At the end of June, Richard Bain left for LA. He's gonna see if the folks in Hollywood like his jokes. And if there's any justice left in the world, one of Portland's heavyweight stand-ups ought to make it.
I first saw Bain at Suki's open mic, around five years ago. There were a lot fewer comics going up back then. It was before Bridgetown. Before Helium. Before young Portland comics ever thought about booking their own shows, much less charging for them.
In those days it was mostly just open mics, at the Boiler Room and other odd spots. But Suki's had a singular twisted allure. "It's brutal," Bain once told me of the room. As such, it forces comics to work.
The ones who killed there with regularity—Bain, Don Frost, Ron Funches, and others—went on to become the top shelf of Portland's burgeoning comedy scene. The developed talents who could soar past friends and connoisseurs, and crack up anyone in earshot. Good enough to go pro.
So it was fitting then that the culmination of Bain's weeklong bon voyage party, thrown by Portland's extended stand-up family, took place at Suki's. True to the comedic stereotype, it was brash, an outpouring of jabs deflecting honest emotion. Bain's contemporaries, many of whom are harnessing skills in their own right, paid tribute in their sets. Bain himself teared up. It was a big deal, and his moving on leaves a substantial hole. He will be missed.
But as one local comic ventured forth, another was crowned. After a grueling, six-days-a-week, month-long slog of shows scattered from Portland to Gresham to Milwaukie to Molalla, Don Frost emerged as winner of the second annual Portland Comedy Contest.
That Frost easily took a contest designed to gauge reliability is made all the more impressive in that he doesn't write traditional jokes or bits. Instead, Frost simply flies off the handle into neck-vein bursting rants about whatever's on his twisted mind. Already a touring professional, Frost joins the fine company of Ian Karmel who, after taking the contest a year earlier, has become perhaps Portland's most recognized stand-up.
This Thursday, July 14, Karmel, Funches, Shane Torres, Tim Hammer, and others come together for Cheap Date, a brand-new monthly showcase at the Hollywood Theatre. It's an impeccable lineup with every right to succeed—all onboard are worth paying for.
The same can't be said for a number of the other comedy shows that have popped up around the city recently. Whereas five years ago there was little beyond open mics, today Portland sees a stand-up scene on the verge of becoming overzealous. Though the bubble isn't necessarily going to pop, there is that risk. Contraction will happen.
Comedy hurts when it's bad. Much more than a shitty band, an awful comedian has the potential to turn audience members away from the art as a whole. Among this new glut of shows, many are too frequent, housed in unsuitable venues, or simply short on stand-ups with experience and raw talent. Some bars are charging admission for stand-ups who just aren't yet worth paying to see. Learning to work a room and finding one's voice in stand-up can be a long and winding road. Luckily, there's a place for such incubation: the open mics. No doubt it can be treacherous, but hacking through those difficult rooms can pay off. Among others, Bain, Frost, and Funches have proven as much.