The gleaming marquee outside the Hollywood Theatre has been towering over NE Sandy Boulevard in Portland, Ore., for nearly 90 years now, a rare show of staying power in a city that seems to be reinventing itself by the minute. On one drizzly Monday evening in March, though, instead of advertising the name of a rediscovered classic or new micro-indie flick on its screen that night, the bright red letters spell out: FUNNY OVER EVERYTHING.
A strange call to arms, perhaps, but it’s the name of a monthly comedy event that brings in some of the sharpest talent from around the United States to headline in the Rose City. As great as this month’s Tennessean headliner Nate Bargatze is, the show gets stolen out from under him by three of Portland’s local comic heroes: Ian Karmel, Shane Torres and Sean Jordan.
The boisterous and bearded Karmel scores the biggest laughs of the evening discussing his attempts to lose weight: “I’m trying to get to being funny fat instead of ‘we are really worried about you’ fat. So I started a juice fast, which is great, but I end up obsessing about all the foods I can’t eat. Like ham. I was in the shower today and couldn’t stop thinking, ‘Ham’s great. I love ham. Such a versatile food. Breakfast, lunch, dinner. Never a wrong time of day for ham.’“
Standups performing in a movie theater is a little unorthodox, but the most surprising element is how many people actually trudged out of their homes on a grey Monday night to be there. No, every space isn’t filled, but at least 50 or so bodies are taking up the plush theater seats.
And it’s not just the Hollywood. Portland now boasts four venues dedicated to nothing but standup and improv, as well as a dozen or so more—including such highly regarded spots like Mississippi Studios and the Aladdin Theater—that are starting to sprinkle comedy shows amidst their schedule of indie rock shows and karaoke nights. “It’s happening everywhere!” says Karmel, sitting in a kitsch-filled café named Beulahland the day before his Funny Over Everything show with Bargatze. “There are so many venues that are opening up to comedy. Like, if I wanted to, I’m sure I could convince the folks that run this place to let me do a show here, or any of other bars up and down this street.”
What Karmel doesn’t say is that it would certainly help if he were doing the asking. The comedian has become the public face of the Portland comedy scene. He has won amateur and professional competitions in the city, snagged a role on Portlandia, and has spent time bouncing around the U.S. opening for folks like The Daily Show’s John Oliver and Kyle Kinane. “It’s such a vibrant scene,” Karmel says. “We’re learning that you can build your career here. You don’t have to go to other cities to do it.”
Of course, it’s not as if comedy just sprang up out of nowhere in Portland. Downtown club Harvey’s Comedy Club has been a go-to spot for standup in the city for decades (though with a penchant for more hack-y performers), and the kind of names that can fill huge theaters have performed there over the years.
What has helped change the landscape, though, was the creation of the Bridgetown Comedy Festival in 2008. The event brought in a staggering number of out-of-town comics (Patton Oswalt, Tig Notaro, Morgan Murphy, and James Adomian were all part of the first edition of the fest) and mixed them up with lesser-known performers from around the Northwest. “It did change the landscape a little bit,” says Andy Wood, a Portland (now Los Angeles) writer/standup who helped co-found the festival. “It cracked things open and de-stigmatized comedy there because so many people had been burned seeing the same stuff that just wasn’t great.”
Not long after the first Bridgetown festival, Helium, the chain of comedy clubs based out of Philadelphia, opened up an outlet in the city (situated, naturally, above a bike shop). Why Portland? According to Helium’s general manager, Mary Rae Kim, the city “had the second highest viewership of Comedy Central per capita in the nation. And all the agents we talked to said that the market’s big enough that now is the time.”
Helium’s role goes beyond simply satiating local comedy nerds hungry to catch sets by a former SNL regular. Every show features a host and opener from Portland, giving them ample stage time and exposure. Karmel started his rise to the top of the local heap there, as did one of the city’s biggest comedic success stories, Ron Funches.
A Portland resident since he was 13, Funches, now 30, rose within the local ranks thanks to his narcotized delivery and arch view of the world. (“I did not know the Northwest also had gangs. They’re just not scary or effective. But they try so hard,” goes one bit.) These days, Funches resides in L.A., where he’s scored work writing for The Kroll Show and acting on New Girl and Disney XD’s Crash & Bernstein.
Funches stands as an example of what can happen to any comic who hits the heights of their local scene. True, they can pick up gigs all over and hopefully a television showcase or two. Eventually, though, they need to move on to L.A. or New York, the cities from whence all American pop culture seems to emanate. “You start feeling that people are laughing at your jokes because they know you and want to give you the benefit of the doubt,” Funches says. “I would feel like, ‘I know that wasn’t that funny.’ And if I’m not getting honest feedback, I’m not going to continue to grow.”
With the talent pool as rich as it is, Portland will likely be losing more of its local comics to bigger cities with more opportunities in the very near future. Even Karmel admits that he’s likely taking off for L.A. this fall. But he also says for Portland to be prepared for a surfeit of younger comics ready to take his place. “There’s so much competition out there right now,” he says. “The people coming out of it are so good and so precocious and everyone has their own voice. There’s so much fuckin’ comedy right now!”