Joel Byars (class of 2006) describes himself as a “good-ish student? Maybe?” Then, he laughs and says, “Let’s put it this way: I was always curious about what I shouldn’t be doing.” Looking for a way to engage his curiosity and, hoping for a chance to play on Walker’s new Varsity football team, Joel Byars arrived on campus as a Freshman in 2002. Despite his parents’ hopes, not much changed in the classroom. Using his sense of humor to “help keep everyone distracted instead of working,” Joel says that he was a B student. Still, he argues, that the life skills he gained from Walker are what set his experience apart.
“Though the material didn’t quite stick, the skills I learned in Mr. (Michael) Arjona’s History class certainly did.” Joel uses Mr. Arjona’s organizational note-taking skills today in his joke writing process. “Mr. (Chris) Golden’s class was such a safe place,” he reminisces. “We could tackle topics that were challenging. I remember feeling safe to try things and safe to fail.” Even in Advisory, Joel says that he was given “room to become my own individual. And, to think for myself. The teachers - particularly Ms. (Jean) Bayer - were never easy,” he adds, “but they were fair and patient, while still having high expectations.”
Then, he reflects, there was the moment that he knew something inside had clicked. A simple English assignment in Ms. Rentner’s class to memorize and recite a monologue. No stage. No audience. Just students standing in front of the class performing Shakespeare. “This was my first experience feeling in the zone. That moment planted the seed that has grown into my professional comedy career.”
Following his graduation from Walker, after receiving the Senior Superlative “Wittiest,” Joel attended Maryville College in Maryville, Tennessee, where he had a chance to play football, focus on his writing skills, graduate with a liberal arts degree and perhaps most importantly, in his senior year - second semester - decide to explore his passion for comedy at a few small venues in Knoxville. “As soon as I did it, I knew it was that same feeling I had experienced in English class. The spark ignited. After performing comedy once, I knew this is what I was going to do for the rest of my life.”
Today, Joel is a 10-year comedy veteran. He documents the passion and process of other professional comedians with interviews on his award-winning Hot Breath! podcast. Most recently, he self-produced his first comedy special, The Trophy Husband, with hopes of inspiring other comics to start creating their own success. Joel shares a sincere passion for making a comedy career accessible to all those who have felt the spark. “My mission is to do everything I can - as independently as I can - and then to document my path so that I can help other aspiring comedians find their way.”
Creating opportunities to discover, create and invent yourself continues to be at the core of a Walker education. We are so proud of all our alumni who take advantage of that process and then, especially, find ways to do the same for others.