PORTLAND'S FUNNIEST funny guy Ian Karmel graciously agreed to allow the Mercury a peek into the life of a touring comedian. Travel along with Ian as he brings laffs to some lucky people in Philly, Minneapolis, Austin, and more! And see blogtown.portlandmercury.com for an unabridged version of Ian's travels. Ian Karmel will be performing at Funny Over Everything at the Hollywood Theatre (4122 NE Sandy) on Monday, May 21, at 9 pm, $10.
Tuesday, April 3, 4 am PDT—Awake for flight. Bummed out about it. I'm usually going to bed at 4 am. I don't like running into it like this—it's jarring. It's like starting a new job and finding out your boss is some dude you used to get drunk with in high school. How dare he wear that tie unironically?
6 am—On a plane to Chicago, for a layover. Some old guy has the window seat, I have the aisle seat, and we watch passenger after unacceptable passenger stream by and fill the seats all around us, hoping that no one is 34B. The wait is unbearable. This is my Vietnam.
6:15 am—The middle seat remains empty! I celebrate by saying "Hell yee-uh" like Ice Cube.
Noon CDT—Did you know Chicago's O'Hare Airport leads the nation in me buying a hot dog in it?
2 pm—I'm on a plane to Philadelphia. There's an Orthodox Jewish family on the plane. I'm a very casual Jew—I have a beard not because of God's covenant with Abraham, but more because of Iron's covenant with Wine. Sometimes friends will ask me how I feel about the Hasidim—you know how you went to go see the Star Wars movies when they were re-released in theaters, and a bunch of people showed up dressed like Star Wars characters? You know how you and your friends made fun of them, but when a truck full of backward hats drove by and flipped them shit you got all defensive? That.
5 pm EDT—My buddy and fellow comedian Pat House picks me up from the airport. He takes me to the home of Megan and Mike, a very cool couple who are letting me crash in their spare room. They immediately take Pat and me out to dinner. Add hospitality to the list of things I think of when I think of Philadelphia, joining hucking batteries at Santa, Questlove's Afro (capitalized out of respect), and hanging' out maxin', relaxin' all cool.
You depend on this kind of hospitality when you're working the road, especially when you aren't a headliner. The clubs don't buy your plane tickets and many of them, especially the really good ones, don't put you up in a hotel or condo. I guess they figure if you don't take the gig, somebody who's hungrier will take it—it's shitty, but they're right. Portland's Helium doesn't put you up, same with Austin's Cap City Comedy Club, Minneapolis' Acme... the list goes on. Because of this, it is nearly impossible to make a living being a feature comic on the road. I'll be paid roughly $600 this week. My plane ticket was $372; if it weren't for Megan and Mike I would've definitely lost money.
8 pm EDT—No show tonight, so we have a beer on the roof. Megan tells me that Philadelphia has a problem with huge flash mobs of teenagers who steal mopeds and beat people up and vandalize shit, so... you know, next time you're bummed about some doofus taking up a whole lane with his fixed-gear bicycle, remember Philadelphia, and how awesome it would be if you lived here, because the teenage mobs would probably kill and eat that dude on the bike. Portland's the best, folks, but it doesn't mean it's perfect.
Wednesday, April 4, 1:30 pm—The weather in Philly is so dope! This is the only time of year the weather in Portland gets to me. Everything is so dark and miserable. The whole world feels like an 1880s tuberculosis ward. But not here! It's like 70! Spring break! We're gonna live forever!
2:30 pm—Philadelphia is full of statues and sculptures, like, really full of them. Whatever you picture when I say "full of statues and sculptures," it's easily, like, three or four more statues than that. You need to reconnect with your imagination—I feel sorry for you. There are so many statues here that if some kind of Bedknobs and Broomsticks-esque situation went down, the Nazis would be fucked.
