Say Something Funny! 

Life Isn't Easy for Portland Stand-Up Comics-- And that's Just the Way the Hecklers Like It

"Say something funny!"

In terms of cleverness, it ranks pretty low on the old heckle scale, but tonight this phrase is shooting off the charts on the damage scale. The two drunks who have fallen in love with the phrase are moronic, yet persistent. In fact, they're relentless, shouting forth their inspired rant no matter what's happening on stage.

"Say something funny!"

"Do something funny!"

The results are devastatingly disruptive. Loveable giant Pete Young finishes his set with an uncharacteristic angry request to the bouncers to "Please kick out the fucking hecklers!" Upstart comic Rachel Pare gets sucked into their tractor beam and interrupts her set to heckle them back. She throws out the classic, "I would do something funny, but I don't have a mirror to hold in front of your face." They blink and look at each other, confused. Then, infuriatingly:

"Just do something funny!"

A touring comic from Chicago, Tyrone, banters with them for a while, getting in a few good insults. They are oblivious, however, and soon even Tyrone is floundering in their wave of stupidity. He falls into dangerous territory for a comic: pleading.

"Will you please shut the fuck up?" he asks, to which they respond with their most degrading comment yet:

"Don't take it personally, man! Just say something funny!"

It's like watching a train derail, though the full-on crash has yet to happen. Large men with shaved heads, tattoos, and cowboy hats have entered Dante's. They skulk about as if looking for a fight. Danny Norton has taken the stage. Danny is also known as "The Mailman," as he frequently performs while wearing an official postman's outfit. Tonight, "gone postal" will be the appropriate nickname. He is two jokes deep into his set, something about quitting smoking, when one of the cowboy hats rears back and screams, "HA HA HA! THAT'S THE FUNNIEST FUCKING THING I'VE EVER HEARD!" It's clear that the man didn't even hear Danny's joke, and the wake of his awful, violent interruption is a long and terrible silence.

And then, tiny in comparison--but tiny like a mosquito that flits right into the ear canal:

"Say something funny!"

Danny grabs the mic and jumps off the stage. He stalks over to the bar, wraps the mic cord around the moron's neck, and chokes him. The crowd watches in horrified awe. Nobody moves to stop him; nobody says a word. The moron protests feebly. Danny releases him, hurls the microphone back on the stage, and storms out of sight.

The Comedians Open Mic Night at Dante's is in full effect.

COMEDY IS IN THE SHITTER

"I watched comics go through the motions up there during what could have been a great night at Dante's--if not for two people ruining it for everyone," Danny says when asked to reflect on the incident. "I had a lot of pent-up frustration. I actually intended to grab the mic and throttle those guys immediately, but then decided to try and eek out a set."

Though Danny's violent outburst was inappropriate, his frustration is justified. If the night at Dante's was not quite the norm for Portland stand-up comics, it was at least the epitome of an entertainment scene that has neglected its comedians for years. There are currently about 30 stand-up comedians in Portland, honing their craft at a series of four open mics that occur on regularly on different weeknights. On Sundays, it's the strip club, Exotica, out near Columbia and Mississippi; Mondays, it's the Boiler Room, off NW 3rd and Couch; Tuesdays is the infamous Dante's; and Wednesdays it's Roscoe's, an unassuming bar near the corner of Stark and 82nd.

Attend any of these nights, and find an event well attended by other comedians. On a good night at Roscoe's, a few drunken and happy regulars will be thrown into the mix. Dante's has large crowds, but for them comedy is usually an afterthought, and the Boiler Room's crowd is almost invariably 95 to 100 percent comedians. In a way, it's good that the majority of those paying attention at open mics are other comics; what better way to test new jokes than to try them on other alleged joke experts? But it's also a little sad that night in and night out, Portland's core group of stand-up comics are laboring up on stages, gesticulating, toiling, trying new material, polishing old material, joking and joking, and nobody's listening except their peers.

"Comedy's in the shitter right now," says Ron Osborne, a local professional comic known for his affinity toward yoga and other non-western ideals. "People make fun of comedians. A lot of people haven't given comedy a second chance since it died from overexposure on TV during the '90s."

