The Bridgetown Comedy Festival Wrapped Up Sunday, Culminating a Weekend of Laughs From Names Big And Small.
On the small makeshift stage at the Bunk Bar Friday night, comedian Andy Kindler improvised when the train all Portlanders know well howled by, just a block outside the industrial southeast bar. The train’s whistle pierced louder and louder as it neared, overwhelming his voice and the crowd’s laughs, and Andy yelled, “We get it—you’re barreling through!”
At the Bossanova Ballroom on Saturday night, comedian Drennon Davis and Karen Kilgariff sang a song entitled, “These Are a Few of Your Dumb Tattoos” to a room full of tattooed Portlanders. “I think we’re hitting a nerve here,” they sang to a crowd that audibly enjoyed the transparent mockery. “You have barbed wire across your chest… around your arm… around your wrist. It’s like your body parts are in a concentration camp.”
At the Doug Fir, Michelle Buteau opened her stand-up routine professing her love for being in Portland. “You make me want to grow lavender and get a thigh tattoo,” she passionately declared in her thick New York accent, glowing on stage under her massive hair, a self-proclaimed “Fat Beyonce.”
As the host of the Bridgetown Comedy Festival, Portland was celebrated and mocked, lovingly deprecated and praised, much like the comedians themselves. At the festival, which wrapped up Sunday night, Portland was the butt of many jokes, the source of stand-up routine segues, or at times, served as a crutch to win over a fading audience. It was also a fine place to be this weekend. On the inner Southeast streets, as I walked or rode my bike from venue to venue, throngs of people followed suit – giggling, discussing the shows, looking at programs. Featured comedians walked with friends just outside venues, chatting with people in line; the energy was great and indeed, you could hear people laughing well into the night.
Talent hailed from all over the country to make Portland laugh in eleven venues, all within walking distance. It was good to see comedy and laughter filling venues I’d never been to, or where I’d previously only been to see rock bands or to get dinner. The weather was pretty much perfect and the wristband access strategy helped folks move from venue to venue quickly. I attended ten shows altogether over the weekend, sometimes arriving late, having rushed over from a simultaneously scheduled show, but I never had trouble getting in. I’d simply flash the wristband and make my way into the show in progress. Festival volunteers were plentiful and the turn-out for most shows was full.
On opening night, I went to “Hit the Books,” a show featuring comedians who were educators, currently or in the past. Under the pavilion tent at Boogies Burgers, the rewards and challenges of teaching were exposed in “not for kids” humor. Raunchy sex jokes and clever innuendo were delivered alongside thoughts about the differences between how girls and boys misbehave and remarks about how kids are “shit heads” in the classroom when summer is just around the corner.
Comedian Noah Gardenswartz once taught in an all-black school in Atlanta. He was the only white teacher. At the beginning of his set he criticized other teachers’ tactics of to reward good behavior. Gardenswartz is adamant about not giving out candy, saying “education is the reward.” Once, while teaching about slavery from a Georgia textbook he says didn’t refer to it as slavery, but as “European expansion,” one of his students asked, “Mr. Gardenswartz, why were we slaves?”
In front of the crowd, he delivered this with the same quivering urgency that must have overtaken him in that classroom then. “This was my Dangerous Minds moment,” he panicked, “this is why I am doing this. I can’t fuck this up.” He mimicked deliberating over the answer in his head, going around possible explanations, finally landing on a good response: “Whoooo wants candy?” The crowd howled as he drew out the words, and tagged, “I wasn’t going near that with a ten foot pole.”
After “Hit the Books” I headed next door to the Doug Fir along with my companion for most of the festival, Ambit’s Sean Ongley, who will be publishing two podcasts later this week. The comedians of “New Negroes: Redux” took the stage in the underground space. Hailing from all over the country, quite a few from Chicago, all eight comics were black and as MC Baron Vaughn put it, the performance would show “the range of Blackness.”
