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October 2nd, 2013 MARTIN CIZMAR | Culture Features
 

Scene Setter

Newcomer Amy Miller explains Portland’s comedy booms and busts.

culture_amy_3948Amy Miller is first in the lineup at tonight's Funniest Person contest. - Photo by Jason Traeger
Cat photos. Cat photos. Girls in yoga pants. Cat photos. Tupac shrine. Pizza. Purple weed. Arrested Development GIFs. Wait, what’s this on my Tumblr feed? Oh, it’s Beaverton-bred standup comic Ian Karmel, who recently gave up his Portland Mercury column and moved to Los Angeles to write vodkatini jokes for Chelsea Handler. He’s angry about a bit in WW’s Fall Arts Guide.

“I understand the intrigue of the struggling comedian archetype,” Karmel wrote. “The sad clown, the mentally anguished outcast griping to a room full of people just trying not to meet his gaze. That kind of comedian exists, but if you’re to believe Willamette Week, that’s pretty much it…. If anyone from Willamette Week reads this, I urge you to please go see what’s going on in the Portland comedy scene. Go see the astounding, innovative minds that are at work almost every single night.”

Uh oh, it’s again time to hit up Ian on Twitter.

Martin: Saw your sad-clown note. Give me five “astounding, innovative” comedy events next week and we’ll send reporters to all of them.

Ian: I’m not going to do your job for you. Stop making this about me. Go cover some actual shows that send you press releases.

Martin: Every time we cover comedy, I hear from you about how we missed the good stuff. So I’m asking you: give me one week of good stuff.

Ian: Is your Google broke? Quit being glib and do your fucking job.

Other Portland comedians then stepped in. Several long email exchanges, 200-odd tweets, and four hours of YouTube sets later, I picked Amy Miller, a local who is both insightful and talented, to answer some questions about the Portland standup scene and provide picks for three solid shows this week.


WW: How long have you been in Portland?

Amy Miller: I’m creeping up on 10 months. I moved for some inexact combination of the following things: a rad job in music, Portland comedy, a way out of San Francisco’s horrific tech scene that didn’t involve moving back into the warm embrace of my baby Oakland, and to afford living alone with an actual door on my bedroom. But mostly I moved here so I could show up and become a public authority on something people have been building locally without me for years and years!


Ian Karmel and others have pointed out that our comedy scene has brought transplants from bigger cities. Why?

The Bridgetown Comedy Festival is a huge part of it. Visiting Portland during Bridgetown is like going to Austin during SXSW. You leave convinced you should live here and your days will be filled with great comedy, free beer and pizza, creative collaboration and sunshine. Also, there are two great clubs in town—I love working at Harvey’s, some comics don’t; they can eat my butt—and a ton of showcases, multiple open mics almost every night, and steady paid work within a few hours’ drive. Audiences here are very open and appreciative of comedy, and comics like Ian and Ron [Funches] have worked to put the current scene on the map with a palpable sense of local pride. I say “current scene” because if I don’t, it’s an insult to Dwight Slade and others who were doing comedy in Portland when Ron and Ian were still in baby-sized cargo shorts holding teeeeny, tiny sandwiches.


I understand why chefs, writers, musicians, brewers, roasters, unicyclists, letter-pressers and mandala-makers move to Portland. There are people here doing all those crafts as well as anyone in the world. But if you’re in standup comedy, aren’t most of the opportunities in New York and L.A.?

Are there letter-pressers in Portland raking in cash and fame? I’m assuming there are letter-pressers living a nice life doing what they love the most creatively and making rent each month, while never necessarily becoming the most famous letter-pressers in the whole wide world. There’s plenty of opportunity here to work in comedy without leaving. Shows like Portlandia and Grimm are getting comics some onscreen time, Ian had his Comcast Sports gig and Bridgetown has turned plenty of industry heads our way. The club work seems steady enough and you can either live cheaply while working locally and going on the road, or you can make a preliminary name for yourself in New York or L.A. while living in Portland. People here want to see comedy as much as they want to see a great unicycle show.

Denver and San Francisco are great examples of “non-industry” towns that forced the industry to come to them because of what they were building locally. It feels to me like Portland is on the brink of that happening. And not to sound like that “location doesn’t even matter, man, ’cause the Internet brought us together” guy, but it has actually broken down some of the regional comedy boundaries. When a bunch of us transplants arrived this year—me, Curtis Cook, Barbara Holm, David Mascorro—the local comics were less like, “What’re they doing here,” and more like, “Fuck yeah, what’s your name, let’s get brunch!”


