Jason Traeger's best jokes work like booby traps.
"When I was a child, I liked nothing more than Hostess blackberry fruit pies. They were my absolute favorite food," says Traeger, luring the audience into complacency.
"Now, if you had told me when I was a child that when I grew up to be a man that I would find Hostess blackberry pies and things like them inedible, something I wouldn't eat if you handed me one, but that I would take deep, abiding, life-affirming pleasure tonguing a woman's asshole…"
That sucker punch leaves the audience in breathless hysterics for a good 25 seconds. Then, he goes in for a deadpan kill.
"…I would say that I don't think I would have believed you."
Traeger's comedy evokes Michael Ian Black's descents into quotidian horror, Mitch Hedberg's deadpan, and Moshe Kasher's hypersexualized foppishness. Small, evocative gestures—a wave of the hand or a slow nod—conjure laughs out of thin air.
Clean-cut and bespectacled, Traeger, 47, could pass for 32. He wears a flannel shirt and jeans—a popular combo for emerging Portland comedians—and carries himself with an air of deliberateness that takes years to master. He has come a long way from being a high-school dropout immersed in '80s West Coast punk culture.
Born and raised in Seattle, Traeger dropped out of high school and moved to San Francisco when he was 17.
"I was kind of a San Francisco/Los Angeles kid in my teen years," he says. "I started going to punk shows in '82."
A roadie for punk godfathers like 7 Seconds, Traeger got involved in a scene of now-legendary artists, working for punk record label Alternative Tentacles. "I worked for [former Dead Kennedys frontman] Jello Biafra for a number of years in San Francisco. That was the first job I ever had; I was like 18."
Traeger moved to Portland to attend art school in 2003. Here, he developed a penchant for simultaneously working as a solo artist and as part of a group, a duality that he continues today with his comedy. He found a knack for oil painting as well as performance art, as a member of a collective called the Oregon Painting Society.
That project is pure art-school indulgence: A group of aggressively cool, sunglass-wearing youngsters fill a dimly lit gallery with mournful noise as Traeger manipulates a tangle of wires in the background. "We did some pretty good things—we went to London and performed at the Tate Modern [art gallery]. That was my main 'art world art time,' maybe 2004 to 2011."
Traeger dabbled in comedy in the early 2000s, continuing his run of being exposed to craft-defining artists during formative times.
"The first comics I ever saw live were Mitch Hedberg and Marc Maron in 1999," he says. "I saw them in Olympia with, like, 15 people at both shows. Those were the two shows that got me to go to an open mic for the first time in Seattle, at the Comedy Underground."
Traeger returned to the stage in Portland about 3½ years ago. Today, his biggest inspirations are his colleagues in Portland's comedy scene. "When I started," he says, "you could see a world-class comic like Ron Funches, Ian Karmel, Shane Torres or Sean Jordan any night of the week. When you see them developing alongside yourself, it's a cool thing to witness and reflect on."
Alongside his solo work, Traeger collaborates with fellow Portland comedians Paul Schlesinger and Milan Patel to produce off-kilter sketch and musical comedy performances under the moniker "American Comedy."
"We make videos and do a show at Holocene once a month," Traeger says. "It goes a little differently than most comedy shows. I love working with both of those guys."
After watching Traeger talk about making out with a mouth-shaped sex toy onstage ("for practice"), American Comedy's aggressively deadpan alternative comedy appears to be an outlet for his more abstruse comedic concepts.
"I look at reality and seek visions in whatever way I can," he says. "I want to understand something about who I am, and what the world is, and what life is. Ultimately, I take it out through comedy in particular, and put it in front of people and see what translates."
GO: Willamette Week's third annual Funniest Five Showcase is at Alberta Abbey, 126 NE Alberta St., on Monday, Nov. 30. 7 pm. $5. For tickets, visit bit.ly/wwfunniestfive.