It's a chummy scene, and it explains as much about Portland's recent comedy boom as the opening of Helium Comedy Club in 2010 or the growth of the uber-popular Bridgetown Comedy Festival. This isn't a town where newcomers are booed off the stage. In Portland, they're invited out for bloody marys and waffles after their first open mic.
There are probably 100 people in this city who identify as standup comics, but only a handful with material you'll try stealing on your next date. Unless you go to comedy shows every week (see a list here), it's hard to know who's worth seeing. It doesn't help that Portland comics are so nice to each other. Ask them who's funny—or better yet, what hack needs to burn the gluten-free heroin jokes—and they'll flee the conversation.
There are local comedy contests, but they heavily favor those who can convince their friends to show up and buy drinks. Portland has too many comics for that system to work. We wanted answers supported by science. So we sent ballots to people in the know—comics, bookers, managers, podcasters, critics—and asked them to vote, anonymously, for their favorite local comics. More than 80 responded, and the resulting list is a testament to Portland's status as a burgeoning comedy hub. While some Portland comedians move south for TV work—looking at you, Ian Karmel and Ron Funches—somebody's got to make us laugh about Vista Bridge jumpers and our city's Alabama-quality public schools.
According to their peers, these are the five funniest people in Portland. They include a Texan who was fired from Kinko's after a customer complained about him on Yelp, a Berkeley grad who got into comedy from social work and a former porn-store clerk who found a dead body in the jack shack.
To see them together onstage, head to our free showcase at 7 pm Sunday, Nov. 24, at the Alhambra Theatre—gluten-free heroin jokes strictly forbidden.
1. AMY MILLER
"My mom was going to take this to her grave, for sure, but my dad's brother was going to out her," says Miller, 32. "I'm like, 'Oh, this sucks. I've got to rewrite my life story.'"
As it turned out, Miller was the product of a one-night stand with a man who'd died a decade earlier. She's flip about it in the retelling, her already high voice—which she describes as sounding like that of a 6-year-old Asian boy—jumping half an octave. But the news shook her. Unable to afford a therapist, Miller turned to standup as "a way to get all this shit out."
"This was during the recession, and the East Bay was crazy," she says. "All these people got into comedy because they'd lost their corporate jobs and even their shitty jobs. There was a huge boom, and I got in there with all the other sad people."
These days, Miller stands out from all those sad people with a self-deprecating, guileless style and anecdotes of flirting with teenage clerks at Fred Meyer about artichokes. She laughs endearingly at her own jokes while asking audience members if they've ever been dumped.
There's no affectation: The Miller you see onstage is the same Miller you'll meet over pints of Pabst. After a show at Southeast Hawthorne's Bar of the Gods, the East Bay native giggles about her "white-trash family" and "shit-show childhood," which entailed little adult supervision and lots of house pets—including a highly aggressive duck her dad christened "Chester the Molester." Miller's parents were rarely around, and their home became something of a neighborhood flophouse for her older siblings' friends, who slept in closets or in the unfinished houseboat her dad had tried to build in the backyard. Miller, the youngest, would be tasked with making 30 grilled cheese sandwiches—at least when her parents had made one of their fluke trips to Costco to restock the pantry. For times of relative famine, her sisters hoarded cake frosting and syrup under their beds.
âIf you hypnotized me and said, âDraw your childhood,â it would be like a Lord of the Flies situation,â Miller says. âThere would be no grown people around.â
Miller moved to Portland a year ago for a marketing job at Aladdin Theater, and she now rarely riffs on her upbringing or her mother's revelation, which she says has actually brought her family closer. She'll occasionally joke about her mom's disdain for seat belts (punch line: "and this is why you use condoms, so you don't knock up somebody as dumb as my mom"), but she's more likely to talk about her cat or Portlanders' irrational love of the phrase "no worries." Whether it's because she thinks people wouldn't believe the stories or because she doesn't want their sympathy, it makes for comedy that's neither sensationalist nor self-pitying.
A UC Berkeley grad and former social worker—ask her about the meth baby with webbed arms and legs—Miller has a natural sense of compassion that comes through in her standup act. With her round face and blunt strawberry-blonde bangs, she knows she's both cute and non-threatening, and she milks this to her advantage. When she talks about her 4-year-old nephew, she'll ask if anyone in the room has kids. "OK, picture your kid, but just...better," she'll say. "Like just a better kid."
Yet it's not uncommon to overhear someone describe her set as "soothing," as a middle-aged woman did after a recent showcase at Funhouse Lounge. Miller says people often approach her afterward to ask to be friends.
"So many comedians go in with zero social skills and they only see other humans as vehicles for material," she says. "I don't want to be that person who's like, 'What are you going to say that's fucked-up so I can write it down?' Don't fucking tweet about the crazy guy on the bus. I like to make jokes about people I know and love."
She pauses. "I don't know if that's better." —REBECCA JACOBSON.
2. SHANE TORRES
This may sound like a life gone awry. But it's actually science.