I see standup as a wonderfully pure medium that’s hard to do well. Steep learning curve, looks easy, opinions of what’s “good” range widely and it offers the opportunity to stand in front of a crowd complaining. Add it all up, and the lower tiers are clogged with frustrated cranks. Am I totally wrong?

We’re in the middle of a comedy boom. That’s a good thing. I doubt the mandala-makers of Portland are upset that so many less-skilled mandala-makers are flocking to town, creating more exposure for mandalas, increasing demand for mandalas, and ultimately selling a shit-ton more mandalas. And if anyone ever goes into their first comedy open mic thinking it’s easy, 99 percent of the time they have a very different opinion three minutes later. There’s no reason the “frustrated cranks” can’t blossom into beautiful comedy flowers.

Yes, yes, there are some really fucking terrible comedians in Portland just like in every other place. But it’s like you have this idea that there are hordes of terrible comic zombies wandering from open mic to open mic, never getting laughs, and going home feeling like they’re killing it. The difference between comedy and mandala-making is that it’s pretty easy to spot comedy quality with an untrained eye. Laughter is the barometer. Not every comic gets laughter every time in every room, but we all have a batting average. Ultimately that batting average will determine what kind of team we get to play for. Maybe we stay on the bench and do open mics forever. Maybe we end up playing in the majors. Plenty of us hit that occasional home run that keeps us motivated. Even if it only happens once a month, that one feeling is so goddamned exhilarating, it almost makes up for all the nights on the bench. Who am I to deprive anybody of that feeling when I know how great it is?


You’re quite good at your craft. Does seeing comedians who are really bad bother you?

No, it doesn’t. Because some nights—many nights—I am that comedian. Who am I to say what’s bad? It’s up to the audience.

Since I know literally dick about comedy, I listen to comics I respect. I listen to Louis C.K. and Patton Oswalt, and the thing they all seem to say is that they started off bad and just worked at it. They say, “Perform as often as possible and accept that you’ll just be bad for a while.” As a comedy fan, how can you love Louis C.K. but hate exactly what he points to as his origin, which is just terrible young comics onstage? We all want to create great comedy overnight. But if great and relatable comedy is your ideal, then skipping the terrible and awkward parts is just some fucking Weird Science version of standup and you’re wearing a bra on your head and trying to make Kelly LeBrock instead of talking to the hot girls your own age.


We caught flak from Karmel and other comedy scenesters for writing about an open-mic night in a piece where we also wrote about auditions for a play, a ballet rehearsal and a tagging session without complaint. Are comedians overly sensitive or are we assholes?

My short answer is yes and yes. My long answer is that those two pieces would have stung a little bit less if WW had made any effort to cover the local comedy showcases in town or profile local comedians. An open mic is a safe space. We’re allowed to be shitty there. The ballet rehearsal didn’t shake out to a reader concluding they shouldn’t go see that ballet or any ballet in Portland because the dancer fell a few times during practice. For whatever reason, out of 24 arts profiled, comedy was the only one that got shit on. Dramatic words were used, images of carnage were conjured. As one of two times your paper mentioned the local comedy scene this year—the other also being about people bombing at an open mic—aside from event listings, it was just kind of absurd. Taken as one of many mentions, it might have been funnier. We do have a sense of humor, after all. Reviewing an open mic is the equivalent of watching a homeless dude play guitar in the subway and then saying the whole town’s music scene blows.


GO: We asked Amy Miller to pick three great comedy shows in the next week. Here’s what she recommended:

Wednesday, Oct. 2—Whitney Streed’s Weekly Recurring Humor Night at Tonic Lounge. 9 pm. Free. Sean Jordan, Zak Toscani, Anthony Lopez, Bri Pruett, Christian Ricketts, Gabe Dinger, Curtis Cook, Liz Meile, Shane Torres and Phil Schallberger.

Saturday, Oct. 5—Comedy for Breakfast at Club 21 (2035 NE Glisan St). Show up at 12:30 pm. Get bottomless mimosas for $10. It’s run by Campy Draper of The Spicy News. Amy Miller, Danny Felts, Anthony Lopez and Derek Sheen.

Monday, Oct. 7—It’s Gonna be OK with Barbara Holm at EastBurn. 8:30 pm. Free. Katie Rose Leon, Jon Washington and Gabe Dinger.

 
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