Thanks to Kristi Turnquist for giving me a jingle, and for writing such a well-researched and thought-out piece!
Comedy, as Steve Martin famously noted, is not pretty.
Consider stand-up comedy, that risky, showbiz high-wire routine in which one brave performer stands alone onstage, and commands a roomful of people to focus on nothing but him or her. It’s an art form that demands intensity and concentration — while also requiring the comic to be flexible and roll with the punches. Every audience is different; jokes that kill one night can meet with confused silence the next. But the show must go on. There’s nothing quite as deadly as watching a bad stand-up comic flail — or a talented one get miffed at the crowd for not laughing. It’s a balancing act of delivering a tightly crafted, solid bit with no wasted words — all the while giving the illusion of spontaneous, effortless wit.
But for those who love stand-up, as fans or performers, there’s nothing more invigorating. And, though many locals seem to forget there’s something other than live music to do here, Portland comedian Virginia Jones would like to remind them of the city’s thriving comedy scene.
Our whole night-life culture, Jones says, “is based on rock shows.” But she says Portland’s comedy scene is getting busier all the time, too, with a growing army of professional joke-tellers, would-be wisecrackers and venues instituting comedy nights. As if to prove the point, Portland comic Auggie Smith recently won both the San Francisco and Seattle comedy competitions, the first time a comedian has won both in the same year.
“It’s a super-interesting time,” says Jones, who has a day job at Nike. “There are all these new comics. It’s a very exciting environment.”
Jones started doing stand-up comedy about five years ago. “There were 25 to 30 active open-mic performers, and maybe 10 people who had been around for years and years and were headliners,” she recalls. “Now, there are 100 open-mic-ers.”
Jones hosts a regular open-mic night — where both experienced and newbie comics can get onstage — at Curious Comedy Theater. “I have 20 slots to give away” each night, she says, “and I show up, and there are 50 people interested.”
Not only are there open-mic nights almost every night of the week, Portland also has two full-time comedy clubs. On the west side, there’s Harvey’s Comedy Club, a mainstay for 18 years. On the east side, there’s the more recent addition, Helium Comedy Club. And then, there are several improv and sketch comedy troupes around town — but those are another story. For now, it’s all about stand-up.
“I’ve done a little bit of sketch comedy and improv,” Jones says. “But the thing that’s so rewarding about stand-up is that it is you alone. The singularity of it — you’re responsible for everything. If you bomb, it’s your fault. And if it goes well, it’s all you.
“Good or bad, it’s all you.”
On Monday nights, you find stand-up comics — from practiced pros to jittery amateurs — at the Boiler Room, an Old Town bar that claims to have hosted the longest-running open-mic night in town. For the pros, open-mic nights, which don’t pay, let them try new material. For novices, it’s a test to see if they can stand the heat of trying to make a roomful of people — many of them also comics — laugh. On a recent Monday night, James Zea is sitting with friends, waiting his turn. Zea’s day job is working security at Bridgeport Village, but he likes to tell jokes, he says, “Because I like to make people laugh.”
Zea, 28, has been doing comedy since 2006 but hasn’t gotten any professional gigs. “The only times I’ve performed are here, and at people’s houses,” he says. He practices a little at his job. “I’ll ask a woman, who’s like 80 years old, ‘How you doing today, ma’am?’ and she’ll say, ‘Oh, I’m fine,’ and then I say, ‘Well, you don’t need to brag.'” That one usually gets a laugh, he says.
Host Kevin-Michael Moore, who also performs with The 3rd Floor sketch-comedy group, arrives, gets the lineup organized, then stands at the microphone in one corner of the dark club.
“Knock-knock,” Moore says.
“Who’s there?” the audience responds.
“Multiple-personality disorder,” Moore says.
“Multiple-personality disorder who?”
“That’s really the question,” Moore says. “Isn’t it?”
He makes a few cracks about growing up in Troutdale, and launches into a parody of “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina” — only instead of saying Argentina, he says “(bleeping) Gresham.” This is, we soon discover, an R-rated night of comedy. As it says on the Boiler Room website, “We won’t ask you to censor your routine, anything goes here.”
And so it does, as about 20 comics take their turns, doing routines less than five minutes long. As the men, and a few women, take their turns, the jokes cover a range of topics: strippers (“old strippers never die — they just grind to a halt”); Portland police horse patrols (“I’ve yet to see a horse cop in a high-speed chase”); dogs and public transit (“If I were to do a Portland version of ‘Snakes on a Plane,’ I would call it ‘Dogs on a Bus'”); technology (“first there were booty calls, now there are booty texts — the bare minimum of booty effort”); and some old reliables — sex, drugs and the Blazers.
At last, time’s up, and everybody’s done for the night — the funny, the promising and the what-were-they-thinking? For the ones who tanked, there’s always next Monday, or one of the other open-mic nights around town.
Comics good enough may graduate from open-mic nights to paying gigs at comedy clubs, on the road and at home. That’s where a spot like Harvey’s Comedy Club in Old Town comes in.
Owner Barry Kolin has been running the place for 18 years. “I feel like the Ancient Mariner,” says Kolin. “I’ve seen clubs come and go. But it’s about consistency, and trying to take care of the customers.”
