As the saying goes, "Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public." Bearing that in mind, forget everything Comedy Central and profitable losers like Dane Cook have taught you about comedy.
Comedy is indeed a flourishing art—and one that's hard to top when it's performed live. Even when it's bad, there's value. Watching a comedian bomb in front of a live audience blows away a bad movie or band, becoming a social experiment all its own. When it works, comedy teaches us something. At its best, the experience is ebullient, every bit as communal and interactive as the most profound concert.
As such, whenever I find myself in a big city like LA, Chicago, or New York, one of the first things I do is check the comedy listings. In Portland, however, there's rarely too much happening.
But if Andy Wood has his way, things are about to change.
Wood's baby, the Bridgetown Comedy Festival, is entering its second year. Like so many other grand ideas, Bridgetown was hatched in a bar—it's just that this woozy plan actually came to pass.
After finishing a standup set one night, Wood was winding down with a beer along with Portland comics Matt Braunger and Kim Brady. The idea was tossed around—"Wouldn't it be cool if Portland had a comedy festival?" Wood remembers.
With no real event-planning experience, Wood took the lead and ran, basically booking acts he knew and liked. Through his initial connections, word traveled fast. Suddenly there were volunteers, a cluster of venues, close to 60 comedians, and no assurance things would pan out. Worst case, he would be left holding the debt. "It was the hardest I've ever worked on anything," says Wood.
Two weeks before the festival, his phone rang. Comedian Patton Oswalt was on the other end, offering his support to perform at the festival free of charge (Bridgetown covered travel and lodging). It was indicative of the greater mood, says Wood. "I think people like the fact that it's a festival all about picking comics that we think are funny, and not because of any obligation or ulterior motive. It's a grassroots thing." Oswalt became the headliner. (Two of this year's heavies, Janeane Garofalo and David Koechner, AKA "Champ" from Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, have been similarly generous and supportive.)
Attribute it to luck, skill, or landing in a perfect storm, but the original Bridgetown was—at least from the perspective of an audience member—an absolute success. There were no organizational hiccups. The close proximity of venues on SE Hawthorne made for a perfect show-hopping experience. And when Oswalt packed Mt. Tabor, Wood knew he'd break even. (In the end, Bridgetown donated $1,000 to the Red Cross.)
Some of the festival's best moments, however, took place outside the limelight. Local comedian Don Frost's blistering late-night, shadow-puppet improv, for just 15 or 20 people in Mt. Tabor's lounge, caught fire, challenging the other comics. Ron Funches, a rotund stoner comic from the Oregon coast, slayed the large room after going bare-chested.
Frost, Funches, and other local standouts like Susan Rice, slacker Richard Bain, and the raunchy Lonnie Bruhn are returning this year, along with about 60 other Northwest comics. As well as the chance to meet and learn from more established national acts, Bridgetown affords local comics a stage they don't often find in Portland outside of open mics.
Some are quick to blame Portland's relatively small size for lack of comedy venues, but that view is shortsighted. Portland sustains a rich live music culture that's more vibrant and profitable than cities twice its size. A recent comedy open mic at Suki's saw over 30 performers, although the city's only full-time comedy club, Harvey's, is a place few locals call home. "Harvey's Comedy Club is about the business of comedy, not the art," explains Funches. "They appear to be only interested in selling the most drink and food items, not in nurturing the Portland comedy scene."
Perhaps that's why Bridgetown and Wood's "for the art" ethic has spread like wildfire. The festival is up to 135 performers from last year's 60, including Maria Bamford (The Comedians of Comedy), Brendon Small (Home Movies, Metalocalypse), Neil Flynn (Scrubs, Mean Girls), Jon Glaser (Delocated, Conan O'Brien), Natasha Leggero (Reno 911!) among others.
Bridgetown is also growing in terms of content. This year features films, a crossover concert with Blitzen Trapper and Mirah for Jesse Thorn's The Sound of Young America podcast, a 10th anniversary reunion with the cast of Home Movies, and theme shows like "Men on the Moon" (featuring groundbreaking Andy Kaufman Award-winning performers Reggie Watts and Brent Weinbach). There are talk shows, improv groups, and more.
If all goes well, Wood hopes the Bridgetown "brand" can grow into booking shows year-round. Still, though, success is uncertain. "I'm okay with the possibility of [the festival] fucking up—because what better way to go bankrupt than to do something this scale that would make this many people happy?" Wood says. "No matter what, even if it fails money-wise, it's going to be a fucking fun weekend."
A few select shows from the Bridgetown Comedy Festival. For the entire schedule see bridgetowncomedyfestival.com.
* Italics denote theme shows.
Mt. Tabor Main Theater–The Famous Mysterious Actor Show, 7:30 pm; Leo Allen, Matt Dwyer, Nick Thune, Richard Bain, 9:30 pm
Hawthorne Theatre: Janeane Garofalo, Natasha Leggero, Jimmy Dore, Matt Braunger, Ron Funches, Dave Hill, Andy Haynes, 9 pm; Todd Glass, Chris Hardwick, James Adomian, 11 pm
Mt. Tabor Main Theater–The Dave Hill Explosion, 7:30 pm; Todd Glass, Pete Holmes, Hari Kondabolu, David Cope, Ron Funches, 10 pm; The Midnight Show, midnight
Hawthorne Theatre: Brendon Small, James Adomian, Ron Lynch, Rory Scovel, Scott Moran, Charles Star, Nicki Toma, 9:30 pm
Bagdad Theater: Hard 'N Phirm, Janeane Garofalo, Nick Thune, Bucky Sinister, Steve Agee, 10:30 pm
Mt. Tabor Main Theater–Guys with Feelings, 6 pm; Leo Allen, Brendon Small, Nick Thune, Melinda Hill, 10 pm
Hawthorne Theatre–Janeane Garofalo, Jon Dore, Andy Blitz, Sean Patton, Hampton Yount, Rylee Newton, Dax Jordan, 8 pm; Men on the Moon: Reggie Watts, Brent Weinbach, Will Franken, 10 pm; The Tomorrow Show, midnight
Eagles Lodge–James Adomian, Auggie Smith, 8:30 pm; Natasha Leggero, 10:30 pm
Bar of the Gods–Ron Funches, Ed Salazar, Lonnie Bruhn, 7:30 pm; Don Frost, 11:30 pm
Bagdad Theater–Home Movies: a 10th Anniversary Celebration, 7 pm; Bridgetown Improv, featuring Beer Shark Mice, 9:30 pm; Maria Bamford, Todd Glass, 11:30 pm
Mt. Tabor Main Theater–What's Up, Tiger Lily?: Maria Bamford, Melinda Hill, Brody Stevens, Josh Fadem, Alex Koll, Jackie Kashian, 8 pm; Janeane Garofalo, 10 pm
Hawthorne Theatre–Be-Bop Heroin Hour, 9 pm; Bridgetown Improv, featuring Beer Shark Mice 11 pm
Bagdad Theater–The Monsters of Podcasting, 7 pm; Men on the Moon: Reggie Watts, Brent Weinbach, Will Franken, 9:30 pm; Tig Notaro, Jon Dore, Dwight Slade, James Adomian, 11:30 pm