The idea was simple enough: Talk to five comedians about the pandemic. Find out how they see Portland's changing comedy scene. While it seems easy to ask that now, we couldn't have written this piece six months ago. Coming off the winter surge—no one could say where Portland comedy was going.
But now? There's an optimism that we don't even have to fight for. Shows are selling out, there's plenty of stages, and those stages are full of new talent.
We spoke with five local comedians—from 2022 Portland's Funniest Person Shain Brenden to rising star Julia Corral, who'd been performing for about six months when the pandemic began—to ask: How did the pandemic impact their careers? How did it change Portland comedy? And what stand-up shows are totally killing it right now?
Co-host of stand-up nights Faded, Don't Tell, and the podcast Assville, plus recent winner of Portland's Funniest Person, Shain Brenden is a comic beloved by other comedians—and audiences love him too. When he won this year's Funniest Person title, we were quick to note that it seemed far overdue.
"I thought 2020 was gonna be a year where I could take a shot at leveling up a little," Brenden told the Mercury. "Coming off the tail end of 2019, I was getting invited to feature on the road and tape my first Comedy Central set. Like a lot of people, when the pandemic hit, I kept watching shows be canceled like: 'They'll never cancel that. There's too much money behind it!' And then boom! It's six months later. It's a year and a half later. A lot of comic buddies of mine were doing online / social media shows or corporate events where you're on a Zoom call with like 30 squares, trying to entertain someone while you're sitting at your computer and so are they. I tried it, and it made me feel worse than if I just didn't do it at all.
"I feel like we lost a lot of really good comics when they couldn't perform. But on the flipside, there's a whole wave of really new, young comics that I call Zoomers—because they started their career on Zoom. When I do stick my head into a local open mic or check out a new show, I look around like 'I don't know who any of these people are,' and sometimes they look back like 'who's this guy?' The landscape of the [local] comedy scene has totally changed."
Check out this comedy show: "Nariko Ott brought back the Cool Kids Patio Show. That's always poppin'." (Cool Kids Patio Show, Doug Fir, 830 E Burnside, fourth Thursdays of the month, 6 pm, tickets here, FREE, 21+)
Co-host of Comedy Corral, Sorry Not Sorry, and Kickstand's Comedy in the Park, we currently see Julia Corral on so many stages that it's easy to forget she's a relatively new talent. "Every six months, I feel like I'm a different comic," she told the Mercury.
Corral moved to Portland from LA expressly to do stand-up, but didn't make any solid moves on her dream until she took Alex Falcone's stand-up class, in 2019. When the pandemic unrolled, she'd been performing at open mics for around six months. She regrets that her mom and grandmother never got the chance to see her perform.
"I'm probably the least funny person in my family," she said. "They didn't understand it. They're like 'you're not funny.' I'm not funny to them."
In May of 2020, Corral's mother died—her grandmother followed two months after.
"It spiraled me," she said. "But I felt like there was no one alive who could monitor anything that I said anymore. And what I wanted to do with that was be a comedian. So, while I was taking precautions, I started doing things like driving to Salem to perform in a parking lot. I didn't lose that much traction, career-wise, and I found community. Now I do comedy five nights a week. At one of the Comedy in the Park shows there were a thousand people—so I performed in front of a thousand people. You only have one life to really do what you have to do."
Check out this comedy show: "Don't Tell is a really fun show right now. All the shows at Funhouse are great, like Leave Your Troubles." (Leave Your Troubles, Funhouse Lounge, 2432 SE 11th, first Fridays, 10 pm, $5, 21+)
Phil Schallberger has been a cult favorite in Portland for years. He's a sketch comedian who regularly appears alongside stand-ups, climbing onstage as a costumed character to perform bizarre scenes with complicated audio-visual elements.
When the pandemic began, Schallberger went even more tech than his colleagues. In a remote line-up, you might see five comedians sitting at their kitchen tables and Schallberger logging on from a 3D rendered minimalist condo in outer space. But he quickly abandoned the practice. "Stand up does not operate in a Twitch environment," he told the Mercury. "You can't sit and stare back at the audience. People watch Twitch to watch a show."
When we reach him on the phone, he's messing around with Blender, a 3D graphics software, but he jokes that the the only new skills he learned during the pandemic was "a newfound appreciation for therapy." However, then he mentions a shift in focus, when it comes to his work: "Instead of 'let's see what happens!' Now it's like 'I gotta make something soon!'"
Schallberger's currently finding less flexibility from audiences than he remembers. "People aren't really down to clown," he said. "I feel like I'm rubbing up against audience expectations of what a show is. I've put myself on a bit of a hiatus because I don't feel great about my pre-pandemic material. Doing old stuff kind of feels like lying.
"I still try to get onstage six times a month, which—compared to other comics—is nothing. The comedians I see have gotten better. The scene as it exists right now has improved and keeps getting better. Like I said, shifting of focus."
Check out this comedy show: "Dough every Wednesday is great. Chill N Fill is always good." (Dough, Mississippi Pizza and Atlantis Lounge, 3552 N Mississippi, Wednesdays, 8 pm, FREE; Chill N Fill Comedy Showcase, Chill N Fill, 5215 N Lombard, Thursdays, suggested $5 donation, 21+)
Portland's king of deadpan, Ben Harkins, isn't an edgelord, but he plays one on Dark Web Tonight, a monthly internet-weird-meets-comedy show he co-hosts at the Funhouse Lounge. He also produces a weekly stand-up night at the Chill N Fill called Chill N Fill Comedy Showcase. "I named the show after the bar, and that has just turned out to be so confusing for people," he told the Mercury.
Harkins sees the city's comedy scene as back in full force, with a new generation of talent. "The entire ecosystem cratered," he said, "and we had to basically build it back up. For the last six months, a lot of shows have been doing really well. Before everything, there were a lot of cynical producers who got their hands on a few show spaces and never let go. There's more of a supportive community now, and there's also a drive to be really good."
Check out this comedy show: "The Friday Midnight Mic at Funhouse Lounge—it's so different from everything else. It's where comics go after their shows. Sometimes it's incredible and sometimes it's depressing, and I like that possibility." (Midnight Mic, Funhouse Lounge, 2432 SE 11th, Fridays, midnight, FREE, 21+)
A former host of the Mercury's I, Anonymous Show, Kate Murphy can win over any room. During the pandemic she was a talent thought lost, part of the mass exodus of comedians and other performing artists who—upon finding themselves unable to work—decided to give a big fuck you to the Portland rental crisis.
"Deciding to leave happened peak pandemic," Murphy told the Mercury. "At that time, there was no end in sight or any idea if we would ever be able to do comedy again—which was my whole life." Once vaccinated, Murphy moved to Los Angeles, but found that the city's scene seemed slow to rebuild. "Stage time is always hard to find in LA. It seemed like every city was slow to come back, but in my experience, Portland is doing great."
"It might sound a little corny or cliche," Murphy explained. "But the pandemic made me appreciate the art form and the stage more than ever. Before, it was easy to feel a little burned out or like you're swimming against the current. Stand-up is hard work and there's a lot of rejection. The pandemic really put into perspective how it's the actual act of doing it that we love. I'm just so grateful to be able to do it again because I love it so much."
Check out this comedy show: "I would love to shout out Shain Brenden," Murphy said. "He's running some of the best shows in Portland—like Faded and Don't Tell." (Faded, Migration Brewing, 3947 North Williams, last Thursdays, $15, 21+)