Torres' comedy sets are meticulously planned, on notebook pages full of tight formulas and spidery diagrams. His jokes are engineered beat by beat through dogged experimentation. "Some people will write their jokes like it's a blog," he says. "Some people, their crowd work is as good as a planned bit. I just happen to be a little OCD."
The Texas-raised Torres, 32, is a deeply polite man, with an outward modesty not always characteristic of his home state. In awkward moments, his natural reflex seems to be a sort of manic self-effacement. He is a large man, with generous features that often move among dramatically different expressions at the same time, from vexed to tickled to maybe sad.
He also might just be the hardest-working comedian in Portland. A former roommate of émigré comic Ian Karmel—who left this year for Los Angeles to become a writer for the cable show Chelsea Lately—Torres has been in comedy for seven years. This year, the self-described "Native-American Meatloaf impersonator" was named Portland's Funniest Person at Helium Comedy Club. He performs eight or nine comedy sets a week, and each time he's trying out new pathways for a joke, laid out methodically in those notebooks.
But the result onstage is disarmingly casual, as if he's telling embarrassing stories that just occurred to him over drinks—stories he now finds hilarious. The time he got fired from Kinko's because of a Yelp comment that read, "Shane sucks ass." The time, before his dad's funeral, that his former third-grade teacher came home to find him drunk at her house. That time at the shopping mall, when he screamed at his dead father's debt collectors over the phone that he would never, ever pay. (His father, Torres says, was so terrible with money that he'd spend his last dollar on a margarita machine, "because what's a pool party without a margarita machine?")
Torres isn't a wisecracker who thought he'd just pop onstage and be charming. He's a craftsman, dedicated to the form as a type of emotional honesty, or a drill-down into absurdity. "I'm surprised when feminists are surprised by sexism," he says in one bit. "I get why they're upset. But surprised?... How weird is it when the Ghostbusters are surprised when they see a ghost?"
He's currently saving up for a move to comedy's ground zero, New York City. "I want to do 25 sets a week," he says. "Three or four times a night. That's the best. Even when it's bad and I eat a big old pile of shit onstage, I can learn a lot. You can't say that about a lot of things. If you can get something good out of the bad, that means you care about it.
"I think it was Richard Belzer who said that comedy is the thing that saved and ruined his life," he adds. "I love it more than anything." —MATTHEW KORFHAGE.
3. NATHAN BRANNON
That's Shaun Lavery, his former teammate on the Willamette University football team, whose unfortunate nickname derived from his college-issued email address: email@example.com. It wasn't a polished bit. Brannon—who, with his heavy build and nest of curls atop his head, lives up to his self-description as "a pregnant Tracy Chapman"—didn't expect to end up onstage that night. Unbeknownst to him, his friends reserved space at an open mic near campus, just to hear Brannon retell the story of him and Lavery at football practice.
"We weren't the best athletes, so we would always end up at the end of the pack," says Brannon, 29, sitting at Lucky Lab on Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard, across the street from Helium Comedy Club, where he was crowned Portland's Funniest Person in 2012. "One day, we were running sprints, and it was a thing where, once you finish, you turn around and cheer on the extra people. It was me and him, and they cheered for him, but they cheered with his nickname. So they're screaming 'Slavery!' at me as I'm running through a field."
A quiet kid who grew up "dirt poor" in St. Johns, Brannon wasn't inclined toward a career in comedy. In conversation, there are still traces of the introvert who wanted to be a filmmaker: glancing downward, occasionally trailing off sentences. Onstage, though, Brannon exudes the calm, laid-back temperament of his idol, Dave Chappelle, whom he's opened for twice. His comedic identity hasn't strayed far from the guy hanging out in the frat house living room, delivering treatises on his hatred of flowers and fortune cookies, and tales of going hunting with his Norwegian father-in-law.
Still, it took a while for Brannon to find himself comedically. After playing out the Salem coffee-shop scene, Brannon returned to Portland and found a mentor in veteran comic Andre Paradise. Paradise booked Brannon at predominantly African-American rooms in Northeast Portland, and demanded he come up with three minutes of new material every week. It was a steep learning curve. "Black crowds, if they don't like you, you know it before you finish the joke," Brannon says. And as a sweater-wearing, Björk-loving "Oreo" (his word), they let him know it often. It toughened him up quickly.
"If someone doesn't like you, they don't like you," he says. "I like me, I like my jokes. I think they're great. If you don't like them, that's it."
In the last year, Brannon has started dipping into darker territory, in particular his family's health problems, like his sister's Tourette's syndrome and his own battle with ulcerative colitis. On I Black Out, the self-released album he recorded at Funhouse Lounge, Brannon talks about his father losing his legs to diabetes, and you can practically hear the audience squirming in their seats. On the record, he frames the double amputation as divine retribution for his childhood, when his dad would chastise him with the phrase, "Stop dragging your feet, boy." "Every Christmas," he says, "I get 'Stop Dragging Your Feet' embroidered into a pair of socks and give it to him." The audience finally erupts in laughter.
