers in the city were unwilling to let Hamilton perform. Though he had had TV appearances and multiple competition titles, he hadn’t proved himself as a New York comedian. So he spent five years traveling from New York to other cities to perform. 

Comedian Ryan Hamilton performs at the Village Underground in Manhattan, New York, on Friday, June 16, 2023. | Gabriela Bhaskar, for the Deseret News

During that time, Hamilton caught the attention of talent manager Peter Rosegarten. “After watching so many artists, you get a certain sense when you see somebody take the stage in how they speak, how their material is written, how they approach a subject matter, and how they’re uniquely different from other comedians,” Rosegarten said. “Watching him on stage, I just knew he had that special something.”

While Rosegarten was working to get Hamilton on stage in New York, Hamilton was ready to give up on the city. Rosegarten told Hamilton to give him six more months to make things happen. Then Schumer recommended him for an audition at the Comedy Cellar, where he performed for Estee Adoram, the legendary Comedy Cellar booker for the last nearly four decades. “I liked him right away,” Adoram told me. “There was something very genuine about him. Something very different. He stood out. He was a star.”

Hamilton started performing weekly at the Comedy Cellar. By 2017, he had enough material for an hourlong special that he hoped to produce for Netflix. But executives at the streaming platform declined. Hamilton and Rosegarten shopped the concept around and got a soft commitment from Showtime. Then, out of nowhere, Netflix called and offered a slot, but the show had to be put together quickly. Finding a venue, set designer, director, production company and audience is a process that typically takes six months, Hamilton explained. He had six weeks.

“It was pretty stressful,” he said. “But I was also very grateful to have the thing. I got the thing that everybody wanted.”

They shot the show in May 2017 and Netflix released it in September. Hamilton spent the months in between flying back and forth to the Mayo Clinic, where his father was having multiple surgeries to repair damage caused by esophageal cancer. Hamilton was so preoccupied with his father’s health that he wasn’t thinking much about the special. 

But then he started getting calls from friends saying his face was on their Netflix homepage. Suzanne remembers talking with a customer service representative on the phone. The representative asked for her address, and when Suzanne told her Ashton, Idaho, the representative asked, “Do you know that comedian Ryan Hamilton?” When Suzanne told her he was her son, the woman did not believe her. 

More fans started showing up to Hamilton’s shows, which began selling out. He started to book bigger venues, including Carnegie Hall, where he opened for famed French comedian Gad Elmaleh. Before the performance, Elmaleh introduced Hamilton to his friend Jerry Seinfeld, who watched the performance from the green room. A few nights later, Hamilton was leaving the Gotham Comedy Club as Seinfeld was entering. Seinfeld pulled him aside and told him he and his friends had discussed Hamilton’s performance and his talent at dinner that night.

A couple of months later, Hamilton got a call from Seinfeld asking if he’d be interested in opening for him. “It was surreal,” Hamilton said. “I couldn’t believe I had this life.”

Comedian Ryan Hamilton is pictured in this 2023 photo shoot. | Limor Garfinkle

2020 was set to be Hamilton’s banner year. He had more shows booked by March than he’d ever booked before. He had lunch with Seinfeld on March 18 and they talked about what they thought might happen with the coronavirus. The next day, Seinfeld canceled his show. Two days later, Broadway canceled all performances. By the end of the week, the world had shut down and all of Hamilton’s bookings were postponed.

He traveled home to Idaho to isolate with his family and spend some time with his father during what turned out to be the final year of Larry’s life.

Suzanne said Larry was grateful for the time he was able to spend with his son. “My husband told me several times, ‘I always knew he was a good comedian, but I didn’t know he was such a good man,’” she said. Larry died in January 2021, and Hamilton remained in Idaho with his family until he was fully vaccinated. At the end of December, he flew to Hawaii for a corporate event, one of his first performances post-COVID.

Returning home, when he landed in LAX, he received a notification on his phone saying he had been exposed to the virus. He tested positive and isolated for 10 days in a hotel room. 

The minute he was cleared to leave the hotel, on Jan. 1, 2022, he walked to LAX at 1:30 a.m. to get a rental car. “I hit a button, I watched the light turn, and I started walking,” he said. “I didn’t see or hear anything. I just felt the impact.”

A shuttle bus had struck Hamilton, breaking 10 of his ribs, puncturing a lung, and pushing an arm bone through his skin. “It was pretty gruesome,” he remembered.

Hamilton stood, even though he was in no condition to stand, and hobbled across the street to a patch of grass where he could sit and try not to lose consciousness. Someone called 911 and an ambulance arrived. 

When Hamilton’s mother woke up to her daughter telling her Hamilton had been hit by a bus, she thought it was some kind of joke, because, as she told me, “Getting hit by a bus really does sound like a joke.”

But as soon as she realized it wasn’t an early morning prank, she called her son. He was lying on a gurney in the hospital hallway, waiting to have a titanium plate placed in his arm. “Mom, I’m my own punchline,” he told her. Suzanne explained that one of Hamilton’s recent jokes had lightly mocked people who claimed they weren’t concerned about getting COVID-19 because they could get hit by a bus at any time. “He had gotten three vaccinations and been hit by a bus,” she said. “He thought that was pretty funny.”

