Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Standing up: Portland’s comedy scene explodes

Published in the Portland Phoenix

For more than a decade Portland has had only one venue for stand-up comedy, the Comedy Connection, on Custom House Wharf. But today, some see — or at least hope to see — the city’s comedy scene as being on the brink of national prominence. There are now 15 local stages devoting time to comedy and an overflow of new comics to fill them.

Younger local comedians are comparing Portland’s current funny-business landscape to Seattle’s homegrown grunge-music scene of the early 1990s, and Maine comics are beginning to break into larger markets. Leading lights — most notably Bob Marley — are going on world tours but still come home, to growing audiences and rapidly multiplying venues.

Portland’s schtick circuit has truly exploded during the past year. Though it’s still a far smaller scene than, say, Boston’s, where three major clubs attract top-notch national performers nearly every night of the week, Portland is coming on strong. There are five venues with regularly scheduled weekly or bi-weekly comedy programs and 10 more that host occasional stand-up shows. Portland comedy fans can now see at least one show six nights a week — and often have more than one to choose from. (See “Regular Comedy” and “Now + Again Comedy,” below)

“I think Portland is poised on the edge of — at least in comedy — where we can draw national attention to us,” says Seth Bond Perry, in his second year of stand-up.

Perry played a gig in Boston on March 19 — his first there — and has high hopes to do more. In the meantime, “I play anywhere I can find,” he says. And Portland is welcoming. “It is the kind of town that is open to all kinds of art,” including standing in front of microphone working hard to make people laugh.

Perry, like many of Portland’s comics, learned his craft through a class at the Comedy Connection. Perry estimates there are “at least 100” comics in Portland who are looking for the elusive resource for all performers — stage time.

Tim Ferrell, the class’s teacher, who also books comedians at the Connection, estimates that between 150 and 170 students have been graduated from the classes over the past couple years, and now form part of what he calls Portland’s “terrific talent pool.”

Ferrell agrees with Perry, that in the past couple years “the comedy scene has changed dramatically,” with bigger audiences, more comics, and better energy.

Opening up
Bob Marley, the dean of Maine comedians, contrasting the experience of today’s break-in Portland comedians with his own 15 years ago, sees the good — more venues to perform in — and the bad: “It’s kind of a little bit easier to get in.”

“When we started out, we were working bars” — sometimes literally standing on the bar shouting out jokes — “and we would drive to Boston every night,” Marley recalls.

It took a bigger commitment back then, agrees Quinn Collins of Falmouth, who has been moonlighting doing stand-up for 10 years, while practicing law. “I didn’t think anything of driving two or three hours for a five- or 10-minute show,” says Collins, who once drove more than five hours to Poughkeepsie, New York, for a 20-minute bit, then turned around and drove back.

Marley and Collins — and Ferrell and Comedy Connection owner Oliver Keithly — agree that comedy is “an endurance contest.” As Collins puts it: the people who are good get better, and the people who are not fall away.

These days, the barrier is lower for the newcomers. Novice comic Seth Perry holds down a day job and performs on nights and weekends. Brian Brinegar, a motivated and energetic young father who recently moved to Maine from California, does the same. Tammy Pooler, one of the ringleaders of the comedy expansion in the city, is a mother, and runs a retail store and the Laugh Your Ass Off Productions comedy-booking agency, in addition to performing stand-up herself. (See “Comic Economics” ).

These are not folks who have to give up their regular lives to pursue their passions, though all say they are prepared to. “I’m either going to make it big or I’m not,” says Perry fatalistically. Brinegar, meanwhile, insists he will one day soon be on Premium Blend, the Comedy Central television network’s showcase night that boosts mid-level comics into the limelight.

Keithly, who has booked comedy for more than 20 years (see “What’s the Connection?,” below), says he has been working since his club opened on Wharf Street about 12 years ago to “have a strong community” of comedians and comedy audiences in Portland.

Now, “it’s the type of atmosphere that I always wanted to have,” he says. Through the class and in dealings with local comedians who perform on showcase nights (see “Comedy Lingo,” below), Keithly says he is “trying to create an environment . . . where people can learn the art-form the way that it’s been taught for years” — namely, by watching other comics work, constantly developing new material, and trying it out. Keithly is looking for “people who are serious, who have a serious passion for the art form,” which he estimates at about four percent of the graduates of Ferrell’s class.

By contrast, Ferrell estimates that more than 80 percent want the class to “lead to something else” in show business. And that 76-percent difference may be one of the reasons behind the sudden expansion of Portland’s scene.

In the middle
With Keithly believing that one in 25 graduates is serious enough to make it, and Ferrell saying four out of five want to make it, there’s plenty of room for disagreement. (See “Banned?” ).

Pooler, for example, says she got frustrated with performing only about five minutes a month at the Connection. “There’s way too many comics that want stage time” to be satisfied with just the Connection, she says. “When you’re a comic, you just thrive on having a stage.”