Philly is full of museums, too. Today, I visited the fabled and horrific Mütter Museum. Officially, it's part of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, but I'm pretty sure this place was conjured from the Trapper Keeper of a teenaged Glenn Danzig by a time-traveling warlock. It's got a wall full of skulls, books with human-skin binding, dead babies in jars, a nine-foot colon that once held 40 pounds of shit, a charming gift shop, a woman who turned into soap, a famous conjoined twin liver, an herb garden, a dwarf skeleton, and a wall full of syphilitic bones. I know! An herb garden! Pretentious fucks.
8 pm—I'm at Helium, sister club to our own Helium back in Portland. It looks eerily similar to the Portland club, but still distinct, like when Armageddon and Deep Impact came out around the same time. If pressed, I'd say Portland is Armageddon because it's more expensive and flashy, Philly is Deep Impact because Ben Franklin and Leelee Sobieski have similar foreheads.
My set goes okay, not great. I try to keep my act pretty universal, but there were a couple references that didn't hit with the citizens of Philadelphia. The first was Carl's Jr.—they don't have that joint out here. I don't know where the fuck they go for gross onion rings, poor sweet fools. The other reference is how kombucha smells like a bottle-return machine. A few people knew what kombucha was, but nobody knew about bottle return machines... apparently people in Philadelphia just throw their bottles at under-performing professional athletes. You're on notice, Raymond Felton.
Thursday, April 5, 1 pm—Wake up, eeehhhhhggghhhhpffshhh. Waking up at noon is triumphant. Waking up at 1 pm is the kind of behavior that gets brought up in child custody hearings. I'll try to excuse the behavior by saying I think I've got some kind of head cold moving in, which has to be some kind of curse laid upon me by that museum of godawfulness I visited yesterday.
2:30 pm—There's a guilt-inspiring amount of history in Philly. It's hard to take it all in, why? Because you slept until 1 pm! I'M TAKING THE CHILDREN, IAN. Really, though, you start to realize how old this city is when you're walking around a building, admiring its old-ass stone masonry, noticing the Latin inscribed on the façade, and then you round the corner and discover that it holds a Rite Aid. It's kind of fun to watch Philadelphia try to be a museum and a city at the same time. It's like a sitcom: "Oh no! Philadelphia accidentally planned two dates on the same night! One girl thinks he's a bookish art nerd, but the other thinks he's an all-night party guy! Tweed jackets or kickin' dance moves!? T.G.I. Friday's or ambiguous nude sculptures!? WHY CAN'T IT BE BOTH! Tonight, on That's My Philly!" Shut up, Ian, you're being ridiculous! Am I?
Midnight—Quick stand-up lesson: When you go see a stand-up show in a comedy club like Helium (or, if you're bad at making decisions, Harvey's), you will typically see three comedians. The first comedian is the emcee. They're gonna come out and do 10-15 minutes of material and bring up the next comic, who is called the "feature" comic, like Kanye West featuring Pusha T. I'm Pusha T. The feature comic does 25-30 minutes, and then goes in the back and eats a chicken finger basket while the headliner does an hour or so. Anyway, the emcee at tonight's show tells us about an open mic around the corner, so we go to this place called the Raven (ominous!) and take in the local scene.
Stand-up is fun to watch in two ways, I think—when it's very, very good and when it's colossally awful. The Raven offered both. Crammed into an absolute fire hazard of a second floor, above a "woo, shots!" dance club, I saw everything from nuanced, funny Magic Johnson AIDS jokes (seriously) to a bald, white dude wearing Matrix sunglasses and a dreamcatcher over his dick. He was the second kind of fun to watch.
Friday, April 6, 3 pm—The most fundamentals of being a stand-up never change: Write. Perform. Edit. That's all you need. How do you start? Write some jokes, find an open mic and perform those jokes, slowly edit out the stuff that doesn't work. You can take classes if you need structure, buy books if you need writing exercises, but ultimately they're all going to tell you that you need to write, perform, and edit. If you want to get better faster, then do those things more often. That is all the advice I would give to people interested in doing stand-up comedy.
I was doing the writing part of the holy triumvirate when I heard some sirens and yelling. I went to go check it out because I'm a curious little kitty, and holy shit! It's Occupy Philadelphia!
