Even through a pandemic-mandated Zoom interview, the local authenticity of Whitney Streed's comedy rears its head—its many heads.
"Ants!" Streed yells, brushing the omnipresent intruders away from their computer and recalling their onstage pitch for a Portland TV show to succeed Portlandia. It was a reality program aptly titled So You Think You Have Ants. That joke was a hit at Helium in 2018 even before the stinger: "Spoiler alert, the season finale is Borax."
"Most of my jokes are about terrible things happening in my apartment," says Streed, though ample home time hasn't led to a wealth of material since their last show on March 2, 2020. For Streed, 12 years of Portland standup has hinged more on stage dynamics and live, riffing rhythms than solitary joke writing. A year off is a lifetime for someone who's witnessed their standup community evolve from its Applebee's era, through Bridgetown boom times, to whatever comes next.
When Streed first rolled into town with western Pennsylvania college friends in 2008, the scene was more dude-centric, lacking in diverse spaces, and stingier with stage time, and there was certainly a lot more comedy hosted at Applebee's. Streed describes a bizarre early 2010s window when three separate locations of the restaurant chain held a weekly showcase.
"They were all atrocious," Streed says, while noting the pay was somehow among the best in town. "No one intends to see comedy [at an Applebee's]."
For those early sets and especially when facing stiff audiences, Streed leans on an unabashed affection for wordplay. It's perhaps a little safer than material on politics and identity, but still provocative in its way.
"People will become angry at puns when they're good," Streed explains. "Most jokes feel like people wrote [them], but puns feel like they exist and people just find them. So you have to sell the shit out of puns."
The barrage approach can sometimes thwart the haters:
"You're like, here's the pun. And people are like, 'Awww.' And you're like, 'Here's four more! Ha-ha, fuckers! You're never getting out!'"
Steed's stagecraft has evolved significantly in their decade-plus behind the mic, particularly when sizing up an audience and diving into more personal or obscure topics. On the right night at the right venue, Streed jokes they would do "10 minutes on Judith Butler." Their gender is a regular standup subject, often landing in a gleefully unresolved punchline. One such bit declares that Streed's gender reveal party has been postponed indefinitely, maybe until their funeral. Then, the coffin finally opens, but the blue and/or pink balloons are still missing.
"I feel comfortable talking about gender as a joke anyway," Streed says. "There are so many inconsistencies in the system we use and assumptions just to get through the day. That's where comedy is best: things we do all the time but don't think about."
Other career highlights include opening for Maria Bamford at Seattle's Neptune Theatre, helping produce the 2017 Bridgetown Comedy Festival, and hosting the six-years-running comedy game show Rants Off / Dance Off, which livestreamed via Zoom during 2020. Streed's is the caliber of committed scene history that should earn a warm welcome back post-pandemic. But honestly, any reception will do.
"I would love to bomb," Streed says, imagining their eventual comeback set. "When the only thing that's funny to you is how poorly it's going, that would be amazing to feel again. You're never more alive."