THE CAREER TRAJECTORY of a stand-up comedian follows the same path as a musician or band. You start off taking whatever small gigs you can find to build up confidence and performance skills. As you improve and more people hear your work, you can start performing in bigger and bigger places, and, if you're lucky, doing shows on the road. Eventually, the hard work pays off and you can headline at home and beyond, and nab an opening spot for a touring artist with little effort.
The key difference between stand-ups and musicians is that it's relatively easy for bands to become successful around the world while still living in their hometown. But for comedians, they eventually hit a ceiling and have to make a tough decision: remain a big fish in a small pond or find bigger and better opportunities by jumping into the larger talent pools of New York or Los Angeles.
"You don't need to leave," says Adam Triplett, operations manager of Helium Comedy Club here in Portland, "but there is a limitation. Do you want to be Guided by Voices or do you want to be Aerosmith? I think you can be Guided by Voices here, but you can't be Aerosmith."
And that's only really been possible over the last six years or so. While stand-up has been part of the artistic landscape of the city for decades—graduating folks like Matt Braunger, Marcia Belsky, and Dwight Slade to national acclaim—the recent growth of the local scene has been exponential.
- Sean Jordan at Comedy and Cocktails at New Deal Distillery.
- Jason Traeger
Helium's Portland branch opened in 2010, bringing in performers from around the world as well as keeping an eye on local talent via a weekly open mic night. Meanwhile, the Curious Comedy Theater and the Brody Theater both offered classes on improv and stand-up. In their wake, dozens of shows and open mics have popped up around the city in spaces as ornate as the Hollywood Theatre, as dingy as the Copper Rooster, or as unusual as Jackpot! Recording Studio.
The result of all this available stage time is an equal increase in the quality of material and performances by local comics. And when they've gotten better and their national profile has grown, the siren song of a bigger city gets louder; it's already pulled away some of Portland's best and brightest, like Ian Karmel, Ron Funches, and Steven Wilber, all of whom went to LA, as well as Shane Torres, who now lives in New York.
"It's becoming less essential to leave, but that's like saying America's economy isn't that great when it's still one of the most powerful in the world," says Karmel, who moved to LA in 2013 and has since been featured on
Conan and Chelsea Lately and is currently a writer for The Late Late Show with James Corden. "It is still very important to go to New York or LA because all the jobs are there. Comedy is one of the few professions where you can still be middle class—the comedic economy has only grown. There are so many TV shows now and so many networks. All those people need writers or hosts, and more and more of those people are being plucked from stand-up comedy."
- Shane Torres and Ian Karmel at Torres’ Farewell Show at Bossanova Ballroom.
- Jason Traeger
While the local comedy community has been able to absorb the departures of Karmel & Co., the big question is whether it can survive even more stand-ups pulling up stakes and going south or east. One of its biggest tests is already here, with two of the hardest-working comics in town, Amy Miller and Sean Jordan, both preparing to take off for Los Angeles.
Though they've been in Portland for just a short period of time—Jordan moved to the Pacific Northwest from Sioux Falls, South Dakota, in 2009, and Miller landed here from the Bay Area in late 2012—they established themselves in the local scene quickly.
Jordan, the shaggy skate rat with a penchant for hip-hop slang and self-deprecation, became one of the go-to hosts at Helium, and the first call many nontraditional venues like Mississippi Studios made when they needed an opener for a visiting comic or a live recording for a stand-up album. Along the way, he also helped start Funny Over Everything, a monthly comedy showcase at the Hollywood Theatre, and was picked as the city's best comic in 2014 by Portland's other alt-weekly (he turned the accolade into a memorable bit by suggesting that he pose for the article's photos wearing nothing but a strategically placed rubber chicken).
Miller earned a similar honor last year when she took home the prize of Portland's Funniest Person at the annual contest hosted by Helium. It was well deserved. Miller's confident comic persona—a prickly yet warm gal who mines her trashy, conservative upbringing and frustration with childlike men—has elevated the many shows she's participated in. Miller also ran her own comedy showcase, taking over the Funhouse Lounge every month for the late-night showcase Midnight Mass.
When I meet up with Miller and Jordan for many drinks at the Jolly Roger, both are coming from gigs (she was performing a short set opening for Maria Bamford at Helium; he was performing at a Planned Parenthood benefit), and both have an exhausted yet elated look in their eyes. The future looks bright—but there's so much to get done before they leave. It doesn't help that while we're talking, both are fielding increasingly desperate text messages from their respective partners.
