“They’re the worst,” she says. “I honestly fucking hate them. If somebody says they love an open mic, I think they’re lying. They are the bottom rung of the entertainment totem pole. But, as a comic, we have to have them.”
And so Levine is doing her part to better the local open-mic scene with the Critical Comedy night she hosts every Monday at the Eagle Eye Tavern. The show begins around 7:30 pm (way too early by comedy standards) at the corner of Southeast Foster Road and 92nd Avenue (way too far east by anyone’s standards). It’s terribly inconvenient, partially by design. Unlike, say, Suki’s, Funhouse Lounge or the Boiler Room, the Eagle Eye is not a place where anyone just wanders in after having a few drinks and decides to talk about their day.
“I want it there because I want people to make the effort,” Levine says. “I want to make it a little difficult.”
On a recent Monday, seven of the eight audience members are also performers. They listen intently, then offer advice. Sometimes it’s as simple as how to hold the microphone (above your sternum and reasonably still); other times it’s steadfast insistence that a white man in his 20s should absolutely kill a joke that involves a word that starts with “n.” About half the audience takes notes and hands their written critique to the performer. More than anything, performers want to know “if that part was funny.”
“Almost every two years we get an influx of new comedians,” Levine says. “We call them an incoming class of freshmen. A lot of them are hobbyists, and some of them are truly talented and want to make it. Some of them just suck but have an earnestness about them, and you want to help.”
For previous freshman classes, by all accounts far smaller than the current boom, there was an informal coaching system. That’s broken down, Levine says.
“We used to have a real strong mentorship system here in Portland where the more seasoned comedians would take them on the road and sort of groom them,” she says. “But now the older comedians have gone about their own thing or moved to L.A. or whatever, and the young comedians still need some help.”
There’s also a need to enforce some standards on the community, Levine says.
“When there’s no rules or structure, they’ll kind of make garbage, even if they sometimes stumble on brilliance,” she says. “A lot of times younger comedians will think they’re being clever because they bring their notebook onstage and say, ‘I thought of these things when I was high and now I don’t know what they mean.’ They think that’s funny. That’s very hard for an audience to sit through. It’s very important for the comedians to come prepared and still make a strong effort to be funny.”
Not to mention the cranks. Levine says there’s a convicted rapist who’s been traveling to various open-mic nights telling misogynistic jokes.
“There hasn’t been one host that has said he’s not welcome,” she says. “Well, my open mic is not open. I would never let him on my stage. It’s not that I want to censor him—he did his time, I’m not a judge or a jury. But he’s saying stuff like, ‘Hey, do you know what you can tag that joke with? Shut up, bitch.’ I just don’t need that shit on my stage.”
Levine is friendly and encouraging with the handful of comedians who show up, but says she won’t hesitate to tell people to give up when appropriate.
“Hobbyists are fine, but people who are so obviously never going to be a comic or do a show and are causing trouble on top of it, I just don’t see any point,” she says. “Last weekend I had to ask somebody, ‘Where do you think those punch lines are? Where do you expect us to laugh? Because I just don’t get it.’ There are some comedians I see that I have to say, ‘What you’re doing is performance art because what you’re doing is not funny. It might be provocative, it might be clever, it might be interesting—but it’s not funny.’ And comedy has to be funny, that’s the definition of it.”
SEE IT: Critical Comedy is at the Eagle Eye Tavern, 5836 SE 92nd Ave., 774-2141, at 7:30 pm every Monday. Free. 21+.