Exit Interview: Portland As F***'s Ian Karmel

We talk with the city's best-known comic about his imminent move to L.A., the prospects for local comedy, and the 3 Portland-As-F*** things he'll miss most.

By Jonathan Frochtzwajg August 1, 2013

When local comedian Ian Karmel announced earlier this year that he would leave Portland for sunnier, more opportunity-rich Los Angeles, the city's comedy scene made a collective, very sad frowny face. In recent years, Karmel (who grew up in Beaverton) had become the rising scene's best-known comic, performing at the Bridgetown Comedy Festival and around the country, appearing on Portlandia, and poking affectionate fun at our oh-so-itself city in his popular (and hilarious) Portland Mercury column, “Portland as Fuck.” But if Karmel is local comedy's valedictorian, the funnyman says it's time for him to graduate to an employment market where the chances of landing, say, a comedy writing job are “multiplied vastly”—no matter how much it hurts to decamp from the Rose City. “That's the only reason I'm going,” he says. “I ache at the thought of leaving this city behind.”

“Portland As Fuck: Farewell Edition,” a going-away show for Karmel also featuring comedians Nathan Brannon and Sean Jordan and musical guest Raise the Bridges, takes place at the Hawthorne Theatre Sunday. In the meantime, Culturephile talked with Karmel about his move, the prospects for Portland comedy, and the three Portland-As-Fuck things he'll miss most.

As moving day approaches, do any exciting opportunities await in L.A.?

There aren't any locked-up opportunities—say, a sitcom or a writing job, but the potential to get one of those jobs is multiplied vastly just by being there. It's a privilege to be able to be a comedian for a living— it really is—but that's also what makes it such a challenge. There are tons of supremely talented people vying for the same opportunities as you, and you have to go down there and get in front of the industry, stay in front of them, and remind them why you're worth hiring. I'll be signing with agents when I'm in Los Angeles; I'd be a spoiled brat if I didn't call that an opportunity. Really, moving to L.A. presents an opportunity to work even harder than I've been working here, and that in itself is the best opportunity I could be given.

I sometimes hear people say Portland's comedy scene is one of the most vibrant in the country—but I also know Portland can be in love with itself. Honestly, how do you think our comedy scene compares with other cities'?

Oh, we're great, but we're not the most vibrant. You've got tiers, and right now we're up there. You've got Los Angeles and New York; those places are the gold standard. Then, on a second tier, you've got Chicago, Boston, and the Bay Area. The third tier is cities like Portland, Austin, Denver, and Atlanta. Our comedy scene in Portland is pretty young—which is not to discount truly unique, wonderful, talented veterans like Dwight Slade, Art Krug, Lonnie Bruhn, and Susan Rice. Other cities have more even strata: a handful of comedians who have been doing it for 20 years, a handful for 10, a handful for five, a handful just starting out. Here in Portland, you've got a few people who have been doing it for a while and then, like, 100 who have been at it for less than two years. This is good and it's bad. It's harder for someone to break from the pack, I think, when you're fighting for stage time with so many people— but it also means we've got a good amount of different perspectives and points of view. There was a point when I was worried how our scene would fare after Ron Funches left, and then after I left, but I'm not worried at all anymore. We've got some great talents here.

Going off that question, what makes the PDX scene different from others, or special? What does the scene need? Obviously, you decided relocating to L.A. was the right career move for you, but do you think it's possible for a comedian to make it big without leaving PDX for L.A. or NY or whatever? 

To answer the second part of the question first, you never want to say something is impossible. You could have a comedian become a Bo Burnham–type YouTube sensation based out of Portland, but they'd probably end up leaving Portland after that anyway. It's really, really hard not to move to one of the big cities and completely fulfill your potential as a comedian; there are just too many people trying to do it and too many opportunities in L.A. and New York. This all depends on what your goal is as a comedian, though. If you want to headline Harvey's and work the road all year, you can probably make that happen out of Portland, and if that's what you want to do, that's beautiful. 

The best thing the Portland comedy scene does is encourage authenticity, I think. I've spent quite a bit of time in other scenes, and you see some great comedians, but then you'll see some comedians who are getting laughs, but they're doing it kind of...paint-by-numbers style: "My goddamn girlfriend, blah blah blah" or, "I don't want to sound racist, but white people/black people/Korean women/whatever boring-ass racist stereotype you want to slip in" kind of jokes. In Portland, you don't see that as much. (You still see it, just not as much.) Even our terrible comedians are terrible in an individualistic way. They may not be getting laughs, but they're not getting laughs on their own terms. Authenticity in the voice of a comedian grows in a beautiful way. It creates beautiful, unique comedic voices. I think having the Bridgetown Comedy Festival, and bringing into town the type of comedians Andy Wood and Matt Braunger do, shows comedians that you should try to be the funniest version of yourself, not some preconceived notion of what a comedian should be.

Whom do you name as your successor? Seriously, though, who are a few local comedians we should be keeping an eye on? 

Curtis Cook. Anthony Lopez. Jen Allen. Bri Pruitt. Zak Toscani.

Think you'll make fun of Portland in your routine once you're in L.A.? Any sense yet of what's Los Angeles As Fuck?

I might talk about how much I miss Portland, but if making fun of Portland helps me get a TV show that I can film in Portland, I'll make fun of Portland.

Los Angeles is too big of a city to be as fuck.

What's are three Portland-As-Fuck things you'll miss—and one you really won't?

The only thing I won't miss is Willamette Week's coverage of stand-up comedy, which is straight-up vindictive. Like, it's terrible and it's terrible for petty reasons, and it sucks because Willamette Week is a great newspaper with really talented people working at it. I've been saying this long before I wrote that column for the Portland Mercury; I'll say it long after I'm done with the column. 

I'll miss walking down Ankeny on a gorgeous sun-drenched afternoon, on my way to Crema to sit down and write, seeing people biking or walking by on their way to who knows what kind of drinking establishment, seeing them content with their afternoons and feeling that same kind of contentment myself. 

I'll miss lying in my friend's backyard and eating Dove Vivi, which I just fucking discovered this summer and I'm angry I haven't been eating for years.

Portland As Fuck: Farewell Edition
August 4 at 9 pm
Hawthorne Theatre 
I'll miss fucking everything, man. I ache at the thought of leaving this city behind, but even that ache is a little bit of a lie. What I'm going to miss is a moment in my life, being here in Portland, in my 20s, when everyone was excited about my potential. These few years have been so wonderful, but they've all been built on, "Oh, you're going to be big!", and now it's actually time to go try and do that and see what I can really do in comedy. This moment in my life would have ended whether I left Portland or not. At some point, the potential would fester, rot, and stink, and this city has given me too many opportunities for me to let that happen. The only thing I'll really miss is the people, my family, my friends.

Also, certain sandwiches.

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