I have to be honest for a second. I was never down with Occupy Portland. I'm not against them—I think most of their points are valid—I was just cynical about the effectiveness of setting up camp in Portland, Oregon. I visited the Portland encampment a couple of times, but I just kind of saw it like a diorama at a really smelly natural history museum. Seeing the protests in Philadelphia, home of so many other demonstrations in our nation's history, put the movement in a new light... then again, it's really easy to get sucked into the romanticism of it all when you're watching people march past the old, important-ass city hall and gather in front of the line waiting to see the Liberty Bell and read them the US Constitution.
8:30 pm—The jokes are hitting. I have my first set that I'd consider "killing" and I'm relieved. Portland is such a nurturing creative environment, which is good, but it can make you feel insecure about heading outside of town. There was a real part of me that was afraid I'd be telling jokes in Philadelphia and someone would throw a bag of wet garbage at me after my second Chewbacca reference. The jokes worked, though, and the Philly crowds were great.
Saturday, April 7, 4 pm—The battle between wanting to get up and get some food and wanting to keep watching old 30 Rock episodes on my laptop has entered its fourth hour. There are rumors among the boys that a hot dog cart lies just beyond the second hill, but we are paralyzed by inaction, and I fear this once-great sitcom is nothing more than a crumbling edifice, a monument slowly becoming a tomb. What do we protect? For whom? War is hell. I fear I may never make it home to my beloved Jennifer.
9 pm—I had a boring set, and it's my own damn fault. One skill I'm still in the early stages of developing is the ability to deliver a set with the same passion and engagement night after night. When a joke is new, it's still a dynamic creation—you don't know exactly where the laughs will come from, you might improvise certain points, and the psychic reward of having people laugh at your thought is still a novelty. Over time, all that shit diminishes, and you find yourself just reciting your jokes. Some headliners do the same 60-minute set every night, all year, for years, and somehow sell it. I don't know how they fucking do it, but I'm not sure yet that I admire it.
To fight off the boredummies, I slide a new five-minute chunk I'm working on into my act. It's about Rick Santorum, porn, and getting drunk. I'm excited and nervous to try it out and the whole set takes on a lively energy. The countdown to being bored with this shit starts now.
Timeless—So I had another cheesesteak last night, which brings my total in Philadelphia to three. I had one at Pat's, I had one at Geno's (these are the two "famous" cheesesteak places, they have mythology, history, and popular support), and I had one at some place called Pete's Famous. I ordered all three "wit whiz," which is with onions and Cheez Whiz as the cheese. Various knuckleheads get all religious about this "wit whiz" shit, they say it's the only acceptable way to eat a cheesesteak; it's essentially these people saying, "I don't know who I am, but I know this sandwich, and people seem to like it. I will defend this sandwich. I am this sandwich." It's annoying, but it's their city, so I went along with it. Pat's and Geno's are Mecca, cheesesteak wit whiz is the Hajj, and my ass made the pilgrimage.
The sandwiches are fine—they're delicious even. Pat's and Geno's were better than Pete's Famous, but Pete's was still pretty good. That being said, you can get WAY better sandwiches in Portland. The cheesesteak rose to prominence, like so many other foods, because it was so cheap to make. It's shitty meat, cheap bread, and cheese spray—and they work wonderfully together, it's like Moneyball in a sandwich, but much like those ill-fated Athletics, the cheesesteak falls short of supremacy.
Thursday, April 12, 2 pm—The Bridgetown Comedy Festival is magical. Example? My friend Ron Funches and I get a text message that says to head down to Big-Ass Sandwiches. So we get to the food cart and that dude from Man v. Food (who should definitely look way more like Funches and myself than he does) is there filming a new show about sandwiches. They ask us to be in a segment, which is cool on its own, but then they ask us to eat a sandwich for the segment. I've been on TV before, and it's great, but it's never been delicious—the combination of the two? Get the fuck outta here. Now, maybe this isn't Bridgetown magic—the cart is wonderful and deserves to have an infinite television loop of famous gluttons getting down on their sandwiches—but I like to think one of the festival's wizards was there, peeking over a thundercloud, sitting high atop a horse made of the sacred whispers of the ancients.
