On a Wednesday night, 50 people squeeze into the basement of the Northeast Portland bike shop Velo Cult, a space no bigger than most living rooms. The crowd spills out the door in the back, beyond the bucket of crumpled $5 bills, where two comics hastily arrange to borrow a car to make a near-simultaneous gig across town. On stage, Curtis Cook grills a couple about their sex life, to raucous laughter.
This is Earthquake Hurricane, a weekly comedy showcase hosted by four hot local talents: Cook, Alex Falcone, Anthony Lopez, and Bri Pruett. Just two weeks after this show, a fire code violation forced the foursome to move. The crowds followed. If some art is a delicate flower, this slice of Portland comedy recalls Himalayan blackberry, spreading on a tough patch of soil.
This month, the eighth annual Bridgetown Comedy Festival will flood Portland venues with comics and comedy fans. An invitation to the festival remains a coveted badge of honor among local comics, even as Bridgetown has become more national than local. Of 124 comics performing this year, just 11 live in Portland. (In its first year, a third were locals.) That shift cements Portland as a comedy destination, but it also reflects health: the city’s comedy scene has become an everyday phenomenon, fizzing with the DIY energy and intimacy of events like Earthquake Hurricane. Local comics no longer need to rely on a single annual festival.
“It’s insane,” says Lopez, 27. “When I started out doing comedy six years ago, I could probably name 15, 20 local comics. Now there are so many opportunities.”
“It was sad,” adds Pruett, 31, who recalls awful experiences when the scene revolved around Harvey’s Comedy Club and a open mic at Suki’s, near PSU, notorious for its tough crowds. “We were performing for drunks. It was a dive bar scene.”
Now, the city has pollinated a distinct comedy personality, as a bootstrapping, any-show-anywhere ethos that welcomes diverse new voices. The EastBurn fills up Monday nights for It’s Gonna Be Okay, a feminist-leaning show. Curious Comedy Theater packs its auditorium for Lez Stand Up, a weekly LGBT-friendly show, and Minority Retort, for comedians of color. In Multnomah Village—not typically a nightlife destination—two female comics launched Spilt Milk “to escape housework and children.” Every so often, White Tiger Radio hosts an ultra-hip, 40-seat show in a garage on NE Killingsworth Street. Reversing the medium’s traditional male dominance, women run four of Portland’s top comedy shows.
“People are doing secret things,” says Pruett. “It’s like New York: there will be a show anywhere until the cops shut it down. We’re a real budding scene now that the fire marshal shut down our venue. We’ve made it.”
Not everyone who grabs a mic will be good. But rising tides raise all ships.
“There’s a natural ceiling here,” says Falcone. “If people get too hot, they bubble over and disappear to LA. But each time someone amazing graduates, another person ascends.”
At Earthquake Hurricane, Falcone introduces Shane Torres—one such recent “graduate”—who is back in town from Brooklyn for a week.
“Last year, he was Portland’s funniest comic,” Falcone says with a grin. “Now he’s New York’s twenty-thousandth funniest comic.”