Eight years ago, after a decade of grinding open-mics and tough crowds, Lonnie Bruhn finally earned top billing at Harvey's, Portland's only comedy club. The Sellwood native was slated to headline for a week. He made it three days before being banned from the stage for telling jokes Harvey's owner Barry Kolin deemed inappropriate. Bruhn's ban has lasted eight long years—during which he's played to big crowds at national comedy festivals and drunk revelers at Dante's. Now, finally, on Feb. 25, Bruhn will step back up to the Harvey's mic and tell his jokes, just as dirty as he wants.
"This is a defining moment in my career," Bruhn says. "Even though it's just local, even though it's not like I've struck it famous, I'm so excited to be finally stepping back up on the stage of my home club the way I want to."
Bruhn's themes run dark, from suicide to sexual weirdness (the titles of audio clips on his website range from "Jacking off Drunk" and "Tit Bars Ugly Women" to "Plastic Cocks Jelly Jars"), but he pulls it off. "The key to telling risky material," he says, "is being confident. You need to be able to lead an audience down a dark hole, and you need to be able to lead them out."
When speaking, Bruhn cocks his head slightly back and to his right, presumably to compensate for his lazy eye. He's 37, but could be younger. His hair is close-cropped and black, mirrored by a few days' dark growth along his jaw. His cane is hooked precariously to the table. Bruhn has cerebral palsy, and he credits his full-time career in comedy at least in part to the disease. "I couldn't do all the things other kids could do. I couldn't climb trees or run. I really had time to observe things and notice. As I watched, I realized how ridiculous it all is."
He's careful not call his ban from Harvey's ridiculous. "I had no hard feelings," he says diplomatically. "It was [Harvey's owner Kolin's] business, it was his room, and he wanted the show to be a certain way. But I also had a business, and I had worked my entire career to get this opportunity, and I decided at that point I was not going to hold back."
Bruhn's routine wasn't always dirty. "When I started out, I was clean, very middle-of-the-road. I tried to make everyone happy, but it was getting me nowhere. My material had nothing to do with who I was," he explains. "So I threw away my entire act and rewrote it. I became a much edgier comedian, and, yeah, it was dirty. I was just honest. And suddenly I started headlining. And I promised myself I would never go back."
So a little over eight years ago, Bruhn was booked to headline Harvey's for $600, largely by virtue of his new, uncensored style. And then the club tried to censor him.
Despite being a 21-and-over venue, Harvey's has a lot of restrictions on what comics can and can't say. Which is pretty standard for comedy clubs, admits Bruhn. According to Kolin, who has run the club for 17 years, these rules are contingent on the status of the comedians. At the bottom are emcees, who warm up the crowd and introduce the other acts. They aren't allowed to curse at all. Above emcees are featured comics, who can curse mildly, provided the words are in context. Kolin describes his policy this way: "We don't want some guy up there saying fuck and fuck and fuck. If it's in the premise of joke, we allow it." At the top are headliners, who ostensibly are allowed so be as dirty as they like. But when Bruhn got banned, he was headlining. So what happened?
"When your customers are getting up and walking out, what do you say?" asks Kolin. "It's business. I always thought Lonnie's stuff was hilarious. But he had this joke about sleeping with his wife while she was on her period. He said it looked like crime scene when they were done. My clientele, unless you warn them, you can't just throw that at them. So I asked Lonnie to tone it down, and he went up there, and he told the same jokes. And that was it. I told him he was done. Nothing personal."
Out of Harvey's 270 seats, only a handful of customers walked out, but for Kolin that was too many. Kolin relies heavily on customer comment cards to judge his comics. Comics who reap positive cards move up the ladder. Negative cards, and they don't. That only a small percentage of customers bother to fill out the cards, and that they skew largely negative, doesn't perturb Kolin. "I read 'em all. You don't want anyone unhappy."
Controversy, however, seems synonymous with great comedy. Richard Pryor, George Carlin, Lenny Bruce—these men did not work clean. So doesn't this censorship preclude great comics from playing Harvey's? With a salesman's self-assurance, Kolin counters, "I've had dinner with Howie Mandel and Tim Allen. When Howie was starting out he was clean, clean, clean. Brad Garrett, Ray Romano, I had all those guys in the club back in the '80s. Last month I had the busiest month I've had in 17 years. So am I worried about what I'm doing? No."
And in his own way, Kolin is right. Mandel's Howie Do It maylack the social impact of Carlin's "Seven Dirty Words," but it sells ads for NBC. A certain inoffensive type of comedy packs in a certain type of customer who will order a certain number of drinks and chicken fingers. As Kolin says, it's business.
After years of toying with the idea, he's consented to welcome Bruhn back on a Wednesday night—when Harvey's is usually closed. And he's promoting the event as a special "adult-oriented" show. But for those who love comedy because it challenges taboos, well, for one night at least, Lonnie Bruhn will be taking the stage on his own, uncensored terms. "For the first time in 18 years, I get to do the show I've always wanted to do."
We polled our favorite Portland comics for their dirtiest jokes. The most controversial comedy topics: rape, race, suicide and abortion. So an unborn minority fetus and a suicidal pederast walk into a bar….
"No one wants to commit suicide because they're afraid they'll botch it. So I want to invent a suicide simulator so you can practice. Wii Suicide. I'm gonna be a millionaire."
"I was trying to lose weight. One thing I really miss about being thin is street harassment. I want to get back down to my rape weight."
"I'm so scared of getting pregnant I'll only sleep with a guy if his dick is shaped like a coat hanger."
"I do an impression of a girl getting raped that other comics beg me to do. It's basically just muffled screams and me thrusting my body into the air. It's a very visual thing. Sometimes I'll follow it up with a line like, 'I don't think you guys understand. I have a right to tell that joke because I once raped someone.'"
"Even though I'm black, I didn't vote for Obama because I want a black president. I wrote in a rapper because I knew that when a black president got up to make a speech, he was going to need to be able to take a bullet. I just wanted to set myself up for success. I wanted a president who could get shot, get back up, and finish the speech…and maybe, just maybe, go double platinum."
Lonnie Bruhn, Steve Harris Three-O and Kristine Levine appear at Harvey's Comedy Club, 436 NW 6th Ave., 241-0338. harveyscomedyclub.com. 8 pm Wednesday, Feb. 25. $15 door. 21+.