Portland's first Bridgetown Comedy Festival, in 2008, featured 50 comedians with a gaggle of around 1,000 people showing up to watch them in bars and clubs along Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard over the course of three days. The next year that number doubled to over 2,000. But the number of comics tripled to 150, dwarfing the percentage increase in attendees. This weekend, 172 comics will flood Portland, including marquee names like Maria Bamford, Tim Meadows, Scott Adsit, Oscar Nunez, Jimmy Pardo, and Greg Behrendt. All this, in a town that's only a small blip on the comedy map the rest of the year.
"Somebody's having a great time performing [in Portland] and telling people" says Janet Varney, co-founder of San Francisco's massive SF Sketchfest. Many of this year's comics are from the Northwest, but 42 have never performed in PDX before. While some festivals grow from a base of audience support, Bridgetown is becoming better known because the comics themselves want to come here.
"[We're just] bringing up the kind of people we don't get to laugh at or see performing in the area much," says Andy Wood, a Portland-based comic who founded the festival with fellow comedian Matt Braunger and fan Kim Brady. Bridgetown is one of several newer grassroots comedy festivals, like Washington, D.C.'s, Bentzen Ball and SF Sketchfest, started by performers striving to bring their favorite comics together. While the varying structures festivals take make it unclear whether Bridgetown's inflation is typical, what is clear is that the fest is exploding right under Portland's nose.
While the city excels at producing and welcoming bands, it doesn't have an "A-room" club that brings in nationally recognized comics (at least, not until an offshoot of the Philadelphia-based Helium Comedy Club opens on Southeast Hawthorne at the end of July). Performers who want to play Portland have to find a venue (generally a rock club or concert hall), a promoter to front the money and, finally, an audience. While these shows are often successful—Doug Benson nearly sold out his set at the Aladdin on April 9—the difficulty in putting them on can be discouraging.
Matt Besser, a founding member of the influential sketch group Upright Citizen's Brigade and a scheduled performer at this year's Bridgetown, encapsulates the disconnect best when he explains why he hasn't done a show in Portland: "I've never been invited," he says. Until now.
Due to Portland's lack of comedy bookers, the scene's visibility relies on local comedians. Virginia Jones, who organizes Curious Comedy's biweekly open mic, estimates there are about 60 "open-micers" performing regularly throughout the city, but the unpolished shows have yet to find a sizeable outside audience. "I'm surprised when people come to an open mic on purpose [just to watch]," Jones jokes. "I always ask if they want mic time."
Although Portland's comedy profile is rising, the touring comics playing Bridgetown certainly aren't here to make money. Comics often work festivals for free to network and raise their profile, and while the fest has strong sponsor support, ticket sales are earmarked to cover overhead. "Every year it's just been putting a lot of things on the credit card and hoping people turn out," says Wood.
He believes the national comics come to Portland for the same reason the foodies, beer lovers and music fans do: the atmosphere. Bridgetown has essentially created a venue where comedians interested in the city itself have an excuse to come and hang out with their friends in an atmosphere Wood calls "summer camp for comics." And while they're here to have fun, they end up leaving a wake of top-notch shows, improvised performances and new fans behind them with each visit.
Even if the audience numbers stay steady, comics will keep coming. "My friend April Richardson was invited to do it," explains Chip Pope, an L.A.-based comic who will make his Portland debut this weekend. "I thought, 'Maybe I could schmooze some of that Bridgetown action.'"
You know the big names, the TV personalities and the Internet stars. But here's five lesser-known Bridgetown acts you can either catch for yourself or regret missing next week. Visit bridgetowncomedyfestival.com/schedule for each comic's multiple show times and dates.
He's distracted, Southern, expressive, a quick improviser and completely comfortable onstage.
A Portland native, Braunger spins home-brewed stories and observational humor taken to absurd ends and peppered with outlandish metaphors.
A favorite of comics' at the first Bridgetown, he's a young, funny version of your gruff, misanthropic uncle.
In a single rant he takes apart everything you've ever gotten angry about, then goes right around to give you a host of new things to be angry about. It doesn't matter; you'll be laughing too much to care.
Check out this long-form improv show featuring Oscar Nunez, Scott Adsit, Janet Varney, Danny Pudi, Jessica Mankinson and Cole Stratton. If you don't know these names already, that means you really need to see this show. Hawthorne Theatre. 9:30 pm Friday, 8 pm Saturday, April 23-24. $25.
Bridgetown Comedy Festival takes place Thursday-Sunday, April 22-25, at various clubs and bars along Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard. Shows individually priced, four-day pass is $60. Info at bridgetowncomedyfestival.com. Tickets available at brownpapertickets.com.