The Allen County Juvenile Center isn't typically a place filled with laughter.
For about 40 minutes Wednesday afternoon, things were different at the facility that houses people younger than 18 who are accused of crimes. For that short time, the detention center of locked, steel doors and concrete walls became a de facto comedy club.
Michael Jr., 47, a self-described inspirational comedian, performed for about 50 inmates gathered inside a high-ceilinged multipurpose room.
There were one-liners – “I've got five kids, and I travel a lot so I can see them all,” he joked – and other zingers, but the largely off-the-cuff set was made up mostly of stories interspersed with messages of hope and redemption.
He told audience members clad in ACJC-issued garb he struggled to read as a child but uses the experience now to work harder as a comic. He asked them to look for ways to help others.
“Ask the question of what can I give rather than what can I get,” Michael said. “It'll change everything.”
The Michigan native got into comedy on a dare when friends challenged him to take the stage at a movie theater when the lights went out. He's appeared on “The Tonight Show” and “Oprah,” according to his website.
Michael was in Fort Wayne to perform at Missionary Church's Shift National Leadership Ministry Conference at Grand Wayne Center. He said he often performs at prisons, juvenile detention centers and homeless shelters in cities where he's booked.
“I love doing them,” he said. “We want to do as many as we can. I like to make laughter commonplace in uncommon places. When people laugh, they open their hearts.”
If that's true, audience members' hearts were open wide. There were guffaws and chuckles when Michael asked if God made chickens with wings just for people. More laughter followed an observation about milk.
“I don't drink 2% milk because I'm not sure what the rest is made out of,” he said.
Inmates could not be interviewed because of confidentiality rules, ACJC officials said.
Shane Armstrong, director of detention, said the comedian's visit was part of an effort to provide useful programming for those housed there.
“This just gives our kids something different,” he said. “It's nice to do something nice with the kids.”
Jack Brady, who does prison ministry and teaches criminology at Indiana Wesleyan University, said he's been trying to get Michael to do a local show for about three years.
“These people that are incarcerated, they need that humor more than anyone else,” he said.