She met up with Tom Manning, owner of Liquid Blue, at a point when he was thinking about how to “build a comedy scene,” he says. And for a year Liquid Blue has had a stand-up comedy show on Saturday nights. The audience grew so big in the first summer that late that season, Manning added a Friday–night show as well. (On the other nights, Liquid Blue offers a DJ and dancing.)

Perry is a regular at Manning’s club, as wells as at the open-mic nights held every other week Acoustic Coffee, on Danforth Street. “When I meet the national comics, they tell me, ‘go out and do what you’re doing, play any stage you can,’” he says.

Perry spent about a year at the Connection after graduating from Ferrell’s class, but by the end he, like Pooler, found himself reduced to a single five-minute gig each month. So he, too, looked elsewhere for an audience.

At about the same time, Brinegar, just arrived from California, got a good audience response in the Portland’s Funniest Professional contest, sponsored every year by the Comedy Connection — but was disqualified for going over the five-minute time limit. Five minutes may not seem like much, but it’s a daunting task to keep a crowd amused — let alone laughing — for that length of time.

He considered taking Ferrell’s class as an entree to stage time at the Connection, after being told it had no open-mic nights, and no opportunity for would-be comics to bring paying customers to the club in exchange for five minutes with the microphone.

“I didn’t want to sink money and time” — both of which he says were in short supply — into the $300 eight-week class with no sure “return on investment.” So Brinegar ended up at Acoustic Coffee, where he met Perry and Pooler, as well as Ian Harvie, a Bridgton native with ties to the Connection. Harvie got a gig there for Brinegar, who also began performing at some of the “satellite” clubs the Connection books, like Spectators Sports Bar in Sanford. He has since reconnected with Pooler, and become an independent comedian booking some shows for himself and others through Pooler’s Laugh Your Ass Off agency.

Not all comedians leave the Connection. Karen Morgan, a Cumberland mother of three and a former attorney, started out in Ferrell’s class and then did well in the Portland’s Funniest Professional show in 2004. She was a 2005 finalist (and 2006 semi-finalist) in Nick at Nite’s “America’s Funniest Mom” competition, an annual reality-TV show and national search for mothers who are good comedians.

Like many Comedy Connection regulars, Morgan has never even been to a comedy show at a competing venue. She hosts a Wednesday night showcase at the Connection, which continued through the winter this year, partly in response to the number of people who want to get up on stage, says club owner Keithly. This summer, he will for the first time open a Tuesday-night showcase as well.

Morgan, who also is part of a trio of comedian-moms called “Mama’s Night Out,” says the Connection is “a really really good room” to work in, and preaches patience for those who wish to “make it big.”

“You have to sort of pay your dues in the showcase nights,” she says, noting that “the only way to get good is to do it over and over.”

Where to turn?
Liquid Blue’s Manning says his foray into comedy was “not about making money. This was about creating something that wasn’t there in Portland.”

And even now, a year on, comedy is a “loss leader” — a way to get people into the club who might not otherwise come. Manning’s operating costs include paying the comics, but, he says, the acts do attract new folks to his venue.

Manning and others at venues featuring comedy have found an expanded demographic showing up on laugh nights, which Manning says shows that people in their 40s, 50s, and even 60s “want to come and experience the Old Port” and feel safe doing so. At the same time, Acoustic Coffee made its weekly open-mic night an every-other-week event, in part because stand-up brought in fewer folks than live musicians do, according to Brinegar.

The Comedy Connection is also banking on an expanded draw, with plans to book stand-up comics at neighboring Boone’s Restaurant as part of that venue’s conversion to host corporate and group functions, Ferrell says.

Dan Drouin, owner of Thatcher’s in Westbrook, hopes to have Laugh Your Ass Off comics “at least once a month.” Recent shows have gone “really well” with “a lot of response,” particularly from people who don’t want to go into the Old Port. “It would be great if there were more places” for folks to go for comedy, he says.

Steve Burnette, the new producing director at the Biddeford City Theater, wants to be one of those places. His take, influenced in part by his experience with the Second City comedy troupe in Chicago, is to have an in-house improvisation and sketch-comedy group who can fill in between theatrical runs and other larger shows. Burnette says he also plans to have local stand-up a couple of nights a year.

Another aspect of the scene will come from Tim Reed, the new booking manager at Asylum, who has a couple of major stand-up comics coming to town — Todd Barry and Nick DiPaolo, who have been on Comedy Central — in April. They’re the kind of comics Reed says he wants to see in person, and will have local openers (Brinegar and Eggbot will open for Barry in early April).

Moving on
Nellie Coes, who took Ferrell’s class and went straight into this year’s “America’s Funniest Mom” competition, also credits Ferrell’s class and Keithly’s club with generating enough would-be comics to drive the rapid changes in Portland’s comedy scene. And when Coes found out she was one of the 20 semi-finalists in the competition, the Connection gave her some time to perform to prepare. She made it into the top 10, but is forbidden by contest rules from saying how well she did beyond that point.

Coes recognizes the growing scene here, but doesn’t see that much room to grow. It’s hard to get stage time, she knows, but asks rhetorically of those who want it, “Why the fuck would you live here?”

