They put their names on the list and hope to get called up for three minutes onstage. They're aspiring standups—like everyone else in Portland.
The old adage about everybody being a comedian has become only a slight exaggeration here. So, on a recent Tuesday, I sat with about 80 wannabe comics, all hoping for an open-mic night slot.
This is a new phenomenon, and no one is sure exactly why or how it began.
"It's a big question," says local comedy king Ian Karmel. "I started an open mic at the Brody Theater when I booked my first show. I asked seven or eight people to come—which was almost everyone doing comedy in Portland at the time."
That was only three and a half years ago. Maybe it's the rise of slouches like Louis C.K., who make the art of talking on stage look dangerously easy, or the influx of local comedy venues, including Southeast's Helium and Funhouse Lounge. The Bridgetown Comedy Festival, a four-day festival taking over town this weekend, might even have something to do with it.
And I'm part of the boom. I don't know when performing a standup routine scraped its way onto my bucket list, but it did. In college, my roommates sent out Facebook invites for their DJ gigs and I started littering my laptop with sticky notes for plausible standup bits.
So, last week, I finally decide to try.
My night starts at Southeast Hawthorne's Helium Comedy Club, part of a small chain of clubs originating on the East Coast. I arrive at 6:30 pm with a routine involving Phish, cocaine and the Roseland at the ready. Amateur night sign-ups start at 6 pm, so I figure I would go for the "fashionably late" approach to avoid milling around.
I'd heard the night is popular, so I stack the decks, bringing three friends and having them write their names below mine. If any of us is called for one of the 25 slots, I'll do my routine.
The list is posted 30 minutes before showtime, after everyone has had time to spend some money at the bar. Even with the numbers in my favor, none of us makes the cut. (I later heard Helium's list isn't totally random, but "curated.") Some rejects belligerently stumble over to Funhouse Lounge for what appears to be a more inebriated alternative to Helium's amateur night. My crew follows.
The Funhouse Lounge is a year-old modern cabaret of sorts on Southeast 11th Avenue, only a half mile from Helium. The open-beam ceiling is lined with dim, rose-colored bulbs that resemble the pulsing lights of a Zoltar Fortune Teller Machine, bringing out the "creepy" in the black velvet clown paintings and carnival-swank memorabilia adorning the walls. There are no draft beers or stiff drinks to coax your throat, but there are enough Colt 45 and Rainier tall boys to go around. The host, a modest Russian gentlemen, agrees to put me on the list if I'm willing to wait.
A quick glance over either shoulder reveals what appears to be a makeshift writers convention, an underground who's-who of hacks and heroes with notepads. The bulk of men and women seem to know one another. The Portland flannel seems to be a staple among men, as is the haphazard "I decided to grow a beard for winter" approach and their passive demeanor, but the handful of women there don't seem to mind the skewed gender proportions. At 23, I'm one of the youngest in the room.
I recognize several from Helium, but no one says a word. I wait patiently by the bar, clinging to my beer, surveying the audience with a mix of skepticism and admiration. Within minutes, my hopes of performing early in the night are dashed. Everyone in the audience is a comic, too.
I stick it out the next three hours, watching nearly 40 comics in the process. It dawns on me that the Funhouse Lounge is not a place for polished acts, but rather a spot for people to test out new material without tarnishing the reputation they've built elsewhere. "Strippers never die, they just grind to a halt," says one middle-age guy closing out a series of one-liners. Another rants about how grocery checkers shouldn't inquire about a customer's well-being since his grocery list says it better than he can. Sometime in between the two Morrissey impressions and Karmel's raunchy bit about tasting your own semen, a few standups stand down, either forgetting their act entirely or cutting it short because of the time constraints.
Downtime between comedians is kept to a minimum. The barrage of acts is hit or miss, the humor fluctuating between deadpan one-liners and lengthy tales of observation. The host introduces one after another, complimenting all as they make their way to the stage until I'm the last comic standing. The room, once brimming with laughter, is bare and hollow.
"Jam bands are a fucking commitment," I hesitantly mutter into the mic. "I tried to get back into that recently. My roommates downstairs decided to watch all the Lord of the Rings, back to back, extended editions. I went upstairs and put on a Phish album, Salem '94 I think. Frodo and company had saved Middle Earth before Trey and the boys even got through the opening licks to 'Emotional Rescue.'" The next three minutes drunkenly whiz by.
Fewer than 10 people remain when I return the mic and reclaim my seat at the bar. My friend congratulates me and slowly turns his head, a smug twinkle in his eye.
"Dude—I could do this."
Five to see at Bridgetown
The label "comedian" doesn't quite fit someone as uniquely talented as Reggie Watts—the man is also a musician, entertainer, beatboxer and sweater enthusiast. On stage, Watts tends to construct astounding songs using samples of his own vocal arrangements, making him more of a one-man band than a true stand-up comedian.
From the song "Fuck Shit Stack": "You take some fuck, then some shit / Then some fuck, then some shit / You've got a fuck shit-stack—a fuck-shit stack."