Unless your college roommate bilked defense contractors out more than $4 million, my crazy roommate story has yours beat.
That is exactly what Garrison Courtney did. That is why he is in prison, and that is why he is the subject of an episode of the CNBC documentary series “American Green.”
Twenty-five years ago, I lived with Garrison at the University of Montana’s Pantzer Hall. (Click here for the podcast version of this column.)
A phone call a couple of weeks before class started in August of 1997 told me that my final semester at UM was going to be anything but ordinary.
On the other end of the phone was Garrison, a Great Falls native who said he was going to be one of my roommates. He said he was a standup comedian, and I believed him because he pretty much did an hourlong routine over the phone.
Garrison could do hundreds of spot-on impressions, and he proved it to me by doing most of them on that phone call.
I knew this was going to be a fun semester for the both of us. For one thing, I am a standup comedian’s dream. I am easy to make laugh, as my teachers throughout my grade school, junior high and high school career would tell you.
Almost every time I got in trouble at school it was because I was laughing at the funny guy in class.
Dan Piazzola was my teacher in sixth grade, and he would punish bad behavior by making us write our weekly spelling words five times each.
“That’s five,” Mr. Piazzola would say, holding up five fingers.
My friend Arren Connors is probably the best speller ever because he got five — at least — every day. One time, Arren did the five ahead of time. When Mr. Piazzola handed down his punishment, Arren opened his desk and pulled out a sheet of paper.
“Here you go,” Arren said.
“OK, wise guy, that’s 10,” Mr. Piazzola said.
Then, Mr. Piazzola turned to me and said, “That’s five for you for laughing.”
Garrison did not disappoint. He had me laughing nonstop for the couple of months we lived together.
Every night I got back from class or working at the school paper, I would notice my outgoing answering machine message was changed. It was a different character every day, anything from Arnold Schwarzenegger to Kermit The Frog.
When he came up with a new bit, he would run it by me, and of course, I laughed like crazy.
That is because Garrison was good. Really good.
His impersonations were every bit as good as Frank Caliendo. He was funnier, too. Way funnier.
Looking back, it is hard to know what to believe out of Garrison, especially now that he is a famous conman.
Garrison’s story was told when episode 12 of the 15th season of “American Greed” premiered last week on CNBC. You can stream it on Hulu and it will eventually be available on the Peacock.
A film crew came to Butte in January to interview me at Metals Sports Bar & Grill. I don’t want to brag, but I think I stole the hourlong show.
You can also read an in-depth story about him by Justin Rohrlich on the Daily Beast.
Garrison was, as I told Justin, like living with Robin Williams during a Letterman set. He never turned it off. Never.
I cannot be sure how much Garrison worked as a standup comedian. The one thing Garrison did better than tell jokes was B.S. He was a B.S. artist.
One night he told me he was going to join the UM football team. He talked to head coach Mick Dennehy, and he was all set to become a Grizzly lineman.
He was big enough, but I was skeptical of his story because I was familiar with how players join the football team. Just randomly walking by practice and saying, “Hey, can I play,” usually isn’t how it works.
Garrison, though, was convincing.
The next day, he told me he failed a physical because of his knees and lungs, so his football plans were over. He had canceled all of his comic gigs around the state for the school year because of football, and he said they were all filled up.
Knowing that Montana is not exactly a hotbed for live comedy, that seemed suspect. But again, Garrison was convincing.
I never met anyone faster at thinking on his feet.
A few weeks later, Garrison put on a comic show at the University Center, and he showed that he had what it takes to be successful. The place was packed with a crowd that was as diverse as you will see, and Garrison absolutely murdered.
Only one joke failed to land.
Everyone left the UC with a sore stomach from laughing so much. His humor was silly, yet smart. His impressions were uncanny.
Even in the dinner hall, people just gravitated toward Garrison. He was like a magnet. That is why I believed him, briefly, when he jokingly told me he was moving out to be on “The Real World” on MTV.
With Garrison, nothing seemed to be out of the question.
Garrison joined me for the first Grizzly home football game, and he was a hit. He was dressed like the Grim Reaper, and everybody in the student section wanted to sit with him.
The cheerleaders liked him so much that they asked him to join the squad. I thought Garrison was full of it when he told me that. But the next game, there he was, standing on the sideline with his wrists taped and throwing the female cheerleaders in the air.
Midway through the semester, Garrison moved out to live in a fraternity. The frat put on the full-court press to get Garrison to move in.
They apparently needed some entertainment in the frat house.
The dorm was quiet the rest of the semester, and it was kind of sad. I missed him.
Now, Garrison is in prison because he conned millions of dollars out of defense contractors. It was a crazy scheme that showed just how smart and quick-thinking Garrison can be.
As I watched the documentary episode, I could not help but be impressed with his smarts. If only he used that high IQ to do something good.
I mean, he convinced dozens of people that he was a deep-operative spy. People who should have known better were easily fooled out of millions.
At the end, I felt sad for my old friend. It seems like he got caught up in his lies that went way too far.
I felt even worse for the wife he lied to for so many years.
The documentary shows me laughing at some of Garrison’s cons. I don’t think he was a third-degree black belt, but I’m sure he knew enough about martial arts to get by.
I also don’t think he taught a self-defense class at UM simply to meet women. Those women probably learned some valuable lessons from Garrison. But I bet he charmed a few of them into dates.
It was also funny that he was voted the best weatherman in Missoula, even though he had zero meteorologic training.
I made some comments about how much I liked Garrison that did not make the cut. Also cut were some comments about how great of a standup comedian Garrison could have been.
I wish he would have stayed with comedy. I have no doubt he would be a household name by now if he did. He really was that funny
He might have even gone on to star in his own spy movie.
A movie about Garrison, by the way, seems like a must. His story is just insane.
Garrison has some more prison time to serve. When he gets out, I really hope he goes on stage to tell jokes and do impressions.
It would be so great for people to know the Garrison that I knew — the insanely funny man who never turned it off.
His prison roommates are probably laughing so hard that it hurts.
— Bill Foley, who will probably be played by Brad Pitt in the Garrison Courtney movie, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at twitter.com/Foles74.