Sonia Denis lured the audience with her wide and lively gestures, poses and undeniable charisma. She was powerful on stage, even though her persona seems to be founded on and bolstered by an unsteadiness and doubt which makes her immediately likable. She’s funny in the way that you find your close friends to be. She relies on intimacy, not so much one-liners or bottled jokes, and somehow achieves this with a new crowd. It’s like you’re laughing at inside jokes even if you’re encountering her for the first time.
“Thanks for coming to this affirmative action show,” joked comedian Kevin Iso. He wore a hooded sweatshirt and a ball cap. “I wear a hoodie because I’m cold. Not because I want to murder someone. And I don’t look good in a cardigan.” Not all the comics touched on the racial injustices and crisis happening all over the country, most recently the riots in Baltimore, but when they did, it was in the same vein as Iso: as something bewildering but not shocking, and definitely nothing new.
Mark James Heath of Chicago talked about being a father, and of joining the riots, he said he has no time to get murdered. He’s got two young girls, he’s got yardwork to do, he’s got a “veggie tray to buy” for a school function next week. “My wife would kill me if I got murdered,” he uttered looking down as if his wife was standing right in front of him, shaking her head at him.
At “Andy Kindler’s Particular Show” at the Norse Hall, the featured host did his stammering, off-the-cuff routine, like he had just found Norse Hall after driving in circles for hours looking for parking, still trying to settle in and surprised to find himself on stage. His style is endlessly engaging – you watch him as he seems on the edge of something – you don’t know what it is, but it keeps your attention. He could explode in a panicked rant or just stop dead in the middle of the stage, and stare out into the audience, summoning laughs by being awkwardly silent. And this extends to the audience; most of the time you don’t know why you are laughing, it isn’t one specific joke most of the time. You’re just lured into a giddy, uninhibited mood by him and suddenly your shoulders are vibrating and your eyes are tearing.
Beth Stelling was one of his guests. She recited a conversation her Mom had with Sprint about her broken flip-phone. “We’re going to need to ask you some security questions to get into your account,” Stelling imitated a ubiquitous Sprint employee, scrunching her nose, sounding like a benign Disney villain, continuing, “Who was your childhood best friend?” The audience had already been introduced to Beth’s mother’s voice: a clear, sweet Midwestern-accent laden “Mom” voice. Confused but polite, she answers, “Margo?”
“No” retorts the Sprint employee and the audience howls at this. We can all envision a 63-year old woman at a Sprint store, most of us probably envisioning our own Moms. As Stelling continues to guess at childhood best friends in her Mom’s voice, which becomes more desperate as each answer comes up wrong (“Was it Nancy?” her voice cracking as she’s about to sob), I think of Stelling ten years ago in her small Ohio town, in contrast to who has been featured on Conan O’Brien and Jimmy Kimmel. Eager to leave to embark on her dream but greedily soaking everything around her up – her neighbors, her family – knowing she can turn it all into comic gold. It’s the way she relates it that makes it so compelling and hilarious. It makes you feel like you’ve grown up in her house, or the other way around, like she knows exactly what it was like to grow up in yours.
Festival headliner Jonathan Katz made a brief appearance at “The Particular Show.” Media was not able to see Dr. Katz Live without paying for tickets, so on our budget, we were grateful to Jonathan here. Sean was looking forward to it immensely, having published a phone interview with Katz that week. Beginning with reading a list he’s been compiling for years of the “worst names for things” from a smart phone, his comedy was brief, punchy, and musical. He promised the audience he could turn any famous song into a traditional Jewish wedding tune. He called out to the audience for songs in a playful way, knowing that he had tunes prepared. “Any Rolling Stones song,” he asked, and of course “Satisfaction” is called, and the famous lyrics were applied to instrumental folk sounds of traditional Klezmer music, adding an enthusiastic “Hey” to the end of three songs in a fast row.
There is something about laughing at a time when it is inappropriate that makes you only laugh harder, like laughing during a lecture or a meeting. It’s physically enjoyable and stressful simultaneously, it hurts as you try to resist and keep composure. Obviously, a comedy show is not one of these inapproriate times but Ian Ambramson, who followed Katz, made me laugh harder and more uncontrollably than I had at any other point in the festival that it reminded me of laughing when we are not supposed to.
