Portland comedy fans are legion, but until recently, they had few places to go. The first Bridgetown Comedy Festival in 2008 put our city on the map as a destination for big-name comedians. But where could fans go to laugh on the other 51 weekends of the year?
Portlanders had a problem, and we weren't alone. Over on that other coast, Philadelphian Marc Grossman had previously stared down a similar dearth of entertainment options, leading him to quit his day job in stock trading to open Helium Comedy Club in 2005. The 250-seat theater featured national headliners like Dave Attell and Louis CK, and quickly became a success. Now Grossman, 36, is headed our way to open a second Helium in Portland at Southeast 9th Avenue and Hawthorne Boulevard.
Grossman has a catalog of reasons for choosing Portland for his club's second location. We're young, fairly educated, short on major sports teams and willing to hide indoors through the rainy season. The Aladdin and the Schnitz are our only venues in which to see headliners from movies and television.
"Portland is one of the highest watchers of Comedy Central as a percentage of its population, so that also tells me a lot," Grossman says.
Helium is set to open July 29, and construction of the space, which will feature two bars, a full menu and a 250-seat theater, is nearly finished. Local comedian Auggie Smith will be the first to headline, and most of the hosts and the openers will be booked through Tuesday open-mic nights. And Grossman sees at least one difference between booking in Philly and Portland.
"Portland strikes me as more of an alternative city, so the alternative comics are the ones that I think will do well, like a Doug Benson…a Maria Bamford…a Brian Posehn, rather than just the mainstream, run-of-the-mill comics," he says.
And as for Harvey's, until now Portland's only comedy club, Grossman says the talent isn't remotely comparable.
"We charge for tickets because our acts are worth paying to see. They're like the guys you would see at the Aladdin Theater, only now you'll be 60 feet away from them instead of a couple hundred feet away," Grossman says. "In terms of the comedy, [Harvey's is] selling you a Hyundai, and we're selling you a Mercedes."
Auggie Smith performs at Helium Comedy Club, 1510 SE 9th Ave., 888-643-8669. 8 pm Thursday and 8 and 10:30 pm Friday-Saturday, July 29-31. 21+. $15-$20.