Hella late— I hope that whatever you do for a living, you have something that is even remotely like Bridgetown. It's fucking spectacular. I'm sure it's great for a comedy fan, a movable feast. (Ian Karmel watched Midnight in Paris seven times when he was in Philadelphia. Lonesome.) There are so many brilliant comedians, amazing shows, and fantastic venues, it's easy to get overwhelmed. It's like going hunting in Oregon Trail—look at all these fucking buffalo! What do you mean I can only carry 250 pounds back to the wagon?! To be a comedian involved in Bridgetown, it's all that and more:
You get to perform on great shows with comedians from all around the country, you get to be inspired by dozens of comics from myriad backgrounds, who bring all their influences to bear, and it's a great way to grow as a comedian. The afterparties are also very much for fun having. It's just a giant room full of your peers and heroes, with donated beer and vodka and pizza. You make connections in different cities to make your road work easier and more economically viable, and you're doing it all in one of the happiest environments imaginable! Pretty much everyone is in a great mood, it's like you're all on ecstasy. (Figuratively, mostly, I think... who the fuck even does ecstasy? I don't think comics.) It's just a giant celebration of what we're all lucky enough to do for a living. It's something to think about when you're splayed out on a stiff bed in some weird city watching your eighth episode in a row of some Travel Channel show... which you might be able to see Funches and me in soon, because of a bunch of wizards.
Wednesday, April 25, 6 am—Taking a flight to Houston. I'm a great big fat guy, and let me just say on behalf of great big fat guys, we know how much it blows to sit next to us on planes. I get terrible anxiety about it before I fly. I've walked onto that plane, seen that one empty seat, and watched as the faces of the people in that row shift from glee to what can only be described as a resigned mask of furious disgust. Look at the upside, though! I'm soft, I'm not chatty, and if a huge hole gets blown into the side of our plane, you can ride my carcass like one of those sky-surfboards from TaleSpin!
Noonish—Houston's airport is named after George Bush! The original one, not the one that The Daily Show is based on. Whhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhy!? He's still alive, he was a one-term president, Dana Carvey has had a better post-POTUS career than George Bush, and Dana Carvey is not doing well. It's fucking silly-boots. You're Houston, Texas. Name your goddamn airport after the Geto Boys and call it good. Shitheads.
1 pm—This is my second trip to Austin this year. The first was to feature for my hero/mentor/friend, or "hermentond," Kyle Kinane. This time I'm heading to Austin for the Moontower Comedy and Oddity Festival. The lineup includes Aziz Ansari, Steven Wright, Nick Offerman, Maria Bamford, Seth Meyers, Brody Stevens, Hannibal Buress, Moshe Kasher, and a bunch of other great comics. Really fun festival to be involved in, in a really fun city. I'm a lucky sky-surfboard.
4 pm—They're putting most of us up at the Radisson! My room has two beds in it. I'm using one specifically to eat cookies in—getting my Bert 'n' Ernie on. There's a knock at the door... wait, I'm a comedian.
Knock knock. Who's there? Big bucket of gluten-free snack food. Big bucket of gluten-free snack food who? Stop it, you're being a child.
8 pm—Two shows tonight! The first is with Hannibal Buress, who is an incredible comedian. The guy has a cadence and delivery that makes everything funny, and then he has brilliant jokes on top of it. It's a great learning experience to watch him work over the course of an hour. When you first start doing comedy, you want to be as funny as you can be over the course of your entire set. You might have five, 10, 15 minutes to fill—and you want people rolling the entire time. This isn't the case over the course of an hour. People don't want to be losing their shit laughing for an entire hour. The best headliners build peaks and valleys into their long sets. Learning fundamentals like this has been one of the most important parts of having Helium in Portland. You get to watch amazing headliners, and if you're smart, you also study them. Fart joke.