While Hamilton managed to laugh at himself, his friends and family were deeply concerned. “I was so scared and sad and worried about him,” said Hamilton’s former roommate and close friend, the comedian Gary Gulman. “Of all the people who didn’t deserve this pain, it was this man who was hit by a bus.”

Stubbs told me that he and the comedians in Hamilton’s circle were “scared to death.”

Suzanne drove from Idaho to Los Angeles to be with her son in the hospital. “It was so hard to watch him,” she said. “He was so uncomfortable.”

Hamilton stayed in the hospital for five days and says he probably should have stayed longer, but the staff needed beds to accommodate the overwhelming number of COVID-19 patients being admitted.

Hamilton and his mother moved into a hotel room, where they spent the next five weeks. They’d take walks and Hamilton was so weak, Suzanne would have to hold his hand to cross the street. “It was a terrifying time for him,” she said

“I was so scared,” Hamilton said. “I didn’t think my body would work again.”

Comedian Ryan Hamilton sits with colleagues between sets at the comedians table at the Olive Tree Cafe in Manhattan, New York, on Friday, June 16, 2023. | Gabriela Bhaskar, for the Deseret News

Back upstairs in the Olive Tree, while we wait for Hamilton’s next set, he reflects on the moments immediately after the accident. The first thing he felt when the bus hit, he tells me, was disappointment that he would have to cancel his upcoming show in Salt Lake City.

Salt Lake, where Hamilton cut his teeth as a stand-up, is home to one of his largest fan bases, and his performances had already been postponed a number of times during the pandemic. For a while after the accident, Hamilton believed he could still make the performance. “I was just delusional,” he explains. Against the advice of everyone, he waited to cancel. “As much as I tried to hold him back, he just wanted to get back in the saddle,” says Rosegarten. “I just kept pleading with him not to do it.”

Hamilton wasn’t recovered enough to drive, so Suzanne volunteered to chauffeur him to Salt Lake a week before the show to prepare. He was in the car for just a few hours when Rosegarten called. As he spoke with his manager on the phone, he found himself in pain, unable to talk without gasping for air. He knew he had to cancel the show. “I think he finally gave in and realized his body needed to heal,” Rosegarten tells me.

Suzanne drove Hamilton home to Idaho, then back and forth to physical therapy and follow-up doctor appointments in Salt Lake City for months. As he healed, he started getting on stage at Wiseguys again. “He had to rebuild his confidence and his act,” Stubbs explains. “After that much trauma, it’s tough to restart. As dark as it is, you have to find a way to make it work.”

Stubbs watched Hamilton work through the material, threading the impossible needle of turning very real trauma into the very funny jokes Hamilton now tells on stage. “I think they’re amazing jokes,” Stubbs says. “It’s amazing he was able to make it as funny as he has.”

Hamilton says the first few days after the accident he started writing jokes about it without fully understanding what had happened to him, unaware that the worst was yet to come. “As time went on, I realized the severity of the accident. And I couldn’t write jokes about it,” Hamilton says.

But when he got back on stage, he found he couldn’t not talk about it. ”I couldn’t go on stage without acknowledging that this thing had happened. I would have felt so disingenuous,” he says. 

“This is what comics do,” Stubbs says. “They talk about their lives and opinions and perspectives. There’s no way he couldn’t address such a substantial change.”

Hamilton says in those first performances after the accident, talking about it on stage felt heavy. “The jokes were good,” he says. “But you could just tell I was a little traumatized.” That heaviness may have only been apparent to Hamilton, though. Gulman tells me the jokes were good from the start. “The turnaround time was astonishing,” he says. “When I heard him tell that story, it was perfection. Beautifully told and fleshed out almost immediately.”

In March of 2022, Hamilton flew to Los Angeles to help Schumer write for the Academy Awards. He then traveled back to New York where he started performing at the Comedy Cellar again. By May he was recovered and began working in full force.

All of Hamilton’s shows, which Rosegarten spent months canceling after the accident, were rebooked as soon as Hamilton was back to work. “There wasn’t one appearance Ryan was supposed to do that didn’t come back to us,” Rosegarten says.

Hamilton hit the late-night talk-show circuit, performing on “The Tonight Show” with Jimmy Fallon in April of this year, (a repeat of that episode will air on July 28), and opening for Seinfeld again at the Beacon Theatre. Now he’s booked through the spring of 2024, including a November show at the Delta Center in Salt Lake City, his largest performance venue to date.

“I feel like I’m really back,” Hamilton says. He has a fresh hour of material and is confident in his ability to create and entertain, as are those closest to him. “He’s going to start selling out large venues like the Delta Center,” Stubbs predicts.

“I think he’ll build a bigger and bigger audience and continue to get recognized,” Gulman says. “If he can avoid buses.”

“It’s strange,” Hamilton says from the Comedy Cellar stage. “I wanted my accident to be a tragedy, you know? But it’s pretty funny. Really, it’s a comedy.”

Comedian Ryan Hamilton runs into Judah Friedlander between sets outside the Comedy Cellar in Manhattan, New York, on Friday, June 16, 2023. | Gabriela Bhaskar, for the Deseret News