It might seem counterintuitive to get into comedy to get away from drunken people. But that's exactly what Ben Harkins did.
"I lived in a place with a lot of other people," he says. "It was noisy there, and everyone was drunk all the time and ripping each other off, so to stay out of the house, I would go to open mics."
The self-preservation instinct that led Harkins to get serious about standup is central to his comedy. A man with a self-described "mystic streak," the 32-year-old uses the medium to explore universal anxieties and the things we do to better ourselves.
He'll use the reluctance of pandas to mate in captivity as a metaphor for a world going to shit, or the familiar struggle of trying to have fun and save money—he suggests drinking water in your dark apartment or crying in a library—to probe our unwillingness to clean up our lives. It's the kind of humor and pathos that animates the best and truest comedy.
Harkins is fascinated by self-help. The intersection of ludicrous pseudoscience, capitalist chicanery, and genuine spiritual hunger—it's a comedic gold mine. "So many people live with a heavy spiritual longing, and it's something nobody has an answer for," he says. "And the answers we make up for ourselves are always entertaining."
Despite his mystical leanings, Harkins hardly comes across as eccentric. He barely even blinks as he performs, looking up from beneath a perpetually furrowed brow, speaking slowly and often haltingly as if realizing the ridiculousness of the scenarios he spins in real time. He's as deadpan in life as he is onstage.
"If I find a reason to move," says Harkins, "I'll do it."
Like many before him, Harkins got into standup partly because he always made people laugh at parties. Born in North Carolina and raised in Pittsburgh, Harkins initially settled in Los Angeles as an "ambiguous artist": Comedy was just one of his trades, alongside painting and playing in punk bands. His early shows were "punishing," but he stuck with it until he got big enough reactions to find regular booking.
He moved to Portland in 2012, after "panicking my way around L.A. for two years," and became a regular on the open-mic circuit. One night, he cracked a joke about the rap group 2 Live Crew ("it's probably too vulgar to put in the paper") that drew a huge reaction.
"It was like I'd started a fire," he says. "It was like being Gandalf or some shit."
Bookings came steadily from there. Now he's slowly blazed a trail through the Portland comedy scene without moving his feet much—or moving much of his body at all. His unanimated, almost angry stage demeanor befits his lengthy bits, which manage to make the banal seem deeply absurd.
He has an almost five-minute bit that's entirely about Little Caesars Pizza, and casts the chain as some kind of slacker bully: "There's no tables at Little Caesars. Little Caesars didn't give up on selling pizza, they just took the concept of giving up and blew it up into a business model, and just started kicking people out."
Like so many of us, be it vaporwave musicians sampling '80s hits, or nostalgic meme makers, Harkins is enamored with cultural detritus. His latest passion project is Dark Web Tonight, a "late-night video clip show from the black heart of the internet," which he co-presents with comic Kate Murphy every third Friday at Kickstand Comedy downtown. One of his great passions is public access television, the late-night domain of what Harkins calls "people who have no business being on television." His "favorite night of [his] life" involved watching public access TV in Pittsburgh when three guys come out in pharaoh crowns, preaching the gospel of their UFO religion.
"The guy in charge was so rude to the guys on the sides of him," he says, breaking into a rare, full-on grin. "He was just like 'read on, read on' every time they would read a sentence."
Harkins has hosted two public access shows in Portland: Ben Harkins With Ben Harkins, a "Wayne's World sort of thing," and Ben Harkins for Men, a parody of self-help shows whose three episodes stream on YouTube.
Though For Men "didn't even become a cult hit," it might be the most out-there and personal expression of Harkins' comedic vision. In conversation with fellow comics, Harkins used For Men to explore issues he was struggling with at the time he made the show: "Escapism," "Drugs" and "Time MGMT" are the three episodes.
"I went through a majorly depressive phase, I had a nervous breakdown," he says. "And then I thought, 'OK, I'm obviously dealing with a lot of stuff. I'm playing too many video games, I'm doing too many drugs. Maybe I could turn this into something funny.'"
Harkins wears a suit on the show; he likes to dress nicely these days, a contrast to early gigs where he'd "go up with a beer in my hand and be like, 'Look how depressed I am.'" There are punchlines aplenty, but there are also alarming insights, like when was the last time those trophies from your high school football games actually made you feel good about yourself?
The fact that Harkins' comedy is insightful is part of what makes it funny. "I wanted to go into the water and come out the other side with a joke we wouldn't be able to get to if we were just trying to be funny all the time," he says.
Despite his preoccupation with the ways we grapple with existential quandaries, Harkins is skeptical of rigid dogma. But he's delighted by the recent boom in popularity that tarot, astrology and witchcraft have enjoyed: "You see a trendiness surrounding this spiritual longing, and it's great."
Does he buy into it, though?
"We live in the apocalypse, there's no hope left," he says. "We wanna enjoy our time. Why would you take that away from anyone? If someone's deeply spiritual, I think they got it."