"WHISKEY'S SO GOOD," Shane Torres says thoughtfully.
We're sitting at the White Owl—a popular drinking-ground for local comedians, thanks to its proximity to the Helium Comedy Club—consuming unprofessionally large pints of whiskey and soda. (He drinks his with a lime, which is weird.) In between sips, the Texas-born comic is explaining why, after years of honing his comedy chops in Portland, he's moving to New York later this month.
"I can't do much more here than I've done," Torres says. "I've had my year at the top of the heap after winning Portland's Funniest Person"—he won the local contest in 2013—"and doing Last Comic Standing and Comedy Bang! Bang! If there was a ton of industry here or a ton of clubs where I could work every night, I'd probably stay. But there aren't. And not to shit on Yakima, but I don't want to have to go work clubs in places like Yakima every weekend to get work."
Torres is a seven-year veteran of the local comedy scene, and the most recent comic to ditch Portland for the bright lights of a bigger city, though he certainly won't be the last. Portland's got a tight-knit comedy community and some great clubs and showcases, but the promise of fame and fortune (and agents, and TV deals, and the sink-or-swim urgency of cutthroat competition) are still in far-off New York and LA.
Like any comedian who's serious about their work, Torres writes and performs constantly. You've probably heard his joke about getting calls from his dead dad's bill collectors while eating in a mall food court, or the one about how he resembles a "Native American Meat Loaf impersonator." It's usually not much fun seeing a comic do the same joke over and over—one of the perils of a small scene—but Torres is consistently interesting to watch, because he relentlessly refines his material over weeks and months, making subtle changes to word choice and delivery.
Sometimes those changes pay off, and sometimes they don't; sometimes a joke looks good on the page and fails in the room, and sometimes it only really comes to life in the delivery. To provide a window into his joke-writing process, Torres spent the last week trying out different versions of the same concept—at the Brody Theater, at Helium, and at Al's Den. Three different drafts of the joke are presented below, with line-by-line revisions illustrating the different tactics he took each time. Torres still hasn't perfected the joke, though—he'll give it one last shot at his going-away show on October 10.
I was thinking about the first undercover cop the other day and what a crazy idea that must have been to people. Because the first time anyone does anything, it's kind of insane.
I was thinking about the first time anyone does anything, how it's hard because everyone thinks you're crazy for having an idea no one has ever had. So the courage to pursue is impressive.
I was thinking about how anytime anyone has a completely original idea, it's hard to follow through on it because it's met with such disbelief and resistance.
Like you guys are all sitting in chairs, but at one point, there were no chairs. Someone was like, "I am going to create something to sit on." Then other people were like, "What are you, too good to sit in the dirt?"
For example, you're all sitting in chairs, but at one point, there were no chairs and everyone thought that guy was CRAZY!!!
You guys are all sitting in chairs, but at one point, there were no chairs. Everyone was sitting in mud and shit, and one guy said something along the lines of, "I think I am going to build something to sit on," and everyone laughed at him. "Look at Chair! He thinks he's too good to sit in mud and poop with the rest of us." (Yes, the guy who invented the chair was named Chair. He named it after himself. He's kind of an asshole that way.)
So, I thought the first undercover cop was probably a mistake. Like some cop just came into work in the clothes he wore the day before.
Think about the first undercover cop. Like that was an idea someone had to sell to a boss. His boss walked in and says, "All right, Johnson... what is this great idea you've got that's going to change the face of law enforcement?"
Take the first undercover cop. Someone had to pitch that idea to their boss, and make it work. Some poor cop is terrified and thinking, "Oh my god, I just wish I was home under my covers."
"Jesus, Johnson. You look like shit. Explain yourself." "Uh, well, Chief Johnson..." (They are both named Johnson; it's a common name.)
He is pitching his idea and he says, "Well, Captain Johnson..." They're both named Johnson; it's a common name.
Imagine it: Some angry police captain comes in and says, "All right, Johnson. What's this big idea that's going to change the face of law enforcement?"
And Johnson is terrified. "Uh, well Captain Johnson..." (They're both named Johnson; it's a very common name.)
"Well, I'm going to pretend to be a lowlife, and then I'm going to gain these criminals' trust, and that's when we bust them."
"I want to pretend to be a criminal and gain their trust, and then that's when we bust them."
"I want to pretend to be a criminal."
"That is just crazy enough to work, Johnson."
"Thank you, Captain Johnson."
"Johnson, that's just crazy enough to work."
"That is just crazy enough to work. Like a trick."
"Yes, like a trick." Internally he's thinking, "I can't believe I work for this idiot. I am so much smarter than him."
So he goes to the Italians, because they were the first criminals—we'll just call this criminal "Johnsonelli"—and I like to think he's very bad at it. Because no one has ever done this before, so he doesn't have a template for it.
So he goes to the Italians, because they were the first criminals. However, no one has ever done this, so he has no template for how it's done. So he has to learn from his mistakes, and I bet he was pretty bad at it. He probably didn't even make up an alias.
So he goes to the criminals, and here's the problem: No one has ever done this before, so he has no idea how it should be done. He has no template.
I think the criminals would be like, "You ready to go kill this rat, Johnson?" Then he just answers in cop jargon and says, "Affirmative."
They say things that are horrible crimes and he just answers like a cop. "You ready to go kill this guy, Johnson?" "Affirmative, sir."
"Hey, Steve Johnson, good to meet you. This is my real family and home."
"You ready to go kill this rat, Johnson?"
Or if he has to wear a wire, and he stands way too close and all the criminals think he has no sense of personal space.
And that's kind of a funny thought, but what's way funnier is the very first criminal to be busted by the very first undercover cop. Like how betrayed they must have felt. "I thought we were friends, Steve."
Thank you, guys.
Then the big day comes for the bust, and he slaps the cuffs on the criminal and the criminal doesn't believe it. Because a criminal had never been busted by an undercover cop at this point.
Then the day comes when they are going to make the bust. They slap the cuffs on the criminal, and he doesn't believe it. Because no criminal has ever been busted by an undercover cop before, either. The sense of betrayal that criminal felt must have been so real. Butterfly effect is happening everywhere.
"You're under arrest."
"That's a good one. See you around."
I imagine they're putting him in the car, and he still doesn't believe it.
"I really appreciate your commitment to this bit, but I feel like you are taking it too far."
Kind of like this bit.
Thank you, guys!
"You are under arrest."
"That's a good one, Johnson."
They're putting him in the cop car, and he still doesn't really believe it.
"I really appreciate your commitment to this bit, but I feel you have taken it too far."
Some of you may feel the same way about this bit.
They have him on trial, and he's on the stand, and he's seething with such rage that Johnson was a cop. "How do you plead?"
"I thought we were friends, Johnson. That thing I told you about the guy at summer camp. I never told anyone that."