I can’t describe exactly what it was. He did a joke, a whole routine, about the idea of time travel, where he repeated the same bit five times to demonstrate going back in time. Each time he came out on stage (because he would run off and back on each time, as if he hadn’t been on stage yet), he tweaked the dialogue a little. By the third time, I still hadn’t laughed and felt kind of incredulous at the growing spectacle of a comedy routine that was unfolding in front of us. I thought to myself, oh no he’s coming back out to do the same thing. I sensed most of the audience was on the same page as me, wondering where this was going.
The fourth time, he came out and did the same bit, the one we all knew so well by now. Only he did it a little faster and had purposely confused the wording of some of the jokes and lines, which then came out as nonsense but nonetheless, he followed it as if it was coherent. And at this point, along with most of the audience, we all cracked. I was suddenly tearing, convulsing in my chair. Like I said before, I don’t know what it was that triggered such a sudden response. Maybe it was the build-up, the fact that he kept going at it, pushing our limits as much as his, but he had the majority of the audience moaning and moving in uncontrollable fits of laughter.
Sean and I left early from this show in hopes of catching the end of “Comedy and Cocktails” at New Deal Distillery, a regular occurring monthly showcase co-hosted by Brandy Feit and Jason Traeger. It enjoyed the benefit of Bridgetown’s national roster, but we came in mid-way on the last comic’s set, so have nothing to report other than a packed house, and a jazz band who serenaded the socializing there at the end.
He hung around for a minute, Sean and I arrived at the Doug Fir for “Blaria” which featured Jessica Williams as the MC. We were late, again. The woman at the door hesitated letting us in at first because the show was in session and the space was packed. This was the only time we’d encountered any issue, and it was barely one, as she changed her mind instantly without any prodding and admitted us through.
At “Blaria” what stood out most, other than Jessica Williams coaxed into slurping a Kombucha (which left her disgusted), was Baron Vaughn. His talent doesn’t only lie in the fact that he is funny, or that he has mastered a delivery. He is physical on stage, he sings and his facial expressions communicate just as much as his words. He flails and throws his arms widely; his body parts are like props that further draw you into the scene. That’s what it is: he creates full scenes on his own. It’s easy to feel like you’re in his apartment with him when he is being kept awake by the incessant chorus of the crickets. Or on the couch with him as he observes his friend fighting sleep while watching a movie, dropping his head to quickly pull it back up, imitating the universal battle against sleep, how we all resist it even when we’re exhausted. He says there are two kinds of people he doesn’t get: those that can’t admit to being drunk and those that can’t admit that they’re falling asleep.
By 11 pm I was pretty tired but didn’t want to give into it, falling into that second category of people Baron Vaughn joked about, we pushed on and went to the Bunk Bar to check out “High-Five.” All the comedians were high on Portland’s premiere pot – this was the premise. And actually my description of the show will sound fitting as the experience somewhat mimicked the state of being high. It was disorienting, loopy, and my attention dropped and rose like a yo-yo.
There was no secret that the comics were high and their sets were altered in both funny and less-funny (more like distracted) ways. Local favorites, Shane Torres and Ian Karmel, performed. Shane Torres’ set was brief, and of all the comics, he seemed the most crippled by the weed but it was endearing to watch anyway, as he rested his head on the mic, shaking his head like you see people do when they’re at a loss. Kevin Iso’s set came off comfortably. He related the instances of when he thought he spotted someone famous and then realized where he was. “Now, why would David Duchovny be at Popeye’s in the Bronx?” “I thought I saw Ja-Rule at a check-cashing place…” he let that hover in the room like smoke for a bit, before adding, “It was him.”
Andy Kindler was the last to go, and compared with his performance earlier that night at Norse Hall, I couldn’t discern a difference in Kindler’s demeanor, or anything that hinted that he was high. The crowd at Bunk Bar was much more subdued than the one at Norse Hall, and at the Bunk Bar, people were divided in their attention as they ordered drinks and moved around the bar. He was vocal about having difficulty keeping their attention so in this way, he came across as being even more susceptible to skipping whatever he had planned and interacting directly with the crowd by improvising and working off their mood. He is good at this.
