When I moved to Portland to do comedy, the main question I got was: Portland has comedy? And now, as someone who’s only been in Portland for three years, I also somehow manage to be a part of the senior class. It is a scene in constant flux. Benefiting from a more recently popular tactic in stand-up comedy wherein fledgling comedians move to a middle market city for the ample stage time and low rent, and avoid the previously popular method of going straight to New York or Los Angeles two years into comedy and falling into in a deep deep hole of debt, depression and regret six months in, Portland has become a booming comedy town with an equal mix of homegrown performers and motivated transplants on a calculated career pit stop.
With the addition of the industry-beloved Bridgetown Comedy Festival as well as a Helium Comedy Club branch, plus the recent fame of a few hometown boys like Ian Karmel and Ron Funches, in a few short years Portland has found a permanent place on the national stand-up comedy map. That’s not to say the scene just happened. Comics like Dwight Slade, Auggie Smith and Susan Rice were a part of an early Portland comedy boom that often gets forgotten, but grew many of the roots on which the current scene was able to flourish. As a newcomer, I pledge in this guide to do proper justice to Portland’s great scene, as a thank you for what it’s done for me.
If you know nothing about Portland comedy, here are a few facts you need in your back pocket.
Comics We Claim: Ron Funches, Dwight Slade, Ian Karmel, Matt Braunger, Shane Torres
PDX Comics You Might Not Know Yet But Might Soon: Nathan Brannon, Bri Pruett, Adam Pasi, Curtis Cook, Sean Jordan, Caitlin Weierhauser, Phil Schallberger, Virginia Jones, Gabe Dinger, Nariko Ott, Alex Falcone, Zak Toscani, Steven Wilber, Veronica Heath, Amy Miller (What? WELL!)
Other Notable Comedy Locals:
Lance Bangs: Director, documentarian. Aside from being one of the most brilliant music video directors of all time, he’s directed a bunch of comedy specials, including Marc Maron and Todd Barry’s latest, and is currently wrapping shooting of the new live stand-up series Flop House for Vice’s upcoming channel Viceland.
Hutch Harris: Frontman for The Thermals and a longtime comedy fan and avid supporter of the scene, Hutch recently ventured onto the comedy stage himself and is now a comic and co-producer of the show Comedy in Space at The Mission Theater.
Kill Rock Stars—Portia Sabin, James Reling, Benjamin Parrish: If you care about music, I don’t have to tell you about Kill Rock Stars. Portia, Ben and James, some of the team behind the iconic Portland-based label, started paying close attention to comedy a while back and the label is now signing many of the hottest comedians happening right now, including Portland locals Ian Karmel and Nathan Brannon, and Seattle favorite Hari Kondabolu. They’re real nice to us, and it’s a weird and cool thing to have Kill Rock Stars be nice to you.
Tonya Harding: She has nothing to do with comedy but I wanted to include her.
Festivals: Bridgetown and All Jane Comedy Festivals (Sadly, Portland’s major music festivals seem to be the last in the fucking country to add a comedy lineup, but hopefully that will change this year.)
Associated TV Shows: This one’s obvious.
The Comedy Club Situation: If you were to find yourself in a Radio Cab being driven by an Oregon native over the age of 50 (his name is Harold in my mind), and you said “please take me to the comedy club,” you would likely find yourself downtown at Harvey’s. Largely considered the “old school” room, Harvey’s remains a Portland comedy institution, though it’s more accurately a fun, banquet-style bar and restaurant where there happens to be comedy in the corner. Helium’s opening in 2010 brought the top tier headliners into town and became a breeding ground for new Portland talent to grow. Anecdotally at least, Helium hasn’t quite cracked that commonplace awareness of the casual suburban comedy-goer like Harvey’s has, but it’s the go-to club for die hard comedy fans seeking out a specific headliner.
