“I’M SO SORRY,” says Curtis Cook. We’ve just met up at a coffee shop in Southeast Portland to discuss his impending move to LA, and he’s reacting the way many stand-ups do when they realize that, as a critic, I’ve seen their sets many times over.
It’s a liability for anyone who covers comedy, but not when it comes to Cook, whose sets reliably include sharp-edged tangents that are often even funnier than his tested material—material that covers race and politics without apology or hand-holding. On Wednesday night, Cook will perform at Helium with his co-hosts from the comedy showcase Earthquake Hurricane—Alex Falcone, Bri Pruett, and Anthony Lopez. It’ll be Cook’s last comedy show as a Portlander.
His reasons for leaving are pragmatic: He doesn’t hate it here, it’s been a happy medium between his future home LA and Ohio, where he grew up and went to college at Oberlin. But for Cook, who recalls early days in Portland comedy when he was often intimidated by fellow comics he performed with, the city’s utility as a training ground is waning. “Nothing really makes me nervous here anymore,” he says. “I kind of miss it.”
He jokingly says he really wants a sandwich named after him, and that’s only possible in LA, but when pressed, he gets real. “I feel like in order to get better I have to not be here,” he says, then slips moments later back into self-deprecating humor: “I just want to be really good at this thing that doesn’t pay and no one cares about.”
Cook’s not the first comedian to leave Portland this summer for LA. Another scene mainstay’s already gone: Nathan Brannon, who recorded an album with Kill Rock Stars this year, won Helium’s Portland’s Funniest Person contest in 2012, and last year launched a genius, short-lived initiative to buy up Confederate flags so that people who want them “have to pay a black dude to get it.” Cook describes Brannon as “a huge influence” in a comedy scene in which comedians of color—and black comics in particular—are underrepresented.
Because Cook actively discusses race in his comedy, he says he’s often asked to address it outside of his jokes. “Comedy is a jumping-off point for a conversation,” he says. “It might not thrill me... but it’s not responsible for me... to brush you off for wanting to further engage.”
He also says it isn’t enough for comedians to skate on having the right political views in front of audiences that agree with them (“You have to be funny before the issue”), a common state of affairs in Portland comedy Cook says he often finds “more stifling than comforting.”
Cook may take Portland to task on this and other things—throughout our interview, he drops an incredible number of on-the-nose one-liners about the city’s smug self-righteousness that are as funny as anything I’ve seen from him onstage—but what he says next belies not bitterness but a wry, exasperated affection for the city, as he compares his departure to graduating from high school. “Let’s all sign the back of each other’s T-shirts and leave,” he says. “I owe Portland a lot, however reluctantly I may feel about acknowledging that.”