Suki's is a dump.
But here, in the basement of the Travelodge on SW 4th, Portland's stand-up community gathers almost religiously. They've done it for years—not for the horrible sight-lines or for the tweakers more interested in chewing away their own teeth at the poker machines or yakking mindlessly across the pool table, but because the comedians made it their home.
There are open mics like the one at Suki's almost every night of the week across Portland, and they incubate a wide range of talent. Some comics are oblivious to their own total lack of timing or wit, while others have grown up and gone pro.
At Suki's, after the night's 15 or 20 individual sets have wrapped, the comics play improv games. Tonight it's Joke Jeopardy—an audience member provides the answer, and it's the comedians' job to come up with the question.
"Harvey's!" I shout, referring to Portland's only club dedicated to stand-up comedy. Their eyes widen, and before a word is uttered, they're giggling. It doesn't take long for the winning answer to arrive.
"Where do 1980s comics go to die?"
As Homer Simpson once said, "It's funny because it's true." A spiritual sister to the early '90s comedy craze, Harvey's is a zombie—it has no brain and won't die. The club has survived not by booking new and interesting talent, but with cold-call ticket giveaways coupled with food and drink minimums.
Almost unanimously, comedians in Portland decry Harvey's, but are loathe to do so on the record—for years it's been the only place they might ever get paid. Some, however, have never been welcome. For eight years, professional comedian Lonnie Bruhn was banned from the club for what they labeled offensive material. And when a club—or any artistic space—imposes censorship or guidelines, clearly cultivation of the arts is not the primary concern.
Settling for safe, insipid, and broadly palatable acts, Harvey's has shown almost no interest in today's top talent, let alone those pursuing the sublime. As a result, Portland has missed out on an entire generation of performers. Before they became household names and TV stars, comedians like David Cross, Sarah Silverman, Patton Oswalt, and Zach Galifianakis were working small rooms like the one Portland never had. If a comic couldn't fill a large non-traditional venue like the Aladdin or the Newmark Theatre (which are often ill-suited for standup) they—and their fans—were out of luck.
Take for instance Maria Bamford, a brilliantly odd and anxious comic from LA, who's never performed a featured set in Portland. Sure, she did a few short bits at the Bridgetown Comedy Festival, and toured with the Comedians of Comedy, but a full headlining set offers so much more than those brief appearances—it's the chance to really sink into a performer's rhythm and thought process, where the material gets funnier and more profound. Bamford's relative absence got to the point where certain fans in Oregon started sending packages, pleading for an appearance.
"They sent me pictures of their pet cow, Stormy," Bamford says. "And they made a cow costume for Blossom [Bamford's pug]." But coming to Portland was never really an option. "I haven't come up there," Bamford says, "because they haven't had a typical comedy venue."
All this is about to change.
Marc Grossman was a trader. For 14 years he traded everything, from stocks and options to electricity.
Five years ago, his hometown of Philadelphia was similar to Portland in that it also lacked a real comedy club. A self-described entrepreneur, Grossman identified a hole in the market and opened Helium, a 250-seat club in downtown Philadelphia. His instincts and research were correct—Helium prospered and soon Grossman found himself wanting to expand. Ahead of cities like Charlotte, Boise, and Salt Lake, a nationwide search pointed to Portland.
"Portland is a Comedy Central-feeling town," Grossman says. "[There are] a lot of theater shows," he adds, referring to comedians who book their tours in non-traditional venues. "They all do well, even with lesser names. They may not be the top dog coming to town, but Portlanders are eager to go out and see them."
It took almost two years of searching for Grossman to find a suitable space in Portland—the former Chelsea Ballroom, at SE 9th and Hawthorne. I toured the space while it was under construction and Grossman's plans were nothing if not ambitious, including a spacious lounge and second bar apart from the showroom.
In nearly 30 years of touring, "comedian's comic" Todd Glass has played every venue imaginable. From dingy bars to legendary New York clubs, to the Montreal Comedy Festival and even Portland's Newmark Theatre with David Cross, Glass knows what makes a good room.
"When you walk into a club you can tell if it has an artistic feel," he says. "The show comes first."
Just as important as the art's primacy, Glass says, is a club's reputation for booking acts to match the audience's sensibilities. "You don't always know who you're seeing," he says. "But you trust the taste of the club. And unless you're having famous people at your club every single week, it's important that your club has an identity outside of your performer.
"Everyone's going to book Zach Galifianakis when they're famous," Glass continues. "[Portland audiences] are looking for a club, I would surmise, that has those type of acts, but before they're household names."
Grossman expects Helium's already established relationships with the stand-up community will help the new club "tremendously," and the first month's promising lineup, highlighted by Bamford, Natasha Leggero, Bill Burr, and Jimmy Pardo, attests to his hunch.
While Grossman will remain with his family in Philadelphia, the manager of the original club, Mary Rae Kim, has moved to Portland to run the new branch. For local expertise, Bridgetown Comedy Festival founder Andy Wood has been brought onboard to handle event sales and marketing.
Despite an established reputation, solid booking, and what looks to be a fine room, the success of Helium's Portland branch is not pre-ordained. The space is huge—the 3,200-square-foot showroom figures to seat anywhere from 250 to 325 people, which adds up fast considering headliners will perform five shows over the course of a weekend (once on Thursday, and twice each Friday and Saturday). But even after years of neglect, there are of plenty of live comedy fans in Portland—they just don't yet know it.
Over the last few years I've interviewed a number of comics, from young local kids to national headliners like David Cross and Bob Saget. I always ask the same question: Everyone likes to laugh, so why have so few people seen live comedy? No one has a perfect answer, perhaps because there isn't one. But in explaining the joys and dangers of the stand-up experience, Doug Benson put it best with an analogy to live theater.
"When I see a play that's amazing, there's nothing that's more entertaining to me," says Benson, another veteran comic who skipped Portland until he became popular enough to book non-traditional venues. "I love a great play or musical, if it's really well done and entertaining. I just find that fantastic, seeing people do that right before my eyes.
"But when you're seeing a play that is boring or terrible, it's a suffering you have to go through as an audience member. It's very hard to sit through someone standing right in front of you doing something you're not enjoying that you have to sit there and watch," Benson says.
What the best comedians offer, however, is something more than just their written material. They can twist and swerve and react to the audience, the room, or simply the events of the day. Their routines can be just as profound and affecting as any in theater or music, yet few performances release as steady a stream of endorphins as 90 minutes of sustained laughter. And just like comedy's artistic kin—music and theater—these experiences are only amplified when shared in person.
Indeed, Helium's opening offers a class of art and culture with a regularity heretofore unseen in Portland. Which brings us back to Suki's, perhaps as close to a spiritual home of standup as this city has had. It's a huge jump—from a brutal, broken-down room in the basement of a Travelodge to a spacious, state-of-the-art facility where real money changes hands and top-tier talent is attracted.
Surely many of Portland's open mics will continue, but Suki's is up in the air—Helium has tentatively scheduled its open mic on the same night. For the local comics, Helium is an opportunity as well—not only to play for an actual attentive audience and perhaps land opening spots for professional comedians, but to live in a city where their art is valued.
"Helium's presence is something I'm looking forward to," says Lonnie Bruhn. "Even if I never work the room."
Helium Comedy Club, located at 1510 SE 9th (at Hawthorne), opens July 29. Tickets and schedule are available at portland.heliumcomedy.com. Cover does not include a required two-item minimum purchase. Headliners perform one show Thursday, and twice each Friday and Saturday. Notable upcoming shows include: Natasha Leggero (Aug 5-7), Maria Bamford (Aug 12-14), and Bill Burr (Aug 19-21).