Ian Karmel Talks Off-Limits Jokes and Old Portland Nostalgia

He has Portlandia, Chelsea Lately, and Conan appearances under his belt, and now PDX comic Ian Karmel has a new album out on Kill Rock Stars. We caught up with Karmel to find out what's so funny about Portland.

By Fiona McCann December 1, 2015

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Portland native Ian Karmel is on a roll. He followed up a slew of TV appearances with a new album from punk label Kill Rock Stars—the delightfully titled 9.2 On Pitchfork—recorded in Mississippi Studios earlier this year. We caught up with the LA-based PDXer—he writes for CBS’s The Late Late Show with James Corden—to talk about off-limits jokes, nostalgia for old Portland, and why this really is a funny town.

Your new album was recorded in Portland’s Mississippi Studios. Was it important to have it done on home turf?

I couldn't have done my first album anywhere else. Portland means everything to me, the people here, the places I performed as a beginning stand-up comedian, the bars I drank in after those sets didn't go great. The whole night was such a celebration. All my friends came out, my family and the crowds that had supported me from the beginning. It really felt like the closing of a super beloved chapter of my life, in a beautiful way, and that could have only happened in Portland. 

How much of your comedic material or style do you think is informed by Portlandness? Is there a particular comic sensibility in this town?

You know whats crazy, Portland used to have this reputation is a place that wasn't very funny. Like, we'd frequently pop up on those lists of "the least funny cities in America" lists, or whatever. Now, when you look at the comedians here and the comedians who've recently left, you see that clearly wasn't the case. I don't think Portland has a specific comedic sensibility—what I think Portland does is let you be yourself. I think authenticity is important here, and so comedians become the best versions of themselves, rather than facsimiles of more successful comedians. Ron Funches, Shane Torres and myself don't have very similar comedic voices, but we're all definitely Portland comedians. 

There have been a lot of changes in Portland over your lifetime, particularly in recent years. Do you think they’ve improved the city, or detracted from it?

How can we know if they're good or bad yet? Portland has been struck with a plague of wistfulness, lately. We're all like "Oh, it used to be better six months go, it used to be better a year ago" but was it? There are still great bars here, great restaurants. I mean, the rent is one problem, and it definitely sucks and I could eventually see it neutering the laissez-faire dirtbag artist life style that allowed this place to become so... weird, for lack of a better term, but nothing gold can stay, feel me? 

Do you think there are any topics that comedians shouldn’t joke about?

This is such a funny question, and it always pops up in interviews. It's so weird that comedians are the focal point of so many free speech arguments when we're such a relatively small part of the pop culture landscape. To answer your question, though, no. I don't think any topics should be off-limits. I think, however, that comedians should take great care to think about their ownership and expertise in certain sensitive areas. I probably don't need to hear some 23-year-old dude's rape joke. What the hell does he have to say about rape that anyone needs to hear? I mean, go ahead and tell your joke, dude, but don't blame the audience for being "too PC" when it doesn't get a good response. That said, comedians are gonna stumble every now and then. Not to get too haughty, but comedy usually works because of truth, and sometimes truth is ugly, and I think we need to let comedians make mistakes and not nail them to the wall when they cross the line. I could talk about this forever. No wonder people ask this question.

Last time we spoke you had a pilot in the works with ABC involving a TV show about Portland. Is that still a potential project?

They declined! But it was a lot of fun to make. 

There was Portlandia, then Conan, and now you've got an album out on Kill Rock Stars. What’s next in your world domination plan?

Weather control machine. That, and I'm working on my next hour of comedy. That album represented the first five years of my stand-up career, so now I've got to get out there and figure out what I want to talk about next, it's exciting. 

When you need a laugh, what comedians do you turn to?

My friends, mostly! Ron Funches, Eliza Skinner, Kyle Kinane, Matt Braunger, Emily Heller, Sean O'Connor, Jared Logan, Shane Torres, Sean Jordan, Amy Miller, Zak Toscani. As far as people outside my friend group... John Mulaney, Hannibal Burress, Katt Williams, Eddie Izzard.

Any advice to young comedians kicking off their careers? 

Start in a city that isn't New York and LA, do as much stand-up and writing as you possibly can stomach, and focus on becoming the biggest version of yourself possible. It's okay and unavoidable to have influences when you start, but don't try to be the next Amy Schumer or Maria Bamford or Marc Maron or Kevin Hart - just do the things that you find the funniest and become as good at that as possible. It's what Hollywood wants AND it's the only way to make yourself truly happy in comedy.

9.2 on Pitchfork from Kill Rock Stars was released last month.

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