The Crowds: Portland audiences are fiercely loyal—to their town, and to the comics they love. They’re loyal in a way that makes you feel really fucking unworthy as a comic, while also forcing comics to turn material over much more quickly than we might in a larger scene, so as not to bore our most dedicated followers. Portland crowds have a reputation for being uptight, overly liberal, and “safe-spacey” (by people who think feeling safe is bad), but I just saw Aries Spears last weekend do ten minutes on how Caitlyn Jenner is disgusting and not a real woman and he got multiple applause breaks, so I dunno. I think Portland as a town is about as varied as any other small city. Some crowds might as well have been shipped in from a red state, and some crowds are more progressive. It’s not a culture you understand until you live here, as the widely adopted Portlandia version of this city is extremely limiting and mostly for wealthy white people.
It’s a very artistically forgiving and supportive town, whether you do comedy or interpretive dance, or play flaming bagpipes on a unicycle while dressed as Darth Vader. Comics that complain about bombing in Portland are just shitty at stand-up. If you can’t find a room where you can do well in Portland, you’re bad at comedy. As a fan, it’s similarly easy to find a comic you’ll like, no matter what kinda freaky shit you’re into.
The Spaces: Portland is a scene of non-standard venues. We’re quirky here! And it rains a lot, so if we’re under some kind of shelter where there’s beer inside, we’re happy. I also think that spending so many years with a dearth of performance spaces forced the comedy locals to get creative. Portland has a bike shop comedy show, an arcade comedy show, brunch shows, a midnight show, shows in pot clubs, clown bars, vodka distilleries, sex clubs, a recording studio and a corner grocery store. If you have a fanbase, they’ll rollerblade to a gas station comedy show to see you. They don’t give a fuck. As long as there is beer.
The HBICs: The Portland comedy scene, for whatever reason, is largely run by women. I don’t know if the legal weed and lack of sunshine have rendered most of our dudes too sleepy and high to start their own shows, but women like Whitney Streed, Bri Pruett, Barbara Holm, Joann Schinderle, Caitlin Weierhauser, Jenna Zine, Katie Brien, Jen Tam, Andie Main, Stacey Hallal, Belinda Carroll, and myself have for the past few years run the bulk of the best showcases. Perhaps it’s our supportive scene matriarchs like Kristine Levine (the only local comic to have a recurring role on Portlandia) and Susan Rice (Portland’s Funniest 2015 in an industry poll) that have helped motivate us. Even our comedy club has a female General Manager (Shana Delwiche), which is very rare. Stacey Hallal owns and operates both a venue and the All Jane Festival, and the Bridgetown Festival has a mostly-female team (aside from founder and comic Andy Wood). Like a lot of small comedy scenes, there are a LOT of comics who perform, and a very small handful of people who work on things and run shit. In our case, many of these shit-runners are chicks. It’s pretty dope. And yes, please, you sweet young brave misunderstood rabble-rousers. Please come to this town and tell us your daring, well-crafted rape jokes. And then see if you’re asked back, sweet face.
The following comedy guide is not a list of every show in Portland because there are too many. And as any other artform goes, some are great, some are crap, some I don’t even know about yet. As Portland’s become a transitional comedy city, all of our shows are fairly young because so many of the talented busy people tend to move away.
Too many comedy shows is a GREAT thing, if you’re a comic. If you’re a fan, it can be overwhelming. Think of this as a list of quality recommendations, a Zagat for your laughter. Like, if you had one month left to live and you wanted to spend it seeing stand-up comedy in Portland (why would you do this?!), these are the shows you should see before you die.
There are going to be some common themes below, and this list is completely, 100%, unabashedly biased. All of the shows I picked are booked carefully, with both quality AND variety in mind, they’re run by great people, they’re hosted well, the comics get paid, and most importantly, I have been to them, which seemed necessary to include them in a guide about something?
So if the chemo doesn’t take, you need a laugh, and you can’t leave town, I give you my personal guarantee any of the below shows will temporarily take your mind off of your impending slow death.