By day, Katie Nguyen has one kind of audience: teenagers. Nguyen, 30, teaches in a local public high school’s Spanish immersion program. By night, she’s got a different crowd: stand-up audiences at comedy clubs, bars, and cafés around Portland, where Nguyen spins dry jokes about childhood indignities, yawning in public, and her mistrust of exit-row passengers.
“I never try to be edgy,” she says. “Not a lot of my comedy comes from anger.” Nope: Nguyen’s style is silly but straight, stringing people through absurd situations with unblinking nonchalance—imagining, say, how she’d craft her image through beat-fueled pop songs (see: “I Never Ever Eat Food Off the Floor”). A coworker once said Nguyen views the world in cartoon vision. “I see things in the most exaggerated way,” says the comic. “A lot of my jokes are about my imagination wandering.”
Growing up in the suburbs of the Twin Cities, Nguyen never harbored comedy dreams. Friends told her she was funny, and for a decade she logged amusing moments on a blog. (An entry about how to properly prepare a bagel—it starts with taking the smaller half out of the toaster first—got her into a creative writing class in college.) But after moving to Portland in 2011, she blasted through Brody Theater improv courses.
Now she’s one of the city’s funniest—and busiest—comics. She cohosts the weekly Earthquake Hurricane show, has popped up at Back Fence storytelling events, and regularly appears on other stand-up and improv lineups, sometimes performing as many as five or six nights week.
Onstage, Nguyen’s face can be expressive and plastic, her gestures loose. That translates to the classroom: “I’ll make an ugly face or do a stupid dance,” she says, adding that she has on occasion pretended to cry to get her students’ attention. But she can also pull a card shark’s poker face, a skill that came in handy when she was enlisted as spokesperson for Americans Against Insecure Billionaires with Tiny Hands, a (totally real!) political action committee launched in the run-up to the 2016 election.
As a stand-up instructor—she teaches at Southeast Portland’s Deep End Theater, where she also leads free workshops for people of color—Nguyen is especially thoughtful about audience assumptions. At a recent Earthquake Hurricane show she detailed her response when people presume that, as an Asian American Spanish teacher, she’s a diversity hire.
“No, I’m an adversity hire,” she riffed. “I’m here to build character.” She paused. “Yours.”