The Bridgetown Comedy Festival has been likened in Wired magazine to a “summer camp for comedians,” but also “a victim of its own success” in a Portland Mercury article—as if holding a bursting-at-the-seams comedy festival is a bad thing.
Well, it can be. But more on that in a minute.
Bridgetown is about the art of the show, whether it’s stand up, a multimedia panel or a character-based set, and there’s no perfect-fit metaphor for something that spreads 200-plus funny people across 11 venues for the better part of a week. Especially when the headliners are mid-level names known to nerds and late-night TV watchers, including Janeane Garofalo, Todd Barry, Maria Bamford, Tim Heidecker, Jon Glaser and Doug Benson. It’s consciously angled toward the young and hip, which makes Portland, Oregon a perfect home for it.
Founded by Portland comic Andy Wood (now based in L.A.) and co-run with Matt Braunger, Kimberly Brady and others, the festival is also by and for comics. From the venue choices to scheduling and freebies like Sizzle Pie pizza and Voodoo Doughnuts, Bridgetown promotes a general camaraderie. That was clear in the chatter among performers in green rooms and at after-parties at this year’s fifth annual event. Whether it was a comic’s first year or third, getting a coveted spot there was intensely validating.
The festival’s apathy toward media and its seemingly stoned volunteers, however, lent it a loose vibe that one would stereotypically associate with Portland, and made some of the proceedings less than efficient. But that can be forgiven when the density of talent is so impressive—even if it requires short cab rides or frenzied bouts of power-walking to catch overlapping sets.
A mid-evening “Primetime” set at Bar of the Gods on Thursday was an early indicator of the diversity and promise: Portland hero Ian Karmel played along with Bryan Cook, Adam Newman, Jaqi Furback, Ben Roy, Robert Dean and others. For a smoky, drafty backroom on Hawthorne Boulevard, it was surprisingly cozy. Karmel fared best while delving into his Italian-Jewish heritage and extolling the virtues of monkeys riding dogs while dressed like cowboys. Roy went full force on the small audience, climbing furniture and lying on peoples’ laps as he ranted gleefully.
Ron Funches, another local hero, helped kick off a later set at the Bagdad Theater, which featured Adam Cayton-Holland, Alex Koll, Nate Bargatze and headliner Howard Kremer, among others. Different vibe, same buffet-like approach. In fact, Thursday night in general provided a window into how the same bits did (or didn’t) work in various contexts, since attendees were bound to see the same performers do the same sets more than once. An example was loose-limbed madman Eric André, who recently announced an Adult Swim series, barely tweaking his locked-in material from the Denver-based Grawlix show on Saturday to one across the hall at the Mt. Tabor Theater. The energy worked everywhere. That contrasted with sets from James Adomian, whose mastery of impressions and penchant for slipping into them at a moment’s notice made it impossible to see the same set twice.
One could witness Janeane Garofalo do stand up—as she did at Jon Glaser’s packed, late-starting Delocated showcase on Saturday night at the Bagdad Theater—or talk about movies as part of the Comedy Film Nerds summer preview/podcast at Mt. Tabor with Graham Elwood, Chris Mancini and (eventually) Doug Benson. That show was necessarily general-audience, taking on everything from Dark Shadows and Prometheus to The Expendables 2, but it at least felt like enough of a Comic Con panel to justify the title. One could also see the inimitable Maria Bamford do a straight stand-up set (if that’s possible) or see her channel the disturbing life coach Barb in the Persona! show, which also featured Upright Citizens Brigade co-founder Matt Besser and others inhabiting various oversized characters.
Like a lot of comedy, highlights came from unexpected places. Adomian playing the Sheriff of Nottingham at The Grawlix could have been merely funny, but he stalked the audience with a glass of red wine, maniacally demanding to know where they were hiding Robin Hood. His brilliant commitment to the bit made it one of the undisputed high points. A panel for the forthcoming book and research project The Humor Code was one of the most talked-about of the fest, even at 4 p.m. on Saturday. Colorado professor Peter McGraw and writer Joel Warner invited comics Pete Holmes, Myq Kaplan and Mary Mack to sit on the panel, which took a scientific approach to understanding humor and was moderated by Jordan, Jesse, Go! podcast co-host Jordan Morris. The comics’ banter frequently threatened to overtake their quieter, more hesitant guests (especially Mack’s irritating, petulant presence) but there was genuine insight in the Venn diagrams and experiment descriptions. Attendees could also see smaller names like Dwayne Perkins and Jamie Lee—two of the fest’s most pleasant surprises—kill it at the Hawthorne Theatre, or watch fest co-organizer Braunger get rapturous applause at his triumphant Saturday night show.
In other words, you could act like you were at a festival: getting drunk and exploring some of the best stand up in America through a bewildering variety of shows that tested even the most hardcore comedy nerds’ stamina.