People from all over the world have been laughing about Portland for a while. Portlandia is in its fourth season, and the city was recently ranked as one of the nation’s funniest. Even comedian John Oliver has placed his acerbic microscope over the culture of this beloved community.
Never mind if people have been laughing with or at us — many of the people coming up with the jokes have at some point been a part of the Bridgetown Comedy Festival.
Now turning 7, Bridgetown is earning a reputation for being a different type of festival, one that not only showcases world-class talent, but that fosters a sense of community among comedians. In a 2012 interview with Wired, one of Bridgetown’s founders, Andy Wood, referred to the festival as a “giant summer camp for comedians.”
This month, over the course of four nights, the annual event will bring together thousands of comedy fans with a carefully curated roster of up-and-coming performers and comedy veterans from around the world. And not just stand-up comedians, either: Bridgetown also attracts writers for some of the most popular television comedies, including 30 Rock, Arrested Development, The Daily Show and Saturday Night Live.
Although the festival draws a variety of comic talent, Bridgetown’s vibe doesn’t necessarily cater to the larger commercial ecosystem of the entertainment industry. Instead, it focuses on comedians as people and supporting their lives off-stage.
“Unlike other festivals and competitions, we are not specifically focused on presenting new talent to managers and agents, but instead, to diehard comedy fans,” explains Maura Brown, director of publicity for Bridgetown. “Of course, industry has caught on, and they’re certainly in attendance, but the festival has no specific focus or objective when it comes to industry.”
“Comedians come here [for the festival] because Portland is this place where people can just kind of relax and hang out and see people — friends, enemies, nemeses, whoever — and just have a beer and hang out,” said longtime Portland comedian Ian Karmel, who moved to Los Angeles shortly after last year’s festival for the opportunity work on the E! Network’s talk show Chelsea Lately.
“There are contacts to be made and connections to be made, but for the most part it’s like hanging out with friends that you haven’t seen in a long time, outside of LA or New York,” Karmel added.
Karmel will be back at Bridgetown this year, performing standup and participating in other showcase events like the ever-popular “Competitive Erotic Fan Fiction” hosted by comedian Bryan Cook.
Another Oregon-raised comedian and Bridgetown regular, Ron Funches, agrees Bridgetown is a little different from other festivals.
“I know most of these comedians very well,” said Funches from the boisterous back patio of the White Owl Social Club, the site of last year’s closing after-party. “We’ve spent a lot of the worst times possible together — at horrible shows where people aren’t digging it and all we have is each other.”
That evening, emotions were running high as the White Owl crowd of fans and performers lingered into the wee hours. Comedians were seen hopping into cabs bound for the Portland Airport, bidding adieu to their comedic comrades and heading back to the real world after their stay at “summer camp.”
“I got choked up when I saw you on stage,” one local comedian, Christian Ricketts, said to Funches in passing. “I didn’t expect that.”
The two began talking about old times on the Portland comedy circuit, reminiscing about watching old performances by U.K. comedian Peter Serafinowicz who performed to sell-out crowds at the Bagdad and Hollywood Theaters last year.
“We would just hang out, watch videos together and learn about comedy together. We know each other from here. It’s just a community,” said Funches of his time with Ricketts.
Funches was scheduled to appear at this year’s festival, but had to withdraw due to scheduling conflicts. This will be the first time Funches has missed Bridgetown.
“I’ll tell you what inspires me: watching good comics,” said Shane Torres, a local comedian who, like Funches, has been at every Bridgetown festival.
Torres said Bridgetown is great recognition for the comedians who inspire him.
“Ian Karmel; Sean Jordan; Barbara Holm is wonderful; Jen Allen is great,” he said. “Mandie Allietta is very funny as well.”
Even though Allietta has yet to perform on a Bridgetown stage and has since moved away, Torres said that local comedians are still a part of the Bridgetown community, playing a huge role in keeping the spirit of comedy in the city alive.
This year, Bridgetown will see the return of many of last year’s performers, including Reggie Watts and Baron Vaughn, as well as a crop of comedians new to the festival like W. Kamau Bell, Sean Cullen and Jamie Lee. And the festival will offer more venues, running the gamut from places like the White Owl Social Club and the Hawthorne Theater, to new venues like the Doug Fir Lounge and Jupiter Hotel.
For a full list of 2014 performers and venues, visit the Bridgetown Comedy Festival website.
Editor’s Note - May 2, 2014: A previous version of this article stated that Jen Allen has not previously performed at the Bridgetown Comedy Festival when in fact, Jen Allen was a performer in 2012.