Stop Calling Imani Denae Awkward

“I’ve never felt awkward. I’ve always just felt like me.”

If Imani Denae is honest, much of her early standup was dick jokes.

“I’m not a size queen at all,” one setup goes. “I don’t care if you have a big dick or a little dick. I grew up Christian, and I know the Bible says God won’t give you anything you can’t handle. It’s in Corinthians; you should look it up.”

The subject matter isn’t without intention. The 26-year-old comedian says she’s trying to demystify the theatrical aspects of dating and sex, cutting through to what’s actually just “horny and dumb.”

“I feel like I’m the best dick joke writer,” she says. “It’s a really big claim, but I feel confident in my weird ability to write dick jokes, even though I don’t have one.”

Despite that self-assigned superlative, Denae still feels “like a baby” in the Portland comedy scene—and not just because of her newcomer status, performing regularly only since March 2021.

Her early watershed moments often involved blissful beginner’s ignorance. The first time she tried riffing about her family onstage, she heard Kyle Kinane’s distinct guffaw; she didn’t even know he was there. She shared a billing with Shane Torres at one of her first shows, not realizing his success. They chatted about taxes.

“A lot of people after the fact were like, oh my God!” Denae recalls. “And I’m like, I don’t get it! He said you have to file as an LLC or a corporation. I don’t need to know this information at 25.”

“Everyone’s normal,” she adds. “We just do this thing called comedy together. I don’t want to put people on a pedestal for doing the same thing I’m doing. Yeah, they’re better than me, but someday I’ll be just as good.”

That day may come soon. Denae’s standup employs a welcoming, conversational style. Online followers often call her downbeat goofery “awkward,” but she disagrees.

“I’ve never felt awkward,” she says. “I’ve always just felt like me.”

She’s also actively trying to write what she calls “less silly” material. In fact, at the Funniest Five Showcase, audiences will likely find her piloting more ambitious, perspective-shifting jokes about child slave labor and school shooter stereotypes, pushing for more empathy and less rote judgment.

“I’ve always been friends with the trench-coat kids because I laugh when I’m nervous and I’ll compliment anyone who scares me,” Denae says.

While she resists knowing too much about scene politics or success benchmarks, Denae is a natural student. Before first stepping on a comedy stage, she attended five months of open mics simply for research. “Stalking the scene,” in her words, Denae clocked how Portland comedians held microphones and handled hecklers.

This studious streak stems from childhood. Born in Portland, Denae spent 11 years in Texas (her father, who served in the Army, was stationed at Fort Hood) before moving to Beaverton for her teenage years with no exposure to Portland comedy. She’d devour rom-coms and sitcoms (from Degrassi to Everybody Loves Raymond), analyzing dialogue mechanics.

As one of seven siblings, Denae found her best bet for gaining attention was maestroing the family into impromptu barbershop quartets and puppet shows. Growing up in the YouTube influencer era, she made videos for a personal channel. Hardly anyone watched, but she learned how to monologue, fostering her quietly confident stage presence.

Then, there’s the guts no one can teach. Last June, Denae tagged along with comedy friends to a festival in Spokane, but took a solo detour to an open mic in Medical Lake, Wash. There, some members of an all-white audience chirped at Denae, who is Black, “You’re not from around here; you’re lost.”

“That was already feeling like a yikes situation, but I did my set,” she says. “They were laughing their asses off. And I talked about race! It turned out they really liked my perspective on it.”

Denae has accomplished a lot in the last 22 months—including reaching over 55,000 Instagram followers, starting her creative podcast Rap Dumbass, and co-hosting the weekly showcase Giggles Gone Wild at The Get Down—but this is just her first act.

“Last year was just me making dick jokes,” she says. “This year, I want to home in on how big things really are and make everybody relax about them.”