A year and a half ago, Karmel, a mountainous 26-year-old with, in his words, the name of “a whimsical British candy store,” was just beginning to dabble in stand-up. He won the 2010 Portland Amateur Comedy Contest in June, right around the time Helium Comedy Club was opening on Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard. He became a regular host at Helium, supporting comics’ comics like Marc Maron and Michael Ian Black. Then Brownstein decided to lovingly lampoon her hometown on IFC, and recruited local comedians to help. Now, Karmel receives nods of recognition when he introduces himself to audiences as “the fat guy who died in a bathtub on Portlandia.” And this week, he’s going to be performing—along with nearly 200 other established and rising comics, including Margaret Cho, Andy Dick, Hannibal Buress and Doug Benson—at the fourth Bridgetown Comedy Festival, an event he talks about with the excitement of a businessman about to go on a company retreat.
“It’s like our trip to Vegas,” Karmel says.
In 2008, when Bridgetown held its inaugural edition, Karmel’s résumé was much less impressive. Then, there was no Portlandia. There was no comedy venue, like Helium, to fill the gap between the dive-bar amateur hours and the big-ticket shows at the Schnitz. All Portland’s aspiring comics and fans had were a handful of weekly open mics and the Old Town staple Harvey’s, which catered more to the date-night crowd than serious aficionados. That’s why Bridgetown co-founder Andy Wood says he started the festival in the first place. “[Comedy] was a forgotten subsection of the Portland cultural landscape,” he says.
And that was still true, more or less, 12 months ago. But in the last year, the momentum from Bridgetown’s growing attendance—from an estimated 1,000 in 2008 to 4,000 in 2010—has finally manifested itself in the development of an actual comedy infrastructure in Portland. Along with Helium, which offers the city’s working comics an up-close opportunity to study the bleeding edge of stand-up—the Patton Oswalts, the Brian Posehns, the Maria Bamfords—there is now an open mic, comedy class or showcase happening somewhere in town every night of the week. As a result, the population of Portlanders self-identifying as comedians has exploded. According to Virginia Jones, who hosts a twice-monthly open mic at Curious Comedy Theater, the average number of people clamoring for stage time has ballooned from 40 to 200. More importantly, an audience willing to pay for live comedy has also emerged.
“When I started, we were only doing open mics to each other,” says Jones, a five-year stand-up vet. “It’s more valuable to do an open mic to a human audience without the jaded comedian sensibility. Doing stuff to make your friends laugh is great, but then you don’t know what works at a paid show in the real world. There are only so many jokes about eating babies you can get away with.”
There’s still a lot Portland has left to learn if it wants to be known as a comedy hotbed—that goes for both the comics and the spectators. (A particularly Portlandian example of poor crowd etiquette is what Jones calls “friendly heckling,” in which audience members “think they can help the show with their own thoughts and feelings.”) But during Bridgetown, everyone, established headliners from New York and Northwest natives who just completed year one alike, is on equal footing. And for a newcomer like Karmel, that’s an education in itself.
“You have the same thing around your neck as Margaret Cho,” he says. “It’s like being called up to the majors for four days and getting a taste of what it’s like.”
SEE IT: Bridgetown Comedy Festival runs Thursday through Sunday, April 21-24, at various venues on Hawthorne. See bridgetowncomedyfestival.com for the full schedule. Weekend passes $75, single show tickets $10-$25.