"I had to wait and get my experience before I started tapping into things like that," Brannon says. "There are still things I don't touch yet. Things you say, 'I'll leave that to Chris Rock or Louis C.K.' Serious issues like that. You can take a stab at it, but I'll wait until I can make a gem out of it, instead of origami." —MATTHEW SINGER.
4. KRISTINE LEVINE
"The 911 operator was such a cunt to me," Levine says. "It seemed like she thought I was not properly remorseful. She's like, 'How do you know he's dead?' and I'm just telling her, 'Honey, he's dead, can you have someone come get him?'"
Levine took it upon herself to look in his wallet—for identification. "I stole $35 from him, and I don't regret it," she says. "People say, 'You rolled a dead guy?' like I'm the bad one. It's a finder's fee."
Portland comics tend to embrace the city's self-image with jokes about kale and the existential horrors of forgotten shopping bags. Levine confronts Portland with a blue-collar past that's not even past if you make the 15-minute drive to Lents, her home and site of the Eagle Eye Tavern, where she sits drinking a cocktail of Fireball and apple cider, awoooohing along with Warren Zevon's "Werewolves of London."
Levine, 43, has shortish blond hair worn in pigtails. She wears a black hoodie with the sleeves pulled up to reveal a dung beetle tattooed on one arm and a ladybug on the other. Her phone is encased in a sparkly purple shell. Her voice is girlish but gruff—Levine befriended Roseanne Barr's first husband and has never wondered what he likes about her.
The Redmond, Ore., native tells lots of jokes about her decade-long stint as a clerk at an adult video store. She mentions that she has "three fat kids" by three different dads. She doesn't always get into the particulars: She married at 18, had a kid, divorced at 19, married a minor Saudi royal, had another kid, moved to Egypt, survived an earthquake, moved back to the U.S. and remarried her first husband who—and she does tell this part—left her for a woman he met on StarTrek.com.
"Yeah, I was married to a Saudi royal with a fancy diplomatic passport and all that," she says. "It's my life, I lived it, but I never think, 'Oh, that's relatable.'"
Levine has appeared on all four seasons of Portlandia, showcased at SXSW, done Oregon Lottery voice-overs and was a producer on KUFO's Marconi show. Her show Fat Whore was selected in 2012 for the prestigious Edinburgh Fringe Festival, where, as a critic for The Guardian newspaper put it, her "stark and unapologetic dispatches from an exotic life" would better suit "a rowdier and less beady audience."
Talk longer to Levine, though, and you sense that her bawdy tales of life east of 82nd Avenue also have an element of image-crafting. She's a natural bard, someone who would tell jokes about Multnomah Athletic Club mixers or hazelnut farming if she'd lived it. And she doesn't have much patience for people who aren't, either by experience or practice.
"We're seeing an influx of new comics that are garbage—no one is telling them they suck," she says. "You have to sit people down sometimes and say, 'Hey, the vet tech program at PCC isn't so bad, maybe check it out.'" —MARTIN CIZMAR
5. BRI PRUETT
It's a comic sensibility fostered in part by a childhood spent in Clackamas, where Pruett found escape through television, including programs less than kid-friendly. "Growing up in the suburbs, I was a big Comedy Central fan," she says. "Even when I was a child I would watch Rosie O'Donnell do standup at the Improv."
Seeking an outlet for her smart mouth, Pruett joined a sketch-comedy troupe in college and later became a company member with Portland's Action/Adventure Theatre. For six years, she has helped spearhead the group's largely improvised performances, including the beloved Fall of the House serial comedy. But three years ago, at age 26, Pruett braved her first open mic and found what she was looking for.
"I have been told that I come off as very nurturing," she says. "Strangers will call me 'mama,' which is not real sexy or awesome. But I care a lot about the audience."
That attitude is evident in sets that espouse a message of positive self-image but with just enough absurdity and raunch to avoid a middle-school-assembly vibe. "I'm working on a lot of stuff about body positivity, which is not a funny thing, but the message is important to me," Pruett says. "Ultimately it's all about laughs, but if you're not doing anything while you're getting a laugh, then what's the point?"
For Pruett, that means mining painful aspects of her life. "I'm trying to write jokes about how I think a lot of dudes like to hang with bigger chicks, but for a lot of them it's kind of a secret," she says. "And that's super-dark. That's a sad reality that we live in. But I'm trying to talk about that in a way that doesn't bum everyone out."
It helps that Pruett has a knack for reading crowds and delivering what they want, whether that means axing a joke that sounded racist no matter how much she worked on it (how, as a larger white woman, she was statistically more likely to bring home a black guy), or taking it to the opposite extreme, such as when she recently performed for NARAL's Pro-Choice Oregon annual gala.
"It was a really fancy benefit," Pruett says. "So I did a really dirty set because they didn't care and I figured these people probably want something a little spicy, and they're liberal so they can handle it. And I said the word 'pussy' a lot." —PENELOPE BASS.