Susan Rice's backstory sounds like a lot of other Portland comics'. The Longview native moved to Portland after she finished college, and started doing standup at a small open mic when she was 31. Soon, she was getting paying gigs and name recognition in town and on the road.
The big difference is her timeline: Rice is 64. She started doing comedy in 1983 as a wave of standup rolled across the country, spurring regional scenes.
"I never wanted to be a comic," she tells me from across the table at Grand Central Baking on North Fremont Street. "That was never my idea. It started in New York in the underground—Lenny Bruce. Then it came west and it hit San Francisco—Holy City Zoo, Purple Onion—and it made it to Seattle about 1981 or '82, and Portland started in 1982, and I got in in 1983."
Rice's curly gray hair sits like well-behaved cotton candy on her head, and she wears red cat-eye glasses and an open smile. Her stage presence reflects how she comes off in person. She's motherly and a bit shy, unassuming, so when she hits you with a joke about having sex with a 17-year-old trick-or-treater in a Halloween costume, part of the hilarity comes from the surprise. In the midst of the current Portland comedy boom, she's one of a handful of working comics who remembers the first one.
"The audiences didn't know what to expect," Rice says." We didn't know what we were doing. So this whole thing was created on the fly, between the audiences and the participants.
"It was truly an American art form. We created it."
Rice's first gigs were at the Leaky Roof in Goose Hollow, where a promoter named Patricia Campuzano started an open-mic night after visiting standup clubs in San Francisco.
"Everybody paid at the door," Rice says
She repeats this into my recorder: "EVERYONE PAID AT THE DOOR TO GET IN. Jesus Christ. It was like $2 or $3, but in 1983 that was three beers."
Rice was a professionally trained actress working at a bank, and when she started doing standup she tripled her salary.
It was a golden age for comedy, in Portland and nationally. In 1985, Rice quit her day job. She was touring and playing at the clubs popping up all across town. "By June of '83, there was a month's worth of paid work in town, because we were the new it. We could work every night."
The scene included names you might have heard: Dwight Slade, Dave Anderson, Art Krug, Johnny Johnston, Dawn Green, the late Mike "Boats" Johnson, and Robert Jenkins, whose son Dylan Jenkins is an up-and-comer in the Portland comedy scene.
"We counted it once," Rice says. "There were 26 of us who started at the Leaky Roof tavern in 1983."
Slade is one of the few originals who is still a touring comic and still lives in Portland. He remembers the first time he saw Rice perform.
"I went up to her and said, 'You remind me of this guy in Houston, Sam Kinison,'" Slade says. "I've rarely seen any comic be able to get a crowd rolling and rocking like she does. I mean literally rocking back and forth with laughter. She's just in that caliber of performer."
In 1986, Rice moved to Los Angeles in search of sitcom spots and TV specials. "In the country, there were only about 20 female standups," she says. "So I was torn between being in demand on the road or starving in L.A., and I tried."
Despite appearing in cable comedy shows—Rice was one of the first comics on Pat Sajak's short-lived talk show, where she was a guest with Charlie Sheen, who insisted he stay on the panel during her set and made rude comments about her ass—she never did get a sitcom job. "I probably didn't play the game right," she says. "I got onstage with Jerry Seinfeld. My first night at the Comedy Store, I stood in a conversation with Richard Belzer, Sam Kinison, Robin Williams, Sandy Hackett, Louie Anderson."
"The bottom fell out in 1993," she says. "The boom was over."
In 1996, Rice came back to Portland and got a job that she still has, at the call center for Hanna Andersson, an upscale children's clothier that gave her schedule flexibility and health insurance. She never stopped working. "Hanna saved my life in a lot of ways," she says. "I am almost 17 years this week. If I have a gig, I go. They've been very accommodating."
Two years ago, Rice celebrated her 30th anniversary of doing comedy in Portland. Some people thought it was her retirement show.
"I don't do club work as much anymore," she says. "Harvey's is about the only one I do."
Instead, she does a lot of corporate gigs, for everyone from Microsoft to the Red Hat Society. "Basically, they're just club patrons in a business setting," she says. "It takes some getting used to."
At clubs, her jokes can be a little more racy, and she can say things like, "I was a Girl Scout. You didn't go to the grocery store [to sell cookies], though, you had to go to the pedophile's house."
And while Rice is no longer one of only 20 women doing comedy in America, being a woman in comedy still isn't easy. She knows she's being paid less than male peers.
"[I told one male comic], and he goes, 'You gotta ask for it, you gotta ask for the money,'" she says. "I said, 'I've asked for the money. And I don't get hired.' I just don't get hired if I ask for the guys' money. And that's 20 years of experience. You can bang your head against the wall, but you still have to work."
The money isn't the only difference. Rice can't think of many women she's worked with who have had children or stay married.
"It's really hard," she says. "It's hard for men, but men have a better shot at it because women are so forgiving."
Rice doesn't have children: "I was a comic. You had to make a decisions. That's the other elephant in the room."
She has, however, been a mentor to many young comics. Stephanie Purtle, who organized a voting drive to put Rice at the top of this year's Funniest Five poll, is one of them.
"Susan's command of the stage is phenomenal, and as a comic, when you watch her perform you realize how much you have left to learn," Purtle says. "Every time I've seen her perform, I've been blown away. We're so lucky to have her in Portland."
Shane Torres, a veteran of Portland's first Funniest Five poll who moved to New York last year, is another Rice fan. "She is encouraging and knowledgeable, and has a world of experience," he says. "She shares it with comedians who are willing to listen."
Bri Pruett, another Funniest Five alum and a native Portlander, says Rice is an elder statesman in the local comedy community.
"I describe her as my comedy fairy godmother," Pruett says. "I don't know if she knows what an impact she's made on me. I'm six years in, and I still don't think someone should pay a ton of money to see me, because I don't feel like a master yet. But Susan always encourages everybody to really value what you do and to make sure other people are valuing what you do."
Pruett has many stories about Rice supporting her, as a young comic and as a woman who doesn't fit Hollywood's idea of skinny blond beauty.
It's easy to get misty-eyed talking about Rice, really. But the comedian isn't nostalgic or sentimental, and she isn't opposed to dishing out tough talk to the kids.
"I'm always beating them over the head," she says. "There's a difference between standup comedy and verbal blogging."
Rice takes issue with a few things happening in Portland: the free comedy shows and the fact that sometimes shows get packed with so many comics, they aren't fun.
"It's supposed to be about laughter," she says. "Not about applause, not about agreeing with a subject. It's about, 'Is it funny?' You want it to be funny. You want people to be pounding on the table gasping for air. That's what you should want. In my opinion."
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.