FOLLOW THE LOCAL comedy scene long enough and you’ll pick up on this simple pattern: A young stand-up rises through the ranks of his/her peers to win Helium Comedy Club’s annual Portland’s Funniest Person competition, and very soon thereafter moves away. It’s not an affront to the city that breeds these funny folk. As current titleholder and soon-to-be-ex-Portlander Nariko Ott explains, there’s just no other mountain to climb.
“You don’t want to be a big fish in a small pond,” he says as he dissects a huge hamburger at My Father’s Place the night before his (initially canceled) farewell show at Helium. “Do you want to live in the same town when you’re the champ? ‘Hey, there’s that guy that used to be good! Why do people call that guy ‘Coach’?’”
Like the many other expat comics who have moved on to Los Angeles or New York before him, Ott could have easily made the jump months before he was awarded the Funniest Person crown. In the 2015 contest eventually won by Amy Miller (who now lives in LA), Ott earned the third-place spot with set after set of absurdist observations and surrealist setpieces, like turning the Chester’s Chicken mascot into a 9/11 conspiracy theorist.
He was also prepared to wait a bit before leaving for his eventual home in New York City. The Portland’s Funniest title has helped nab him a lot of road work, and there’s never a shortage of stage time for him here. But when his employer announced they were opening up an outlet in the Big Apple, he decided to make the jump and find out, he says, how far he has to go as a comic.
“It’s a very important lesson to learn how much you suck,” Ott says. “After I got here, I started doing stand-up and thought I knew was doing, but then I saw [former Portland comic] Richard Bain and was, like, ‘Ohhh... the ladder is so much taller than I thought it was.’”
The perpetually mustachioed Ott arrived in Portland in 2011 after spending his formative years in Tempe, Arizona, where he started a sketch comedy troupe and a jokey band that fused metal and country. Like any hungry comic, he hit up all the open mics he could, building his muscles and his material along the way. Eventually, as he tells it, he had the breakthrough moment that all stand-ups go through.
“You go along for a while and you think you’re doing well,” he says. “But then you find the joke that really works and you realize you’ve just been bothering people for a long time. Until you write something like that, you don’t know what the metric is, which is, ‘I have to suck less than this from now on.’”
He’s also used the experience of watching so many of his funny friends spread their wings and fly out of Portland as inspiration to push himself onstage so that he might eventually follow them.
“It’s been really heartening to watch my peers that are great get better after they leave,” he says, citing former locals Ian Karmel, Shane Torres, and Ron Funches. “Makes me feel like if I try hard and keep improving, it’s not so outlandish as it seems. Look at Gabe Dinger. He was just in a Big Freedia video. Maybe there’s a Big Freedia video out there for me and I’m going to find it.”