Willamette Week: What do you think about what comedy in Portland has become?
Matt Braunger: In the grand scheme of things, not just in Portland, I think it’s kind of an amazing time for comedy. The people who are doing comedy are doing it because they love it. There was a time when you would have a good set on Carson and get a sitcom the next day, and those days are dead forever, which is bad for your get-rich-quick types, but it’s good for the rest of us. Portland’s such an art-centric town. When Andy Wood and I created the Bridgetown Festival, we were just like, “This is a no-brainer.” Why isn’t there something like this? And now you’ve got all these comedians that are trying new things, very different things, and not only doing it to make people laugh but occasionally getting careers out of it. It’s such a different, unique town that it kind of fosters a unique spirit, and a different, skewed way of looking at things.
Have you been surprised by the success of Bridgetown?
I didn’t know how it was going to come out. I didn’t know it was going to be the thing that it’s become. But I think we approached it with the right perspective. It was just like, let’s get famous people to get “asses in seats,” as the industry people say, and then get a bunch of people that no one’s ever seen, and a couple people in between. There was no massive master plan to take over, to make this thing a juggernaut like the Just For Laughs Festival in Montreal, or the new South By Southwest. It was a thing to do for fun, to have our own little festival in the town we both love so much.
Do you expect to see Bridgetown still going strong in 15 years?
I don’t see why not. There’s never not going to be new comedians. Really good comedians will always have new material. I don’t see why it would stop. I mean, who knows? Some catastrophe could happen. Hopefully a comedian doesn’t set himself on fire onstage and that’s what we’re known for forever. I don’t know why I put that out in the ether. Probably a bad idea.
How do successful comedians such as you, Ron Funches and Ian Karmel influence the comedy scene in Portland?
I think it only influences it in a positive way. Myself, and certainly Ian and Ron, none of us changed who we are to try and fit into any kind of box. We were ourselves, and boxes were made for us. Ron and Ian’s success—and I’ve said to many friends that they’ve broken the land speed record for getting jobs in Los Angeles after having just moved there—it’s incredible. I think that fosters a positive attitude. Because you do have that moment as a comedian where you’re like, “There’s no fucking way I can make a living at this.” And then you realize there is a way if you just keep at it and you’re doing it for the right reasons, and you’re funny. Those guys did it. I did it. There’s no reason why a lot of people coming out of Portland can’t do it too.
When it comes to Ron and Ian, is their success thanks to Portland being a great incubator of comedic talent, or to their own hard work and dedication?
It’s a combination. Portland is a very livable place. I started out in Chicago, and it’s great because it’s such a livable place that embraces the arts. I think that’s a good platform to start from before you go someplace like Los Angeles, which is inarguably a lot more superficial and where the same kind of things aren’t as valued. It’s a combination of their hard work and going up night after night, and also being in a city that fosters creativity like Portland does.
How important was the role of the Helium Comedy Club in kick-starting the rise of comedy in Portland?
The guys who own Helium really wanted to have a club in Portland that Portland really likes. I was on the phone with them a lot about where they should put it. I was the one who was like, I would put it in southeast: You’re going to get more room; more bang for the buck; it’s a really progressive arty area. I do think all of the headliners coming definitely shows it’s a destination. I feel like Harvey’s is a road club—comics go there to make a buck and leave.
What do you think will happen to Portland when the next group of local comedians leaves for LA or New York?
It’s hard to imagine the bubble bursting for Portland comedy. You’re going to have more and more people coming out of Portland that are funnier and funnier. I do think it’s better to start off somewhere other than LA or New York, because they can be very heartbreaking places. They can really be a hard places to live if you don’t already have some kind of standing or some kind of connection to people there. Young comics sometimes come up to me at shows and ask about moving to Portland, and I’m like, “Do it.” Comedy is always going to be there. It’s almost like asking, will Portland stop having art galleries or breweries? I don’t see it ending.