On Saturday afternoon, the sunlight framed the long drapes in the otherwise night-dark Bossanova Ballroom in narrow sharp strips of light. On stage, Dana Gould and Ian Karmel each took a turn joining Jay Larson and Ryan Sickler for the “Crabfeast Podcast.” Dana Gould has been performing and writing comedy for decades. He spoke with ease seated between Larson and Sickler about his family. Like Kindler, he stood out from the younger, newer comics of the festival. It’s not that these veterans exude much more confidence; it’s more about comfort. Comfort with being in front of a crowd, comfort with their material. It’s like they’re not trying to be funny, they just naturally are or have mastered seeming unconcerned which works to entice and loosen up the audience further.
Andy Kindler said something about how not everything has to be funny to get a laugh. Or that the expectation there, that everything be overtly funny, equipped with a build-up and perfectly delivered punch line, was something he was not solely after.
There’s an emphasis more on stories than jokes with Dana Gould. I could have listened to him talk about growing up in a world where “drunk was what adults were” for hours. I couldn’t help but think that this is something age and experience alone can bring. Beth Stelling seemed beyond her years this way as she captivated the audience with more than jokes but also with stories and thoughtful observations.
Watching the newer comics of the festival was just as entertaining, especially at “First Timers Club Staff Faves” at Boogies Burgers on Saturday night. Watching stand-up comedian Josh Johnson for the second time, even repeating some of the same jokes, made me laugh in that silly, blushing way you do when you have a crush on the person telling the jokes. Johnson is charming, vulnerable, and hilarious. He talked about being a theater kid who still really wants to learn to play football. He went on to describe a scene at a football practice where he was astounded about the contact (he thought only the guy with the ball got hit). He used theater terms to tell the story, referring to the quarterback as the “lead” and the plays as “acts.” The audience rolled with laughter as his delivery was flawless and without pause, like a mastered soliloquy in which he betrayed his theater leanings all while trying to be a part of the game.
Like Josh Johnson, I am sure many of the audience members who attended numerous shows found themselves listening to a comic more than once, doing the same jokes. It was interesting to watch this, and it makes you realize how rehearsed some of the material is. Pauses come at the same place, the cadence is mapped and consistent with each telling. What impresses me here is how versed the comics are at creating a natural conversational tone, as if the joke or thought is improvised and has just occurred to them. It was also interesting to see the same joke meet little laughs at one venue, while inciting a roaring response at another. Crowd work is so much a part of the craft too.
My favorite show of the festival was Saturday night’s “Imaginary Radio” with Drennon Davis. There was everything here. It was like an old variety show: music, “magic”, stand-up, dance, all kinds of characters. The musical elements, between Davis’s lyrics, the voice of Karen Kilgariff and keyboards of Dave Hill, and Drennon’s beat-box and looping techniques that gave structure to most of the songs. The musical aspect and all repeating loops helped make the entire show feel like a carnival, but it was the shows within it that gave it variety. Ron Lynch performed a satire bit called The Great Mesmerizo where he spun plastic bags with his wand, botched telepathy tricks, and turned one finger into two. So many amusements, sights, people-watching, and rides. When it was over, I didn’t want it to be. Drennon Davis will be featured soon as part of Ambit’s Horizon At End Times podcast.
With an impressive batch of well-known names, Bridgetown also brought to the spotlight many of the up and coming, lesser known talent. Festivals are great for this reason. You go to see the headliners, or the names you recognize, and along the way, you discover acts and people you may have never been exposed to otherwise.
On Sunday, the last day of the festival, I didn’t attend any shows, but I did spend an hour watching Beth Stelling and Michelle Buteau stand-up videos on Youtube. I hadn’t heard of either of them before and usually, if I’m searching for comedians to watch, I think of Louis C.K. or Marc Maron, not knowing many other current performers. After Bridgetown, I hope we’ve all added a few more names to our list of favorites.