AS THE LOCAL COMEDY SCENE has taken off in the past few years, perhaps no one exemplifies Portland’s particular brand of sweet, nerdy humor better than Ron Funches. Last August, Funches celebrated his fifth year of stand-up comedy with a television debut on Late Night with Conan O’Brien. With his characteristically slow, dry delivery, this Chicago native riffs on everything from obscure comic book references to being black in America’s whitest city to the struggles of raising a special-needs child—all with the calming charm of the most delightful stoner friend you’ve never had.
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I MOVED TO PORTLAND in 1999 from Chicago, where I was living with my mom and sister. Chicago was an extremely rough place to grow up—especially if you’re the only brother on the block that’s into bumpin’ Alanis Morissette. So I moved to Oregon. And I love it here. It reminds me of Chicago, but with subtle differences. In Chicago, it was always “Oh, snap! A crackhead!” or “Oh, snap! A gang member!” In Oregon, it’s “Oh, snap! Blackberries are in season?!” This is a delicious situation I’m in.
I WAS ALWAYS INTERESTED in comedy, always wanted to do it. It just seemed like, “You’re born into it!” in this magical way—but I didn’t know how to get into it. When I was 20, my soon-to-be wife, Lisa, was pregnant, and I was bagging groceries in Salem. I thought to myself, “Oh, it’s time to get a for-real job, soon!” I got this job at a bank for $15 an hour, and was able to save a little.
MY SON MALCOLM was born in 2003, when I was 20. At one point, we thought he was deaf because he would never respond or look you in the eyes. After getting him checked out by all these doctors, we found out he had autism. It shook my world. Taking care of a child with autism is like taking care of someone who has taken way too many shrooms … while you yourself are on a moderate amount of shrooms. I’m not confident in all my decisions, but I know you should not be eating a mouse pad right now.
I FEEL GREAT about the Portland comedy scene. Like in the music scene, every sound gets its moment in the spotlight—with hip-hop, it was East Coast, then West Coast, then down South. It’s similar in comedy. San Fran, Boston, New York, and I think now that we have Helium and the Bridgetown Comedy Fest here, we’re more on the map. We have a real community, and Portland comics sound different than other comics. We talk about different subject matter, more personal, a little smarter, nerdier.
I THINK I CAN definitely write great jokes, but I didn’t set out to be a great joke writer. My goal is to be the best “me” I can be. People can steal your jokes, but they can’t “out-you” you. When I was young, I had to go to speech therapy—they said I had a lazy tongue, and a lisp. In comedy you take those parts of yourself and use them on stage.
I CAN’T GO INTO A SITUATION full of white, 55-year-old grandmas in Salem and say, “Oh, they’re not gonna ‘get’ me; I’m a 28-year-old black kid from Chicago.” Because often, they get me very well. It’s about connecting with people. If I don’t put up those barriers on stage, then people usually respond by breaking down their own.
MY MANAGER-LADY and I sat down and made a plan: “Let’s get you into Montreal, and then let’s get you on TV!” And I thought, “I’m gonna work hard! And then I won’t be poor anymore! Then I’ll move to LA!” Which was very much not the case—but I did get on Conan. For the minute or two that I met him, Conan was very nice and complimentary toward my set. It was one of the most nerve-wracking experiences; I was probably very mean to my wife. I’ve gained some respect and some college gigs from it, but that was in August 2011, and work is just now picking up. For a period, nothing changed and I was right back to open mic at the Brody—which I love.
Look for Funches in the lineup for the Bridgetown Comedy Festival, April 12–15. Visit bridgetowncomedy.com for details. Follow him on Twitter @ronfunches.