"It's the hardest thing to explain to people," Miller says. "We have to float around in this city where the industry is around us and hope for the best. It's not like it applies to any other industry. It's not like I work in HVAC but I have to go to Omaha. 'I've got nothing lined up but I know people like AC there.'"
For both, the decision to depart was a slow burn, lit in part by watching their friends Karmel and Funches doing so well after they landed in LA. (Funches is consistently the funniest part of the NBC sitcom Undateable, and had a small but memorable role in the Will Ferrell/Kevin Hart comedy Get Hard.) But for Miller and Jordan, the extra kick came from visiting comics who wondered why they were still in Portland.
"When you small-talk with these guys after the show, and then they ask, 'When are you coming down?'" says Jordan. "You can tell when they don't mean it. But in the past couple of years, I've been getting people, good friends, who are, like, 'No, seriously, when are you coming down? What are you waiting for?'"
Miller quickly agrees. "That makes a huge difference, when this person that you really respect like Arsenio Hall tells you that you should move to LA. There's a difference between 'Hey, good set,' and 'You shouldn't live here anymore.'"
While both have performed in Los Angeles and plenty of other places throughout the country, the biggest challenge for Miller and Jordan is that they will essentially be hitting the reset button and starting from the ground up with open mics and smaller gigs. That's something their friend Torres warned them of while discussing his move to New York.
"You eat a plate of shit for a little while," Torres says, speaking during a recent return to the Northwest for some performance dates. "You have to take advantage of all these opportunities, but some of this shit is just brutalizing to your ego. You see some people on shows where you think, 'I smoked this chump. He couldn't hold water with me,' but you're also new here. It's eating a little bit of humble pie for a little bit."
Both Miller and Jordan are aware of the position that they're putting themselves in, but they've also already started getting word from folks in LA who want to work with them.
"Those things are making me a lot less nervous about it," says Jordan, "getting these emails that are, like, 'Hey, you want to have a sit-down for this thing?' And I'm, like, 'Yeah, I do. I really do want to come to your office.' I would still be going no matter what—but that helps me be more excited about it."
- Adam Pasi, Steven Wilber, and Gabe Dinger at Helium Comedy Club for the finals for Portland's Funniest Person 2014.
- Jason Traeger
Of course, this is only one possible career path for a stand-up. Thanks to the rise of social media and outlets like YouTube and Funny or Die, you can get your comedic voice out in the world without leaving the confines of your apartment. A well-known sketch group like the Grawlix from the comedy enclave of Denver, Colorado, bear that out in a big way. They sold their hilarious high school-based sitcom, Those Who Can't, to TruTV and film the episodes in LA, but still return home to the Mile High City for the rest of the year.
Others, like local stand-up Dwight Slade, have even more humble ambitions, which is to just keep working and not worry about becoming stars. Not that the former Texan hasn't made some effort toward that. A development deal he had with Warner Brothers in the early '00s stalled out, and he was offered an audition for the first season of Last Comic Standing. He doesn't sound bitter or regretful about any of that, though. He helped comfortably raise a family in Portland by telling jokes and has performed all over the world, including for troops stationed in Afghanistan.
"The reality is that you can, through social media, directly connect with your audience," Slade says. "There's no middle man. You don't need a TV show or a comedy club to become famous. It's more gratifying to entertain 85 people who know who you are and paid $5 or $10 to come see you, than it is to play a comedy club where they are basically selling drinks while you entertain people in the background."
Where does this talent drain leave the Portland comedy scene? According to Helium's Triplett, it's only going to get stronger with Miller and Jordan's departure.
"It's obviously bittersweet," he says. "You're happy to see them moving on, but it opens up so many great opportunities for comics that are here. In a lot of places, you have these men and women who become 'kings of the scene' and then stick there and clog up the works a little bit. There's only X amount of slots to go around. It's nice to see such movement and it's a luxury to look around and go, 'Who's next?'"
The only possible concern is that there are going to be lots of spaces to fill soon. A batch of other stand-ups, including Curtis Cook, Gabe Dinger, Bri Pruett, and Nathan Brannon, are all hinting that they might be the next to leave. But as more people with dreams of stand-up success move to Portland, and with folks like Nariko Ott and Caitlin Weierhauser already waiting in the wings for their shot at bigger stages, no one seems terribly worried about the future of Portland comedy.
"This city has so much talent," Jordan says. "When Ian and Ron and Shane left, everybody asked them the same thing, 'Who's gonna fill the shoes?' So many people. The shoes are going to be broken."