A COMEDIAN'S JOB is telling jokes—and hustling non-stop to find places to tell those jokes. To get a feel for what it's like for the modern stand-up, we spent a few days with Amy Miller as she bounced around Portland in search of comedy success.
SATURDAY, JUNE 21
9:37 PM—Miller is sipping a beer in the smaller of the two bars at Helium Comedy Club, gearing up for her last night of hosting for SNL alum/Adam Sandler pal Kevin Nealon. It's a plum gig, and a testament to the inroads that the 33-year-old stand-up has made since she started doing comedy in 2010.
"I've just now started saying 'no' to things," she says, scanning the folks waiting in line for familiar faces. "After taking the bus out to Beaverton to perform for two drunks and getting $5, you do have to weigh things a little bit."
For most up-and-coming comics, saying "no" is not an option. As any stand-up will confirm, you need to get a lot of stage time under your belt before you get good. And even when you start finding some success, you still need to hone your jokes in front of willing audiences.
Miller's one of the lucky ones. She's picking up more and more work both in town and on the road thanks to some savvy West Coast bookers, including an upcoming gig hosting for former late-night talk show host Pete Holmes at Cobb's Comedy Club in San Francisco. But that hasn't slowed her down much.
"I don't do as much as I want because I have a day job," she explains. "But I don't want to get left out of a show like Cobb's. I've got to do this shit."
11:53 PM—Minutes after bidding farewell to the Helium crowd, Miller and I rush over to the Funhouse Lounge for her monthly Midnight Mass show. The mood in the room is raucous, convivial, and boozy. And it's the place where Miller seems most comfortable. She doesn't do any planned material, instead spending her time razzing her high school boyfriend, who happens to be in the audience ("When we were dating, where did you work? Olive Garden. And where do you work now? That's right. Google."), and warmly introducing the 10 comics she personally invited to perform. It's a long night, but Miller's energy doesn't flag for a moment.
MONDAY, JUNE 23
7:46 PM—It's fairly obvious that Miller doesn't want to be at Bare Bones Bar on a Monday night to do five minutes of material to a nearly empty room. But she's doing it as a favor for this new show's hosts, plus it allows her one last chance to try out material she'll perform tomorrow when she competes in the Portland's Funniest Person Contest.
The other stand-ups in the room have likely heard Miller's material a dozen times or more, so she focuses on the only people in the room who aren't there to perform, a married couple huddled in a booth near the door. And for them, she kills. She takes to task the immature men of Portland ("Why force a child out of you when you can force a child into you... and out again... and in again... ") and self-described "white-trash" family tree, which includes an uncle who lives with a pet crow he calls his "old lady."
She certainly seems prepared for the next night's contest, but says she's "really nervous about the competition," commiserating with fellow comics Alex Falcone and Adam Pasi. "I think I need more one-liners. It's hard to cram all my sad stories into just five minutes."
9:26 PM—We rush over to Hollywood Theatre to catch the end of Funny Over Everything, a showcase hosted and booked by Portland comics Sean Jordan and Shane Torres. Miller doesn't laugh much during the show, and seems to be studying the performances of Anthony Lopez and out-of-town headliner Jerrod Carmichael. We go over some of the finer points of their sets after the show, but the conversation soon turns to some rueful self-reflection.
"There was one night when I was really down on myself and was talking to Sean about how I was thinking of quitting," she says. "And he's so positive, he told me, 'That's cool, but at least we can still eat pizza together.' I'm like, 'Sean, that's not helping!!'"
TUESDAY, JUNE 24
7:35 pm—A phrase I picked up from hanging out with stand-ups for a few days is "drawing bullet," which means being the first comic to perform at a showcase. It's a dangerous position to be in—like the opening act at a rock show, you're performing to a cold crowd. And when Miller gets her shot in the preliminary rounds of the Portland's Funniest Person Contest at Helium tonight, she's no longer worried about her material: She's concerned because she drew bullet.
Her confidence wins out in the end, though. Her five minutes have the crowd in hysterics, and she's announced as one of the five stand-ups moving on to the next round. Ultimately, she doesn't get the grand prize at the contest's finals weeks later, but for those few moments, beaming from the small stage at Helium, it looks like all of her hard work has been worth it.
& More Hustle
by Andie Main
Andie Main is a Portland comic who hosts the comedy 'n' drawing showcase Picture This! every second Friday at Curious Comedy; she's also performing at Bumbershoot during Labor Day weekend. Here are her favorite shows for both audiences and comics.—eds
1. Helium's open mic is always the best place to get a read on if your new joke is funny, because the audience is actually invested. It's free after the two-drink minimum.
Helium Comedy Club, 1510 SE 9th, Tuesdays 8 pm, heliumcomedy.com
2. When you start getting booked at Curious Comedy Theater, you finally feel like an established comedian. Curious only curates the best comedians in Portland for their 10 pm stand-up shows, like Mixology, their mash-up of improv, sketch, and stand-up; or Instant Comedy, which asks stand-ups to write material on the fly. (Or my show, Picture This!)
Curious Comedy Theater, 5225 NE MLK, most Fridays & Saturdays, 10 pm, curiouscomedy.com for schedule
3. Amy Miller's monthly, Midnight Mass, is the perfect evil twin showcase of my other favorite monthly, Comedy for Breakfast. Midnight Mass is like a clown nightmare lullaby, riddled with Catholic guilt, that showcases the diversity of Portland comedy by booking most of us, alongside the famous-ish headliners who pass through town. Comedy for Breakfast at Club 21 also lands passing headliners: You can perform comedy during the daytime in a space that resembles your dad's 1970s basement bar, down a bunch of cholesterol and bottomless mimosas, and then go back to sleep again.
Midnight Mass at Funhouse Lounge, 2432 SE 11th, last Sundays at midnight, free; Comedy for Breakfast at Club 21, 2035 NE Sandy, most first Saturdays, 1 pm, free, see facebook.com/comedyforbreakfast
4. Seven on 7 at the Brody is super fun because after the comedian does their seven-minute set, they get to watch an improv team fuck around with the jokes they've told, and maybe some new inspirations and angles will be born.
Brody Theater, 16 NW Broadway, fourth Fridays, 10 pm, $8, brodytheater.com for schedule
5. Barbara Holm's showcase It's Gonna Be Okay gets the best crowds in Portland.
East Burn, 1800 E Burnside, first & third Mondays, 8:30 pm, free