For a long time I thought the Willamette Week simply had a stand-up comedy problem. You couldn’t really fault them for having a stand-up comedy problem. They’re a fantastic newspaper, but even for fantastic newspapers the resources are stretched frustratingly thin. There just isn’t enough staff to properly cover all the noteworthy live performance in Portland, which sucks, but it’s a nice problem for a city to have. You would think, however, that even with a limited staff a newspaper would eventually assign someone from it’s arts section to cover it’s city’s stand-up comedy scene. This only exposes another hurdle, though: people who write for alternative newspapers aren’t really getting paid a bunch of money. One of the perks, then, is writing about what you’re interested in and it is very possible that Willamette Week hasn’t had a writer who was interested in stand-up comedy. Stand-up comedy is my whole life and even I will freely concede that it isn’t for everyone. At it’s worst, comedy can be obnoxious, awkward, desperate and sad and even when a comedian’s set is sublime and wonderful there are people who would rather be seeing a band or watching a TV show or eating some kind of important soup and that is fantastic, sometimes I’d rather be doing that stuff right there alongside them.
I assumed the resource problem had to be the issue, for a couple of reasons. The first reason is one of their former arts editors told me it was the problem. A few years ago he messaged me and said he wanted to help the newspaper cover Portland’s growing comedy scene, he asked me if I had any ideas and we had a pleasant exchange and I thought it would lead to some coverage, it never did, and he told me it was because he couldn’t find people to go watch stand-up. I’ll be honest, I was angry. It made me feel like stand-up wasn’t worth covering which made me feel like I wasn’t worth covering. I would go on Twitter and Facebook and point the the things to which Willamette Week would devote coverage in lieu of stand-up (denim shirts, beer from Colorado) and then I would ask people to contact them to let them know they wanted to read about stand-up. People at Willamette Week let me know that this was an ineffective plan and then, when I was hired by the Portland Mercury, they accused me of acting only because of some perceived rivalry between the two papers, like I give a fuck who’s selling more ad-space to American Apparel. Eventually, I iced my bruised ego and tamed my righteous indignation and told myself that Willamette Week just didn’t have the resources to cover stand-up comedy and I was SURE this was the case because you can’t really say the Portland comedy scene isn’t worth covering, it’s one of the best comedy scenes in the nation.
When Ron Funches left Portland, he got a job writing for Kroll Show and was promptly cast in two network television pilots, one of which is going to be on NBC pretty soon. When I left Portland I got a job writing for Chelsea Lately within two weeks of getting to Los Angeles. Ron and I were joined by Shane Torres at this summer’s Just For Laughs comedy festival in Montreal (if you’re there, it’s the industry telling you that you’re a good comedian.) We are exceptional comedians but we aren’t the exceptions to the scene. Portland is full of outstanding comedy. Am I being self-serving pointing this out? Am I being self-serving trying to get the Willamette Week to cover comedy? Fuck it, maybe, but to be frank there isn’t a goddamn thing coverage from the Willamette Week can do for me at this point in my career. I’m writing this because I love Portland, I love Portland’s comedians and it’s become increasingly evident that the Willamette Week doesn’t have a stand-up comedy problem, they have a problem with stand-up comedy.
The Willamette Week’s coverage of Portland’s stand-up comedy scene demonstrates not an actual curiosity, but a determination to start at a preconceived, jaded, stereotyped conception of a stand-up comedian and work backwards from there until the story fits the basic, boring box they’ve built for it. Recently, Willamette Week released an arts guide, therein they wrote fairly and without judgement about cake architecture and Portlandia, they promoted ballet performances and radio stations, they delivered endorsements of opera singers and GIF-based art, unflinchingly and without arching an eyebrow they describe a burlesque performer who wants to squirt cream filling out of her vagina, and then they get to stand-up comedy, and, well…
In standup comedy, there’s bombing, and then there’s whatever the tall, boyish kid onstage at Brody Theater’s open mic is doing. His Arnold Schwarzenegger impression sounds moreCool Runnings than The Terminator. His bit on talking squids elicits only nervous pity-titters. He asks the host how much time he’s got left. With four minutes to go, he hugs the back wall like a safety blanket. “Is this heroin gluten-free?” he mutters.
It’s cringingly uncomfortable—and an example of what makes live comedy such a visceral art form. Even the most polished comics walk a tightrope, and while witnessing a great comic destroy a room is exhilarating, it’s an entirely different thrill watching someone plunge to their death. And there are bodies all over the Brody tonight.
Back onstage, the kid mostly fills his time with dead air. “You guys like P. Diddy?” he asks. Thankfully, the host—dryly sarcastic yet uniformly supportive—steps in for the mercy kill. “You don’t have to be funny all the time,” he reminds us.
Is that an honest assessment of what the writer saw? Probably! If you’re a dancer or a woodworker you get to practice behind closed doors. Stand-up comedians go through their baby giraffe phase in front of people, it’s the nature of the art, I bet this is what the author actually saw. Is it a fair assessment of stand-up comedy in Portland, though? Fuck no, it isn’t. Is placing a caustic review of some rookie comedian’s open mic set in your newspaper’s Fall Arts Guide responsible journalism? Absolutely not.
I understand the intrigue of the struggling comedian archetype. The sad clown, the mentally anguished outcast griping to a room full of people just trying not to meet his gaze. That kind of comedian exists, but if you’re to believe Willamette Week, that’s pretty much it. Outside of a well-deserved profile of 2013’s Portland’s Funniest Person winner, Shane Torres, the only other coverage of Portland’s stand-up scene is an account of one writer’s attempt to perform at an open mic, in which he unironically complains about how so many people are trying to perform stand-up comedy. Fine, yes, open mics exist. They’re interesting. Open mics, though, are uncurated displays of uncultivated material and if they’re the only thing in Portland’s comedy scene a newspaper is going to write about that newspaper is being irresponsible at best, vindictive at worst.
Earlier this year Martin Cizmar, Willamette Week’s arts editor, told me that Portland doesn’t even have a comedy scene. He told me that I was a good comedian but that my existence didn’t mean we had a scene. Martin Cizmar doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Martin, if you read this - if anyone from Willamette Week reads this, I urge you to please go see what’s going on in the Portland comedy scene. Go see the astounding, innovative minds that are at work almost every single night. Go see the scene that is attracting immigrants from other comedy scenes around the country. Appreciate a comedic aesthetic driven by innovation, honesty and intimacy, rather than getting laughs at any cost. Divorce yourselves from this tired cliche’ of the desperate stand-up comedian and instead go appreciate the fruits of that desperation. Then, go write about it, at least once. Do it for the people who read your wonderful newspaper, I’m one of them.
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