Since 2015, Minority Retort has been Portland’s go-to stand-up comedy show featuring comedians of color in a predominately white city that desperately needs such things. And while it’s been difficult for event producers to book and maintain shows (no thanks to the shut ‘er down/open ‘er back-up nature of the COVID-19 pandemic), Minority Retort has kept itself in the forefront of audiences’ minds with regular appearances on local radio station XRAY.FM, before returning live and on-stage at its home at the Siren Theater in late June.
The ongoing success of Minority Retort lies in its regular juggernaut lineup of talent that over the years have included such local luminaries as Adam Pasi, Julia Ramos, Neeraj Srinivasan, Anthony Robinson, Katie Nguyen, Bri Pruett, Anthony Lopez, and Curtis Cook, as well as such top-notch national talent like Irene Tu, Dino Archie, and Marcella Arguello. But since comedy shows do tend to come and go, Minority Retort is an outlier in the Portland comedy scene, and its staying power is largely thanks to the incessant tenacity of producer (and occasional co-host) Jason Lamb.
Since Minority Retort has got not just one, but two big shows lined up for September, the Mercury wanted to catch up with Lamb about how the pandemic affected the show, the political ramifications of the last few years, and what the future holds for one of Portland’s most popular and consistently funny shows.
MERCURY: How did the COVID pandemic affect Minority Retort, and what challenges did you face bringing it back to the stage?
JASON LAMB: Strangely enough, our last in-person show was on March 13, 2020, which was maybe a day or two before the governor’s first executive order that limited social gatherings. Our headliner didn’t make it to town, and only a few people came to the show. One of the comics, Rissa Riss, had brought her son and asked if he could go on and do a couple of minutes of stand up. Normally, I would’ve politely declined, but everything in the world had gotten so weird and depressing, I just thought, “Fuck it, why not?” Of course, the kid went up and did great.
After that, it was just months of being bummed out. Luckily, folks in my immediate circle were safe and healthy and I was financially okay—but mentally, just watching the COVID death toll rise every night on the news was just terrifying and depressing. There was no way of knowing if comedy would ever come back, which was insane. Online shows started to pop up, but I wasn’t really into that at first. I wasn’t crazy about trying to organize it, the tech challenges, the “no audience” factor, etc.
But then George Floyd was murdered by the police, and as much as the protests that followed inspired me, the negativity against them sickened me. I considered ending the show because I really thought, “What’s the point? People are never going to get it. This bullshit is never going to change.” But when Juneteenth 2020 came around, XRAY.FM asked if I wanted do an online edition and I saw the opportunity to not only have comedians on the show who I wouldn’t normally be able to book, because they live in different areas of the country, but really talk to them about what was going on in places like Seattle, LA, NYC, Memphis, and Boise. It got me out of my head… and it was cool, especially co-hosting with Curtis Cook—who, honestly, I don’t know if he likes or despises me, but he’s always fun to trade barbs with.
But there’s nothing like doing it live. I didn’t realize how much I missed seeing the show until we came back this past June.
So how have the audiences been since the return? Does it feel weird to be navigating the new “masked up, show your vax card” normal?
It’s been hit and miss. Our first show was very well attended, and I was like “Yes, we’re back, baby!” But then almost immediately infection rates started to rise and for our next couple of shows, the audience numbers were like... ehhh. And it sucked because they were great shows! So it’s hard to tell. The “new normal” is just that—we all just gotta get used to it.
The Trump years were a nightmare, and yet we’re still dealing with the fallout and his followers. Has Minority Retort grown more political since you took over the show?
I don’t think so. I don’t really care what the comedians who come on the show say about politics or whatever, as long as it‘s funny. If anything, I hope that performers address the B.S. of American life in general. It’s infuriating how we’re in such denial in this country about who we are and how we got here because we’re so focused on being on a “winning team.” The left and the right are just Yankees vs. Red Sox. As long as your team is winning, there’s no desire to want to lift anyone else up. And it’s impossible for opposing teams to work together to accomplish a goal.
That’s why I personally find it difficult to put faith in any politician. Trump sucked and I hated every single day of his presidency, but our problems go deeper than just him. Whether it’s racial injustice, immigration, houselessness, climate change, now COVID... people with power may have had an opportunity to fix those issues, but it’s all been made so political that I question whether or not it’s too late. I’m hopeful that the younger generation will get things more figured out and continue to question and challenge the status quo. A lot of them genuinely seem to want to be better human beings.
How have your dreams and plans for Minority Retort changed over the years, and specifically over the last year?
I’ve always wanted the show to not only be viewed as a consistently good comedy showcase, but as an event. To that end, I’m looking forward to working with some really talented and funny people both here in the Northwest and from elsewhere in the near future. The show will end at some point and I’ll know when that time comes... but until then, I’m looking to push the envelope and continue bringing funny, smart, and unique voices to the show. Of course, if the past 18 months or so have taught us anything, it’s that life doesn’t give a shit about our plans!
Well, “plans willing,” Minority Retort has two big shows coming up in September….
Yes! On Friday, September 17, we welcome back Dino Archie, who’s been on Jimmy Kimmel and performed here in the Bridgetown Comedy Festival, as well Montreal’s Just For Laughs Festival. He’s just hilarious and does my favorite Trump impression of all time.
Then on Thursday, September 23, we have two of the Bay Area’s best comics, Dhaya Lakshminarayanan and Karinda Dobbins co-headlining the show. Between the two, they’ve opened for the likes of Dave Chappelle, Trevor Noah, Michelle Wolf, W. Kamau Bell, and co-hosted a politically-themed show in Oakland called The Resistance. They’re both super-professional, smart, and insanely funny. They’re going to be running their sets for a joint album they’re recording later this year, so I’m hyped for that.
Any structural changes to the show?
Yeah, there are going to be some tweaks, namely that I’m going to be stepping down as co-host—but still producing—and we’ll be going back to a solo host format with a rotating roster of folks introducing the comics, including Julia Ramos who was my awesome co-host for so many years. I’m also excited about a few other secret projects that I've been keeping under my hat for a while. Like everyone else, I’m just trying to do the right things, keeping my fingers crossed, and hoping that it all works out!
Any last words of advice you’d like to give to Minority Retort audience members?
Mostly, I want white people to know that when you come to the show, I can’t guarantee that you’ll be 100 percent comfortable, or even 50 percent—but you’ll probably laugh! And Black and brown people... you don’t need to know anything. Just come to the show! Please!
Minority Retort w/ Dino Archie, Fri Sept 17, 8:30 pm, $15/$20, tickets here; with Dhaya Lakshminarayanan & Karinda Dobbins, Thurs Sept 23, 8:30 pm, $15/$20, tickets here. Both shows at the Siren Theater, 315 NW Davis, proof of vaccination required for entry.