That’s a point of view endorsed by Collins, who plans to visit Los Angeles in April and perhaps move there with his family later this year.

Collins started in stand-up before Ferrell’s class began, and estimates the class “saves people probably two or three years” of experience. But he worries that the glut of new comedians could set the business back 10 years, when part of what killed the national comedy scene was that so many people were performing, and so many of them were not actually funny.

And Collins wonders if more venues in a place like Portland means people don’t have to be as serious, or sacrifice as much to get on stage, meaning less-dedicated folks can think they’re making it.

Marley, who moved to Boston and then Los Angeles and is only recently back to calling Maine home, says he is only able to live in Maine as a comedian because he makes his living on the road. “You’ve got to go to a bigger city” to really improve and get known, he says.

Marley suggests people work on comedy in Portland for a year, working wherever they can. But then, “once you get 10 or 15 minutes together, the first thing you ought to think about doing is moving.”

“You’ve got to get out there and challenge yourself,” he says. “I always tell new guys, ‘work on your set and move out of here so in 15 years when I’m on my way down I can open for you.’”

Marley likes it that a lot of folks are involved in comedy, and thinks they are “better comedians” for the practice they’re getting in the various places, but he’s blunt about the future. “I think a lot of them are probably going to go on to do really great things, once they move.”

Into the unknown
A new crop of folks is already on the street, working on making themselves better comedians. The Portland’s Funniest Professional contest began earlier this month, with 80 or 90 would-be comics, many graduates of Ferrell’s classes.

Perry would like to see more open mic nights, more venues, and even comedians opening for music acts, like Andrew Dice Clay and Sam Kinison used to.

“This is something beginning here” says Brinegar, who is so driven to do things in unorthodox ways that he writes “M.H.” on his own skin before each show, in memory of comedy’s late off-beat renegade Mitch Hedberg.

Collins says the future of comedy may be looking brighter, but doubts it will ever return to where it was in the ’80s, when comedians were performing seven nights a week in the bigger cities, some raking in six-figure incomes. He says more folks are turning to comedy now, though — even his regular tiny gigs at the University of New England student center are drawing more folks than he’s seen in years. “I have no idea what’s causing that,” he says, though he guesses it could be because Comedy Central is back to showing more stand-up performances (rather than comedy shows like Reno 911 and South Park).

He says the money is in “the four Cs” — casinos, colleges, corporations, and cruises. The fifth C, clubs, are in a distant last place as far as making a living as a comic, Collins says. Clubs, however, are where comics make or break their reputations.

Marley and Collins see new ways to get “discovered,” besides just going somewhere else. Dane Cook from Massachusetts is nationally known from his massive following on ( Collins notes there is a Maine effect as well, citing one comic who sold out his first performance at the Comedy Connection by networking online. And Marley filled his first-ever show in Denver the same way, bringing a seven-fold raise for his second show there.

New marketing, new venues, new comics — it all makes Marley “really happy,” he says. “None of that was ever available to me when I was starting out.”

Acoustic Coffee | open mic every other Wednesday | 32 Danforth St, Portland | 207.774.0404 |

Chappie’s | every Thursday | 1192 Forest Ave, Portland | 207.797.9155

Cocktails | every Monday | 6 East Grand Ave, Old Orchard Beach | 207.934.4068

Comedy Connection | every Wednesday through Sunday | 6 Custom House Wharf, Portland | 207.774.5554 |

Liquid Blue | every Friday and Saturday | 440 Fore St, Portland | 207.774.9595 |

Asylum | 121 Center St, Portland | 207.772.8274

Café DeCarlo | every three months | 163 Main St, Bridgton | 207.647.4596 |

City Theater | 205 Main St, Biddeford | 207.282.0849 |

Geno’s | the Escapists sketch comedy, monthly | 625 Congress St, Portland | 207.221.2382 |

Keeley the Katerer | benefit shows | 178 Warren Ave, Portland | 207.797.3550 |

Memory Lane | monthly | 2 Ossipee Trail East (Route 25), Standish | 207.642.3363 |

Oddfellow Theater | sketch comedy, monthly | Route 117, Buckfield | 207.336.3306 |

Spectators Sports Bar | Route 4, Sanford | 207.324.9658

Steep Falls Fire Barn | every other month | 87 Boundary Rd, Standish | 207.642.3461

Thatcher’s Westbrook | 506 Main St, Westbrook | 207.854.5600

Host | Warms up the crowd, introduces comics, keeps atmosphere going throughout the night.

Showcase | A short (five- to 10-minute) slot for a young comic, often part of a “showcase night,” a series of eight to 10 such acts held usually on weeknights, in which comedians try out new material or refine existing jokes.

Feature | A mid-level comic; two or three perform 15- to 20-minute spots to get the night going and lead up to the headliner.

Headliner | A top-notch comic with 10 or 15 years of experience, the main performer of the night, who will perform for as much as an hour.

Oliver Keithly, owner of the Comedy Connection in Portland, used to work at the club of the same name in Boston. He owns the rights to the name, so when he moved to Maine, he used it for his club. The two are otherwise unaffiliated.