Den of Laughs

Portland's most inviting comedy scene is underground.

Every Friday and Saturday, even on the Fourth of July and Halloween, Danny Felts books comics at Al's Den.

Below the hanging pink lights in the expansive basement of the Crystal Hotel, Felts manages an hourlong show of local and traveling acts for a free comedy night with no drink minimum.

This is unusual in Portland.

Amy Miller

In Portland, the comedy scene is largely divided between the ex-SNL acts at Helium and unpaid open-micers at Brody Theater and Funhouse Lounge. There's a gaping hole in the middle. Which is where the weekend shows at Al's Den, a little-known and newish McMenamins pub, come in.

Al's is in many ways a classic comedy club: a mix of high-quality local and traveling comics in a room that's got plenty of atmosphere and a few random hotel guests in bathrobes.

Depending on how many people are on the bill for the Friday and Saturday night shows, Felts (organizer, promoter, emcee and sound guy) pays his talent about $35 a night. Not enough for anyone to quit their day job, but enough to signal to performers that this isn't a free-for-all open mic. It also means he can attract better talent when it is passing through town. Felts has had two Australian comics since the show began in April 2014, Nick Cody and David Quirk, both of whom have performed at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival. He also gets people from the L.A. scene—one of his all-time favorite guests was Baron Vaughn, who's been on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon and Conan.

Even with more high-caliber acts, the comedy night at Al's Den is dominated by scenesters. Instead, the only familiar face is Felts, a 27-year-old a native of suburban Seattle. With long, straight hair that hangs down his back and a smile that takes up half his face, Felts warms up the crowd with bits based on local issues like the impending earthquake.

"The difference between my crowd and Helium's crowd is that Helium's crowd knows they came for comedy," he says.

The audience at Al's Den tends to be at least 50 percent accidental and almost guaranteed to include at least one person in a bathrobe, heading through the bar toward the Crystal Hotel's soaking pool. (For people who remember the Crystal Hotel when it was Club Portland, a gay bathhouse, these soakers, even if they are mainly tony out-of-towners, are an ironic detail.)

The show is less about the comedians and more about the experience of sitting in the basement of the hotel, sipping a pear brandy and eating McMenamins’ fries under the faux bamboo houses and globes in different shades of pink hanging from the ceiling. It’s about people watching the rest of the audience, imagining yourself in the romance of some old-time night on the town without having to spend all your money on tickets and drinks or losing your sanity through an endless, amateurish open-mic night. “Sure,” Miller says, “sometimes you have to wait for a Grateful Dead cover-band show to clear out before the comedy starts, but sometimes the hippies stick around and laugh, and that’s pretty cool.” 

GO: Comedy nights at Al's Den, 303 SW 12th Ave., 972-2670. 10:30 pm Fridays and Saturdays. Free. 21+.

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