Lonnie Bruhn, a local professional known for having the darkest act in Portland, claims that "comedy should never have been put on TV. People got comfortable with the idea they could just stay home and watch comedy instead of buying tickets to watch it--which is unfortunate, because there is nothing like live comedy."

Perhaps television is contributing to the slow death of live comedy, or at least the comics seem to think so, though their cynicism doesn't stop them from enduring open mics night after night.

"If I never did comedy again, I wouldn't be missing anything, because I have a great family life," says Patty Arbetter, a delightfully filthy comic who started out under the name "Patty The Whore," and who also happens to be the mother of two small boys. "But something's pulling me. I can't stay away. I go to the same shitty open mics week after week, with all the other comics just standing there: 'Hi! Thanks for listening to me tell the same joke again and again! I swear I'll get it right. Eventually."

BEING FUNNY IS HARD

At Dante's, the awkwardness left in Danny's wake dissipates slowly. Lonnie Bruhn has taken the stage. A consummate professional and a great entertainer, he is able to temporarily quiet the hecklers with a stream of filthy jokes and rants. The current riff he's been testing out at open mics involves a picture he saw on the Internet of a man with a jelly jar stuck up his ass. The difficult, increasingly drunken crowd howls with delight--a gratifying, if temporary victory for Lonnie and the stand-up comedy scene.

Of course, if anyone deserves this victory, it's Lonnie Bruhn. Through 15 years of hard work and dedication, Lonnie has overcome a mild case of cerebral palsy and a "twisted" life to become one of Portland's few professional comics. That is, he supports himself entirely from his comedy income. No mean feat, and one that's taken 15 years of toil to achieve. For Lonnie, comedy is work. It's work he loves, but it's also his full-time job, and he treats it as such.

"I might get ten new numbers [for comedy venues] a week, send out [promotional materials] to all of them, and maybe get booked at three. The idea is to keep yourself so busy calling when you're not on the road, that you continue to get three each week. That's where a lot of comics go wrong. They think you work a couple times a week, you make some money, and then you don't worry about it. But it's just like a business. We're self-employed."

Lonnie is a touring comic, performing at comedy clubs around the country on a regular basis. Touring is ultimately the only way a comic can make a living doing comedy. Portland's only official comedy club is Harvey's, and though venues like Roscoe's pay comics to emcee open mics, the money is paltry compared to what can be made on the road. But, as Lonnie reiterates, working on the road takes work, and that work begins at open mic.

"Open mics are supposed to facilitate the bigger rooms, i.e. clubs," says Danny Norton. "They're where people can hone their skills before moving up."

"Open mic is a kind of comedy school," says Ron Osborne. "But it's informal, and you don't know who the teachers are, and it's very confusing when you first get started."

Lonnie's idea of self-promotion also begins at open mic, where winning the approval of more experienced comics has become a crucial rule of the game.

"To get into my club, [comics] have to be recommended by other comedians who work at my club," says Barry Kolin, owner of Harvey's. "And if they don't do well, that comedian who recommended them doesn't work at my club for a year. To work at my club, you have to have recommendations from at least two comedians who work at my club. I don't even review tapes anymore."

A harsh system, but one that has been adopted by comedy clubs around the country, because it really does bring them the best comics. Good comics will recommend good comics because they have taste, and because they're scared of losing their own gig by recommending a bad comic. The comics they recommend are, of course, discovered at open mic and at open mic alone.

COMIC, HONE THYSELF

It's Ron Osborne time at Dante's. He hits the stage like a pogo stick, a large man with the energy of a child, and the crows feet of someone who's seen some things in this world. The hecklers have, since Lonnie, recharged a bit, downed a few more beers, and are back on the ball.

"Say something funny!"

"I will!" says Ron cheerfully, and starts trying to make himself sneeze. Then he tries to make himself yawn. Then he tries to play "Ice Ice Baby" using his nose and a kleenex as the instrument. He concludes his set by trying to put his leg behind his head. The hecklers are silent, perhaps amused, perhaps confused, it hardly matters. They are silent. Ron Osborne knows how to deal with the loudmouths. He overwhelms them with the force of sheer personality.