Thursday, April 26, 2 pm—To be a touring comedian is to live a life of blaring monotony spiked with moments of intense and brilliant fucking spectacularity. I know that spectacularity isn't a word. I know that because I typed it into Merriam-Webster's website and they were like, "Did you mean 'spectacled bear'?" and I didn't know that I did, but I did. I did mean spectacled bear. Thank you, Merriam. Webster can fuck off, I know he didn't have anything to do with this crazy love-thing we have.
Anyway, to be a touring comedian is to live a life of blaring monotony spiked with moments of intense and brilliant fucking spectacled bear. It's an awesome life, but so much of my day is spent in the hotel room in various states of illogical nudity. If you were a Mighty Morphin Power Ranger and could "behold the Viewing Globe!" into my hotel room, most of the time you'd just see me watching Man v. Food, wearing a hat, one shoe, and a T-shirt riddled with grease stains.
Some of my friends have been going through shit lately where their significant others don't trust them on the road. They think it's some sort of giggle-fueled fuck party. It's not. I'm sure there are comedians who fuck around on their girlfriends all the time, but these are going to be the same people who fuck around on their girlfriends at home. Controlling a room and making everyone in it laugh can be a powerful aphrodisiac, but often the very circumstances that gave us that power also made us too shy, docile, or awkward to use it. It's like if when that spider bit Peter Parker, it also gave him a crippling fear of heights.
4 pm—Earlier in this series, I talked about the "Fallacy of the Cheesesteak," and you can go ahead and put Texas BBQ on that same list. I went to this place called the Iron Works with Moshe Kasher (HOPE YOU SAW HIM WHEN HE WAS IN PORTLAND, PORTLAND), W. Kamau Bell (HE'S GOT A SHOW COMING OUT SOON, PORTLAND, WATCH IT), and Sean Patton (HE'S A GREAT GUY, PORTLAND, LET'S ALL REFLECT A MOMENT ON FRIENDSHIP). It was good BBQ. It was great BBQ, even! It was really, really, really fucking great. Obama ate there, George W. Bush ate there, Boz Scaggs ate there—all the greats! It was delicious, but it wasn't remarkably better than what I've had back home. I get tired of going out to eat, enjoying a wonderful meal, and then having some blowhard go, "No, this food is angry diarrhea. If you want real ______, you gotta go to _____ and order the ______." I will continue my search for the regional food dish that actually shames other city's version of that dish, but I am not optimistic. Next week I head to Minneapolis, where I will cook and eat an entire blonde woman.
Tuesday, May 1: I'm in Minneapolis to perform at the Acme Comedy Company, which, I was surprised to find out, is not a comedy club strapped to the back of a cartoon coyote. There are a few comedy clubs around the country that have sterling reputations—this is one of them. There's a ton of shit that goes into making a good comedy club—low ceilings, good sound system, dark rooms with well-lit stages, affordable deliciousness—but these are all things that a lot of terrible clubs have, too. I think the most important thing is a staff that gives a fuck about what's happening onstage. If you're a comedian, you're onstage so the club can sell cranberry vodka and nachos. Some places only care about the vodka and the nachos, but the really good clubs have people in place who actually enjoy comedy, people who want to help cultivate the local scene, so not only is the headliner good, but also the middle and opening acts. Don't get me wrong, Helium wants you to buy nachos just like Harvey's does, but Helium took an extra minute to give a fuck, and it makes all the difference.
of the five-week sojourn of comedy that I've been weaving tales about... I guess you could call me a Sojourney Weaver. I know, me being that funny right off the bat isn't making it any easier to come to terms with the fact that this is the last entry in my tour diary, and I'm sorry. But we've come to the end, and it's time to put a bow on it. So here it is, the inaugural "Ian Karmel Was on the Road for a Little While and Had a Variety of Experiences" Awards!