Harvey’s has kept going as stand-up has evolved, from the days when touring comedians needed to have TV appearances to their credit to the current climate, where comics build followings through podcasts, Web videos and social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter.
On a recent evening at Harvey’s, there’s a workplace-related function. A group of employees starts the evening in the banquet room, then moves to the showroom for comedy from Los Angeles-based headliner Tim O’Rourke (who played a recurring bartender on “The Drew Carey Show”); Lang Parker (who appeared on “Last Comic Standing”); and Portland comic Nathan Brannon.
Over the evening, they tell jokes about men, women, sex, Victoria’s Secret shopping and the oddity of bra cup sizes (“What is this, a grade system where the smaller you are, the better you are?”), the fact that there are no fat terrorists (“There’s no jihad in Hershey, Pennsylvania”), babies, getting older, and men who don’t know their girlfriends’ clothing sizes (“I think she’s a Junior Mint?”).
The crowd is relaxed and boisterous, applauds, and a few people near the front get into back-and-forth exchanges with the comics. O’Rourke cracks, “You’re a sick little group. Thanks for coming out tonight.”
Group-sales events like this are a part of the business model that has kept Harvey’s going, Kolin says. “Our customer base is all over the state. We have people coming up from Grants Pass … all up the I-5 corridor.” Kolin believes in promotions, and regularly offers free tickets to get people in who may not have visited a comedy club before. Harvey’s is unpretentious, Kolin says, adding that his audiences come from “outlying areas, they come in from Salem, Washougal, Gresham, Beaverton. The Pearl isn’t coming to Harvey’s. We do a ton of bachelorette parties in the summertime, and lots of turning-21 parties.”
Over the years, some comics have criticized Kolin for setting limits on what they can say. “I’ve heard people say, ‘Well, he censors shows,'” says Kolin. “I don’t censor shows.
“Here’s the thing: I don’t want the first two comics swearing unless they’re doing it in a joke and they’ve cleared the joke with me, because they set the tone for the whole show and nobody wants to hear swearing for an hour-and-a-half.”
Since Helium Comedy Club opened this summer, Harvey’s is no longer the only game in town when it comes to booking out-of-town talent. Kolin was, he says, a little bothered by a remark he saw from someone associated with Helium. “It was some guy saying Portland hasn’t seen good comedy, or something, and I thought that was a little offensive. We’re bringing in really funny people. When you’ve been doing it for a long time, you’re going to get people that don’t like, for whatever reason, the way you do business. So more power to them.”
Kolin says that he requires “some separation” when it comes to booking local comics who perform at Helium. “If they perform at Helium, I’ve kind of kept it at a year” before he books them at Harvey’s. “Because they’re not going to change their acts,” and in the span of a year, “Hopefully they’ll write a few new bits.” Helium hasn’t hurt his business, Kolin says.
“Overall, it helps the comedy scene in Portland” to have another club, he says. “Comedy has sprung up like karaoke in this town.”
On a recent night at Helium, early-arrivers are having drinks in the lounge area outside the showroom. Hayley Eiden, 26, and friend Sarah Raike, 22, have come for a show featuring headliner Greg Behrendt, a comic and comedy writer best known for co-authoring the book “He’s Just Not That Into You.”
“Portland’s a great scene for comedy,” Eiden says. She and Raike say comedy is a nice alternative to going out to see a band. “Not everybody wants to be chatting over music,” Eiden says. “It’s fun to be entertained.”
The Southeast Hawthorne Helium location is the second outpost for the club, which started in Philadelphia in 2006. After about six months, says owner Marc Grossman, the Philly club hit its stride. “We’ve grown about 20 percent every year since.” With business expanding, Grossman thought about opening a second club. “Portland really popped out for a couple of reasons,” he says, including a high number of Comedy Central viewers.
Since opening in Portland, there have been a few bumps, Grossman says. “We had some issues with staffing, but whenever you start a new business, you have to figure that out. We’ve had some amazing weeks and we’ve had some not-great weeks. Right now, I’m focusing on learning who Portland wants to see.”
The evening’s comics are Portlander Ian Karmel, New Yorker Ryan Conner and Los Angeles-based Behrendt, who sip water in a waiting room before the show.
Karmel thinks part of what has helped build Portland’s comedy scene is the Bridgetown Comedy Festival, the annual event that started in 2008. “It gets a smart crowd,” Karmel says, that follows comedy and wants to see specific performers they like.
As the show begins, audience members are asked to turn off cell phones and to keep talking to a minimum. The comics tell jokes about hating to dance (“When I was 4 years old and watching ‘Footloose,’ I sided with the father”), Facebook, Confederate flags in the South (“The Civil War ended 145 years ago, there’s no need to support the troops anymore”), Behrendt’s degree from University of Oregon, hipsters who drink Pabst Blue Ribbon beer, and the fear of going on Oprah Winfrey’s show (“She has ownership of a large percentage of a gender”).
Andy Wood, who co-founded the Bridgetown Comedy Festival, works for Helium, doing event sales and marketing. He says there’s no rivalry between the veteran Harvey’s and the newcomer Helium.
“It’s a big enough city that both clubs can thrive,” he says. “We feed different needs.
“There’s a lot more talent now,” he says. “And more interest. You don’t have to fight so hard to get people on board to come and see comedy.”