Comedy Can Save the Day: Portland Comedian Ian Karmel

Ian Karmel
Comedian Ian Karmel

I cannot think of a better week for the Bridgetown Comedy Festival to arrive. Portland will welcome heaps of comics of all varieties this weekend, at a time when it feels as though we could all really use a good laugh. Comics are coming in from all over the country, including a few of my personal favorites like Moshe Kasher, Natasha Leggero and Guy Branum, while showcasing some of Portland’s finest. One comic who stands out among the city’s comedy scene is Ian Karmel.

Recently, I heard an interview with Chris Rock where he described his pre-show ritual of just writing the word “energy” with multiple underlines, which I find is a perfect description of Karmel’s comedic style as well. His comedy reaches out and grabs your attention through anecdotes about everything from a burger called the Juicy Lucy to cowboy-hat wearing monkeys. His clever writing is infectious and delivers the way solid comedy should, with a feel-good sensation that lasts long after his set is done.

Along with regular stand-up shows, Karmel is a contributor to the Portland Mercury with his column, Portland as Fuck, has made an appearance on IFC’s Portlandia, and is a regular panelist on a Comcast SportsNet show called Talkin’ Ball.

Tell A Few Jokes

Q: How did you get started in comedy?

A: Well, I originally started with improv before stand-up. I took a class at Portland State from my uncle, Scott Parker. PSU requires an arts credit to graduate and I thought, hey, this will be an easy one. And then I loved it – it was so much fun. I started doing it as much as I could. I took more improv classes, joined an improv group, and then started another one with my friends from class.

Then I got impulsive—or maybe bull-headed would be a better term—and I just dropped out of school and moved to LA to go to the Groundlings to do their improv school during the day and then performed improv at the Upright Citizens Brigade at night.

I couldn’t find a job in LA; it was during the writer’s strike. So I went back to Portland to get my degree so I could find a job. In the meantime, I tried my hand at stand-up, which I had only done once before. It was always something I thought would be great to do, but I didn’t understand how you even did it…do they just kidnap you and say, “Okay, now you’re a stand-up,” and then you’re a stand-up? I had no idea. So I ended up winning some comedy contests and got hired at Helium, which is a great place. You just make all kinds of great connections with headliners and learn so much.

Q: Who are your comedic influences?

A: Now, Kyle Kinane has been huge. He’s the most important influence who isn’t a family member. He’s my favorite comedian, and watching him on stage is so inspiring. There are certain comics I call Go Home and Write comics when you watch them you’re like, “Fuck I gotta go home and write now”. Hannibal Buress and Pete Holmes are Go Home and Write comics. And then there are certain comics who I watch and think ‘I wish I could write like that’ like Tig Notaro and Maria Bamford.

When I was growing up, I was really inspired by comedy. Dana Carvey had a special called Critic’s Choice, in 1995 or ‘96. I didn’t  get how TV Guide worked  or any of that so when it came on Comedy Central—I was always watching Comedy Central—I’d be like “Guys, it’s on oh my God it’s on!” I must have watched it at least four or five times.

Really though, I’m most inspired by people who show you how to act once you get there.

Q: Tell me about your writing process.

A: I have a couple different processes. Here, look at this. (Pulls out phone). Here’s where I write short ideas, and then later I’ll just sit down and write from these.

Lately, I’ve been doing a lot of writing on stage, which I don’t like as much, though I’ve heard good things. I’ll have one idea—like, “England doesn’t even have any wolves, how dare they judge us?”—and then I’ll go on stage and try to work through that joke.

Crowds are smart; they can tell when creation is happening. I let myself go on tangents, and see where a joke can go. Sometimes I’ll have an idea, loosely memorize it, write down just the beats, having a loose framework to work through. If a tangent finds its way, it’s a good way to go about it. It’s kind of the best from both styles.

Q: Sounds like a very improv way of performing.

A: I did it for three years, it’s in my blood now. I wish I did it more; it would just be silly to get rid of it.

Q: Do you have any pre or post-show rituals?

A: I have stuff I never do – I don’t really like to drink before. Except for my birthday show, when I did my set upfront and then got progressively drunker as I hosted the rest of the show…

If it’s an important show, I’ll listen to music before, like I’ll listen to aggressive rap music. Or Red Fang (a Portland band) before I go up.

Once you get there, you’ll be goofing around in the green room, so by the time you get out on stage you have a nice conversational tone.

Q: Bridgetown Comedy Festival is coming up this week. How many years have you been a part of the festival? How does it stand out from festivals other cities?

A: This is my third year at Bridgetown. For me, it’s home, so it’s amazing that way. It feels more collegial. Everyone’s just hanging out. There’s not as much industry at it. Some festivals, it’s more about the industry— agents, managers, TV channels, entertainment industry people to scout talent.

But at Bridgetown, they cut loose a little bit more. It’s like summer camp or Christmas morning. You get to see people you only see once or twice a year. It’s just great. It’s definitely my favorite festival.

Q: Who should we be sure to see at Bridgetown (besides you of course)? Is there anyone you’re really excited about?

A: There are a lot of big names—you should definitely go see Reggie Watts, with his friend Peter Serafinowicz, who’s actually coming out from England. Jared Logan is from West Virginia and is one of my favorite up-and-coming comics. Todd Glass is really fun; you never know what he’s going to do. Moshe Kasher, definitely. Andy Haynes from Seattle, Richard Bain, who’s from Portland originally. Dan St. Germain. Dana Gould, Matt Braunger.

There are so many cool formats too. There’s Competitive Erotic Fan Fiction, which is so weird and funny, where the comics take suggestions from the crowd and write erotic stuff on the spot.

Q: What restaurants/bars in Portland are at the top of your list for visiting comics?

I try to take them to Fire on The Mountain; we local comics go there a lot. Pok Pok if they’re willing to go out there (sometimes they just want to hole up and eat cheap shitty food, which is nice in Portland because even the cheap shitty food is good). Bunk Sandwiches (especially if I’m joining), Tommy is a big supporter of comedy. He’s put on shows there, which has been great.

As far as bars go, Portland comics go to Holman’s. It’s great because it’s in my neighborhood, and there’s lots of room to spread out, which is nice when we come in with like 30 people, as we often do.

Q: You write a column that focuses on Portlandy things. What dish do you think screams Portland?

A: Has anyone wrapped pork belly in quinoa? Dipped in kale? There are so many different Portlands, I don’t think there is one monolithic Portland.

There’s one sandwich I really love, which has an older Portland feeling, and that’s from Michael’s Italian Beef. That guy is a jerk, but I love him. He’s been there since the 80s and I’m always telling people to get the Italian sausage sandwich, pizza style.

There are inspiring food carts (which I’m aware is a weird thing to say), like Big Ass Sandwiches. They’re people who worked in radio then started a cart. They name sandwiches after comedians, which is nice. And I think they’re pretty involved with the Timbers, too. They seem to really care about the Portland community, too, which I think is a great thing.

Though we’ll have a chance to laugh this weekend, our thoughts are with the victims of the Boston explosions. Learn more about how you can help by visiting the Red Cross website.


~Kat Vetrano

*Photo credit: Ian Karmel


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