Best Show I Got to Be a Part Of: This is a toss-up between the Funny Over Everything at the Bridgetown Comedy Festival, where I got to be part of a show that included Matt Braunger, Doug Benson, and my friends Ron Funches, Shane Torres, Jen Allen, and Sean Jordan, and the Sausage Fest show at the Moontower Comedy Festival, where I got to perform with Joe Mande, Baron Vaughn, Sean Patton, Bil Dwyer, Brent Weinbach, Jackie Kashian, and this other guy who's first name I can't remember, but his last name was Dudey, and he soldiered through that like a champion... I'm going to have to hand the Best Show Award to the Sausage Fest show, that's just too much talent, but I'm also going to do this...
Show that Almost Made Me Cry: It got RILL dusty in the room during the aforementioned Bridgetown Funny Over Everything showcase. With the exception of Doug Benson, everyone involved in that show has a deep connection to Portland—it was a very good night for our comedy scene.
Drunkest: Wednesday night at Moontower Comedy Fest. I hosted a show for Hannibal Buress, and then this really funny dude Paul Varghese and I started doing shots of bourbon, and I—thinking my night was over—started getting really hammered. I was that type of drunk where I had all sorts of important opinions about things and affection for shit that I had previously found meaningless, it was really fun. Then the guy running the festival asked me to do a set on something called the Super Secret Show, where the lineup for the show was to remain a secret, so as to create intrigue! Maybe Aziz Ansari would show up! He didn't, instead it was me, Ian Karmel, so drunk that I thought I could crip walk. So I did the set, it went well, and I celebrated by getting even more hammered!
Best Comedy Geek Moment: Maria Bamford and I hung out for 15 incredible minutes in the green room at Cap City Comedy Club in Austin. We managed to have a fulfilling conversation despite the fact that I was singing the Rocky theme in my head as loud as I could.
Worst Person I Encountered: This rich, middle-aged, blonde woman in Austin who wouldn't shut the fuck up during my entire set. She just kept talking to her two friends and clinking her white wine-filled glass and rolling her eyes—which would be fine if she were in the back, but this fucking monster was in the second row! Fuck her! Give me a heckler, please. I can deal with a heckler, but I honestly talked directly at this woman for 30 seconds before she even noticed I was talking to her... she was five feet away from me! Muggsy Bogues couldn't have taken a nap in the distance that separated us. For 10 minutes I tried to get this woman to shut up. I tried every tactic imaginable—I was mean to her, I was nice to her, I turned the room against her, I accused her of wanting to sleep with me because she had a 19th century Jew fetish and I look like Tevye from Fiddler on the Roof. Eventually, someone kicked her out, which was awesome... especially when I got the whole room to sing "Tradition" as she was escorted out of the club.
Best Thing I Ate: I had cheesesteaks in Philly, BBQ in Austin, breakfast burritos in Austin, and Panda Express in the Mall of America... but the best thing I had on the whole trip was the Jucy Lucy in Minneapolis, a hamburger with cheese INSIDE of it. WHAT!? HOW? Dark magics, only explanation.
Wrap It Up, Dude: This trip was amazing, and I want to thank the Portland Mercury for letting me share it with you guys—I probably wouldn't have kept a diary without them. I'm going to continue to catalog my road trips on a Tumblr—I've already got trips to Denver, Reno, and LA in the works—and I'll let you know how to get at those when they're available. I learned many things on this trip, but I think the most important thing I learned is that I can kill crowds all over the country, and people everywhere think I'm really funny and good at stand-up. That's awesome and encouraging and really self-serving and egotistical, so why am I bringing it up? Because I'm probably not even the funniest guy in Portland, and if I am, it's a really close race. We are blessed in this town to have vibrant music, arts, theater, and food scenes, but we now have a comedy scene to match. I don't know how I can stress this enough—there's something rare and beautiful happening in the Portland comedy scene right now, and while Pok Pok and Portland Center Stage and Blitzen Trapper and Red Fang can all continue to sustain themselves here in Portland, the same isn't necessarily true of comedy. Scenes explode, they jettison their talent to New York, Chicago, or Los Angeles, and then they either wither or reload. Portland is verging on explosion. Go see some local comedy. Fucking go do it. Go. GO! Or whatever, stay in and Hulu some shit, I hate you.