LAST YEAR, comedian Ron Funches moved to Los Angeles, where he promptly landed a high-profile guest spot on New Girl and filmed a pilot for an NBC sitcom. This week, popular Portland comic Ian Karmel followed Funches to the land of sunburns and success, and it's already paying off: His first TV appearance—a panel spot on Chelsea Lately—will air on Thursday, August 29.
Karmel is going to be fine, just like Funches before him, but what about the comedy scene they left behind? Is there now a whooshing, laugh-less vacuum in Portland comedy where Ian and Ron used to stand?
Nope. Not even a little bit.
There's a danger in identifying a scene too strongly with any one person—because when that person leaves, it can seem like they're taking the whole scene with them. Much to-do surrounded Karmel's departure: There was a month's worth of goodbye shows, exit interviews in local magazines, a heartfelt farewell in his popular Portland as Fuck column in the Mercury. And it's true that Karmel will be sorely missed in the local comedy world—not just for his standup, but also for his advocacy of Portland comedy as a whole, the shows he booked, and the out-of-town talent he brought in to headline his great showcase at the Hollywood Theatre, Funny Over Everything.
But the fact is, Karmel leaves behind a comedy scene that's more vibrant than it's ever been before—and if there's no single comic that's as high profile as he was (yet), Portland is nonetheless home to a healthy crop of hard-working, funny, and steadily improving local comedians.
I've by no means seen every comedian in town—but I've seen plenty, and here are a handful who stand out.
Shane Torres had a big year: Not only did he snag the title of Portland's Funniest Person at Helium Comedy Club's annual competition, but he was selected to perform at Montreal's Just for Laughs comedy festival, a huge coup for a young comic. Most importantly, his comedy has improved by giant leaps in the past few years—always a self-deprecating comic prone to sad-sackery, he's recently become palpably more confident and in control of how he presents himself. I've heard rumors he's moving to New York, but I refuse to believe them.
The even-keeled Gabe Dinger is one of the most reliable stand-ups in town: He's always good for a cat joke, and he also does time in the very funny improv troupe Whiskey Tango. Previous Portland's Funniest Person Nathan Brannon just released his first comedy album; Bri Pruett is frank and funny; and while it took me about three years to forgive Sean Jordan for a joke he used to tell about fat girls and buffalo, I can now acknowledge that he's developed into a confident, polished comic. (Like elephants, feminist arts writers never forget.) Newcomer Curtis Cook was the surprise hit of the Portland's Funniest Person contest this summer—he's got a sleepy, slam poetry-style delivery and some seriously clever material about sex and race. Kristine Levine is bawdy, foul-mouthed, and a ton of fun; Mercury columnist Alex Falcone is poised and observant; Anthony Lopez is an eminently likeable comic with the best Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle joke you've ever heard; Lonnie Bruhn prizes honesty and digs deep for aggressive material; and another Mercury columnist, Barbara Holm, is a sharp comic who single-handedly subverts quirky-girl clichés. Belinda Carroll represents for Portland's queer comics, booking shows regularly at Crush. There's the affable Randy Mendez, and one-liner king Tim Hammer; Jen Allen's got a likeable geeky sensibility; Don Frost is like a crazy person who'd yell at you on the bus, but funny; Nariko Ott has decided that comedy can be metal; Stephanie Purtle is both very funny and the host of a monthly Dr. Mario tournament at Belmont Inn. And the list goes on, and on, and on.
The local comedy scene can effectively be divided into Before Bridgetown and After Bridgetown—the annual festival brings the best comics in the country to town, and its success was an early indicator that Portland audiences could sustain a real comedy scene. But Bridgetown is no longer the only game in town: Curious Comedy Theater's All Jane No Dick is a new all-female comedy festival helmed by Curious' Stacey Hallal (a solid local stand-up in her own right) that in its first year boasted performances from the likes of Jackie Kashian and Cameron Esposito.
All Jane No Dick returns in October—and to get audiences in the mood, next week Curious is opening a lady-focused run of the Curious Comedy Cover Show, which features the Curious Comedy Players and guests reprising classic sketches from SNL, Carol Burnett, Nichols and May, and other women in sketch comedy.
There's also been a recent uptick in music venues adding comedy to their booking. In addition to the Helium Comedy Club, which regularly books top-notch touring comics, the Hawthorne Theatre and the Aladdin have both become reliable for touring comics, while Mississippi Studios has begun booking some really excellent shows: The brainy, bleak David Huntsberger—of Professor Blastoff fame—performs on September 14, while highly regarded comic Todd Barry (you've seen him on Louie and Flight of the Conchords) headlines a show on September 20.
The big venues are the safest places to start for new comedy fans—a local farm system ensures that Portland's best comics end up performing on those bills, alongside high-profile out-of-towners—but if you really want to dig deep, there's a comedy showcase at a bar just about every night of the week. The TARDIS Room's Funnier on the Inside, hosted by Iris Gorman and Christen Manville, celebrates its one-year anniversary this Thursday, August 29 (1218 N Killingsworth, 9:30 pm, $5). Whitney Streed's Weekly Recurring Humor night on Wednesdays at the Tonic Lounge is a scene staple, Ground Kontrol's monthly No Pun Intendo has the best name in town, and the occasional brunch shows at Club 21 are a boozy daytime treat, to name just a few. And for a good old-fashioned open mic, comics have good things to say about Anatoli Brant's Tuesday night show at the Funhouse Lounge.
Comedy showcases are a mixed bag, though, and an Achilles' heel of Portland's scene is that for every comic that deserves a spot on a bill, there are typically two more who should still be honing their skills at open mics. (Open mics are where comics go to practice their material and improve; at least in theory, a showcase should be a more curated affair.)
Often more fun than straightforward showcases are themed shows that ask comics to step outside of their comfort zones and try out new material. Curious Comedy's Instant Comedy requires comics to come up with a routine on the spot based on audience suggestion. Last weekend marked the debut of ALL CAPS at the Jack London Bar, a new character-based show co-produced by two of the most reliable producer-slash-stand-ups in town, Whitney Streed and Scott Rogers, that encourages comics to try out new character work. (It featured Christian Ricketts, who is the locally acknowledged master of character-based comedy, and one of my favorite local comics in general.) Nic Goans hosts a fun take on the Match Game, also at Curious, while the Spicy News Network has developed into a hilariously weird and compelling local franchise—see this article for more on their work. Oh, and the headline of this article, Comedy Is OK, is lifted from the innovative (and intermittent) comedy showcase founded by Andrew Michaan and Mikey Kampmann that combines stand-up, sketches, video, and way too many jokes about kale.
Thing is, these 1,000 words just scratch the surface of a scene that's active, vibrant, and diverse. It's not perfect—with a few exceptions, most of our comics need another year or three to really hone their stuff—but it's thriving. And maybe you have to go to LA to get really famous, but in the meantime, Portland's comedy scene still has plenty to offer.