"When I first started," Ron says later, grinning broadly, "I was doing my act everywhere and getting sick of doing the same stupid jokes all the time. And then I worked with this comic who said something that stuck with me: 'Just trust yourself to be funny.' So I had to do this hour-long set at an all-girl Catholic high school and I didn't have any material because all my jokes had the word 'shit' in them, or something about sex. But I went to the gig, and right when I started, this bald teacher walked in front of the stage and I just started talking about him, and boom! an hour was gone, and I didn't do any jokes, I just stood up there being funny. I have no idea what I said or did."

Like Lonnie, Ron supports himself with comedy. His startlingly innovative method of "just being funny" has made him one of the most admired comics at open mic. His act is always different, always spontaneous, more of a conversation between friends than a performance.

"It's like when you're talking to someone you're not thinking about what you're saying," he says. "You're just flowing back and forth. You say something, I say something. Only in my case, I say something; they laugh."

Ron often can't remember what he talks about on stage, much like the average person can't remember an extended conversation with someone else. For Ron, timing and charisma are everything. Jokes are nothing, or at least very little. It's a trait that comes in handy when hecklers are being disruptive. With no prepared material for them to disrupt, they are at Ron's mercy. His plan is to respond spontaneously to whatever hits him, and hecklers fall into the "whatever" category.

One would expect a pro of 16 years--with no material--not to need open mics, but Ron attends them as ravenously as everyone else.

"Open mics are crucial. I have to do open mic, or I would die in comedy. Because it's the only place where you can bomb without worrying."

Open mics help comics hone their material, but they also help comics hone themselves--to discover what works when jokes have been shoved aside and only the comedy of individual personality can protect them.

"There are a lot of people who are funny because they are comedians," says Ron, "but there are fewer people who are comedians because they're funny."

HOME AGAIN

There will be one more incident of note before Dante's open mic draws to a close. Patty Arbetter takes the stage. With only two years of comedy under her belt, she lacks the chops to deal with hardcore hecklers that only experience can form. Tonight, she will be one step closer to attaining that experience.

"Show us your pussy!" shouts one of the cowboy-hatted motherfuckers.

"Show me your dick," Patty says, deadpan.

The request has been made to the wrong Dante's regular, most of whom relish opportunities to reveal their privates to the public eye. Within seconds the jackass is up onstage, his dick flapping in the smoky haze.

He leaves, and Patty responds well, using the event to launch into a string of tiny penis jokes. Naturally, Cowboy is peeved, and he continues to shout at her from the bar area until she gives up and says goodnight. Two years from now, she might know how to deal with him. Tonight, she's out of her league.

Patty simply says goodnight and exits stage left. Shoulders slumping, she heads over to the back room of Dante's, where a group of people, isolated from the rest of society, wait to welcome her in. They pat her on the back and shake her hand. She joins a table with Auggie Smith and Pete Young. They drink out of pint glasses and laugh at the crazy night. At another table, Dax Johnson and Ffloyd J. Patterson work on new material together. In one corner, Ron Osborne chats with Kevin-Michael Moore, while Moore waits to go onstage and sing "I'm a Peep," his Easter send up of Radiohead's "I'm a Creep." In another corner, Jim Meyer and Lonnie Bruhn earnestly shoot the shit. All are smiling. All are relaxed.

"I think this is one of the best comedy scenes in the country," says Lonnie Bruhn. "I mean, we're really like a family. We give supportive advice. We're not out to backstab each other. Half the fun of open mic is just hanging out with the other comics."

In the face of brutal hecklers and ugly losses of composure, the comics smile on. As long as the other comics are around, they will never be alone, and the other comics are always around. They come back time and time again to develop careers in front of ignorant patrons, but more importantly, to support each other.

Out in the main area of Dante's, the cowboys swig beers and shout at each other, but in the quiet little room in back there is nothing but dignity and grace; a keen sharpening of skill and a subtle system of networking. Most of all, there is love. The love of a craft, and the love of a fellow craftsman.

Bottles clink at the bar and exotic dancers wait patiently for their turn to perform. A zippo flashes, a cigarette burns. A peal of laughter escapes Ron Osborne, filling the air.

For struggling comedians, this place is home.

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