Helium Comedy Club's Funniest Person contest is not only a barometer of the city's stand-up comedy talent—it's a test of endurance. Beginning in May and concluding in late August, the annual competition involves multiple elimination rounds, this year winnowing down 275 local comedians until, on Sunday, just six men remained.

The words "Portland's funniest man competition!" seemed to erupt from 2019 Portland's Funniest winner Adam Pasi the moment he walked onstage—with Shain Brenden (2022) and Nariko Ott (2016) for the traditional contestant roast. "Okay," Pasi continued, "we're not going to have any ladies, but how about this beautiful guy?"

That guy was stand-up Cameron Peloso—who, at age 24, became the first ever Gen Z comedian to win the 2023 title of Portland's Funniest Person. Neeraj Srinivasan took the runner up spot with a set of newsy-focused humor, and Jeremiah Coughlan placed third after drawing the best crowd response, and then closing his set out with an unconventional "I love you."

Cameron Peloso reacts to winning Portland's Funniest Person. PHOTO BY SUZETTE SMITH

To those in the audience, Peloso's win wasn't much of a surprise. He hit the stage without a hint of millennial pause, and followed two previous stand-ups' forays into testicular woes with goofy, self-deprecating jokes about premature ejaculation and, in general, being "a Gen Z piece of shit." He showed an ability to riff and be weird, fooling with unusual concepts, but dipping into relatable jokes about having atheist parents. He said "dude," a lot, but we weren't bothered by it.

If you follow comedy closely, Peloso is a known quantity—especially to his fellow comedians, who put him on the cover of Willamette Week's Funniest Five earlier this year. Total, he's been performing stand-up for six years, starting out in the Irvine and Costa Mesa areas of Southern California. "There are so many little subset comedy communities around there," he told the Mercury during a brief interview after his win.

Peloso is still relatively new to our city's scene, having moved to Portland in 2021 to pursue school and a new environment to support a practice of sobriety. In January, he was a PCC student, but Peloso has since moved on to Reed College. "My first class is tomorrow," he said, explaining why he wasn't likely to go out and celebrate after the show. "Humanities-something. I should probably know."

Mic tap, left to right: Adam Pasi, Nariko Ott, and Shain Brenden. PHOTO BY SUZETTE SMITH 

What was missing from Peloso's routine was missing from every other routine on Sunday night: an attempt at building jokes around a story or theme; an attempt at saying something. That level of craft is what we've come to expect from Portland's Funniest contestants, even as we also support lampooning an expected approach.

Comedians need not strictly adhere to performing a pocket segment of This American Life onstage—there are plenty of boundary-pushing stand-up forms that aren't storytelling. However, what we got this year was a series of perfectly acceptable routines with scattered mentions of cunnilingus. If we'd brought ten co-workers to a brewery to blow off steam, the line-up would have been perfectly forgettable fun. But from the Portland's Funniest contest we've come to expect more.

As we mentioned, Coughlan had the better stage presence of the night, eliciting some crowd-wide "yeah!" and at least one empathetic "ow!" Srinivasan's set started strong, and his callback humor flirted with complexity, but he lost the audience with a series of dated news item jokes at the end. The whisper-quiet audience during David Tveite's slot might have just been waiting for his next joke with bated breath, his material was original, but he performed first in the line-up, to a cold crowd, which killed his traction.

We found it curious that Brenden didn't provide an opening warm-up set like hosts from previous years—it's a tradition to perform the set you won with—but he appeared exhausted (be it real or stage affected) by lengthy rounds of competition hosting. "Some would say [close to 300 comedians is] a surprising amount of comedians in Portland," he said wryly, "but everybody was funny in their own way."

Maybe the true measure of this year's event is that it's no longer a good measure of Portland's comedy scene. Last year, we wrote that Portland's Funniest seemed to be returning to its former glory, but this year felt like a backslide. We noticed that the club's site all but abandoned promoting this year's contest in early August, when it was barely into semi-finals.

The actual read may that there's a growing disconnect between Helium Portland and local comedy talent. And the Portland comedians who are going to next delight and amaze wider audiences are not making it—perhaps not even interested in making it—through the rounds of Portland's Funniest to the contest's final stage.