For Nariko Ott, being funny isn't a personality trait, it's a survival instinct. As the second of four children raised by a single mother, he knew from a young age that if he didn't stand out in some way, he could easily be forgotten at a rest stop on a family vacation. That's not to mention that, until he left home at age 16, he moved practically every year from the time he was born, requiring him to make new friends fast and often. Growing up, he didn't just want to make people laugh, he needed to.
But first, he needed to be better than his older brother.
"You'd be at the dinner table and he'd be telling some story that'd have my parents laughing super hard, and I'd be like, 'I want some of that,'" Ott says. "'A kid…farted. He fell over…uh…I don't know how to make this story good!' It was so frustrating. So I think that helped formulate my thing, the competition that I was failing at every turn."
Like so many other comics, the 34-year-old Ott is still motivated by those early insecurities. Unlike with most of them, it doesn't manifest as anger or self-loathing but as stoked enthusiasm. In conversation, Ott is prone to saying, "It's not as sad as it sounds" after describing something that indeed sounds profoundly sad—like the time he went to Bring Your Dad to School Day alone, or the fact that he can't trust his mom to tell him the truth about almost anything. That's the attitude he takes in his comedy, too. Sure, his relationship anxiety might cause him to die alone, but the way he sees it, that's an awesome last prank to play on whoever discovers his corpse.
Obviously, Ott has gotten better at the whole joke-telling thing. Still, he didn't venture into comedy until he was almost in his 30s. "It's a little late, but I don't think I had anything to say before then," he says. "I would've had a bunch of jokes about stupid arrested teenage boy shit." Instead, Ott spent his young adulthood in Tempe, Ariz.—where he eventually settled after bouncing from Florida to Oregon—doing "the suburban teenage band thing," which, with his long hair and mustache, he still appears to be living out. He had his greatest success with the Dagg Nabbit Stubbs, a Southern-rock pisstake whose songs included "Riffosaurus Rock" and "These Pancakes Are Made With the Devil's Bisquick." He was funny enough as the frontman that he was offered a spot on a standup show, provided he could come up with 10 minutes of material in two months. "It was so frightening that I had to do it," he says.
Once he leapt in, those years of struggle around the dinner table paid off. He also wrote his first sketch, which was filmed for Funny or Die. In it, his marijuana-induced paranoia is literalized as a passive-aggressive jerk whispering in his ear as he tries to play Call of Duty. It ends with a pixelated penis pressed against his face.
These days, Ott, who moved to Portland in 2011, is working to develop more substantive dick jokes. Now that he's confident in his ability to make people laugh, he's thinking about what he wants them to laugh at, which has taken him in a more socially conscious direction. That doesn't mean he wants to brain the audience with commentary on abortion rights and austerity measures. He'd rather deliver it in a way that's easier to, um, swallow: "I named my penis the Republican Party," goes one of his newer bits, "because it only fucks poor people."
See him live: The Funniest 5 comedy showcase. Bossanova Ballroom, 722 E Burnside St., 206-7630. 7 pm. Free. 21+.