Doors to the Helium Comedy Club showroom opened at 7:30 p.m. and by then a line had formed through the entire bar, almost to the exit stairs. On the night of July 7, a flood of 270 people jammed into the once-quiet auditorium for the finals of the Portland’s Funniest Person competition.
Before the competition, 12 contestants mingled with the crowd in the bar area or huddled in the green room, their nerves likely firing constantly with excitement and fear for the crown and glory that could be theirs at the end of the night.
Last year’s Funniest Person winner, Steven Wilber, opened the show with a quick set and personalized introductions for the performers, all inspired by the introduction scene in the classic Dirty Dancing.
The 12 performers took the stage, thinned down from the original 130-plus contestants. Of the 12, Amy Miller left the stage with the title of Portland’s Funniest Person 2015. Her act was short, cute and full of emotion.
Bri Pruitt took second and Noriko Ott took third, surely a tough decision for the judges as this year’s comedians all brought an amazing game.
Miller’s set was focused around white trash (an evergreen topic in comedy), women adjusting their clothes and comedy about herself.
“The contest this year seemed less about current events, I smoke weed [and] Portland is weird,” Miller said, “and more about personal experience, identity and family stuff. Which I love!”
A large portion of the comics were not afraid to comment on their own looks, style, personality and stereotypes. It was this candidness that made the show as a whole feel authentic and honest.
“I was very happy with the show,” said Helium’s General Manager, Shana Delwiche. “It was a definite success. Every performer on the show was incredibly talented, the show sold out and the energy in the room was exciting.”
There was a subtlety in Miller’s comedy that may have had an influence on the judges. In one joke, she spoke about the massive number of dogs in a white trash neighborhood:
“Nobody knows where the fuck they came from,” she said. “Oh my God, are we adopting these dogs, or did they just wander in? Why are they always panting? It’s winter!”
Miller had an honesty and ability to stay in character which made her set magical. Multiple times during her set, her voice cracked with emotion. She was able to pull emotion from the audience: a little sympathy, a little uncertainty, a little truth and a lot of laughs.
She drew the audience into her character, leaving them unsure of how much of it was a show and how much was real. Does she have an uncle who lives in a trailer with a crow, who is a wizard? Who knows?
“Like any comedy scene, there is a very dark side,” Miller said. “We’ve been seeing a lot of that dark side lately. And painting a rosy and perfect picture of our scene only contributes to people, especially women, feeling like they cannot speak up when there are horrific things going on.”
Miller attributed Portland’s very polite comedy scene demeanor to the lack of diversity found within it. Portland’s comedic community is mainly made up of one kind of person—white males, which can make the comedy seem insular and unwelcoming.
Race was another topic brought up often throughout the night. In the time of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal church shooting in Charleston and the reported race war the shooter sought to ignite, this comedy about race was both necessary and dangerous. The comics not only made the audience think about serious issues intelligently, but also encouraged them to move past them through laughter.
This contest showed that Portland is a home to a large variety of comics, not afraid to make fun of themselves and not afraid to tackle serious issues.
For those interested in getting into comedy locally, Portland is lucky enough to have an array of comic venues for aspiring comedians.
“We are blessed to have a ton of stage time,” Miller said. “There are so many well-produced shows and almost nightly open mics. Any night you might be in the doldrums—you leave a bad date, you lost your job, your cat still hasn’t died—you can find a place to see friends and perform.”
Miller parted with some advice for aspiring comedians.
“If you feel like you are going to die and you keep going back, you’re on the right track,” she said. “On the flip side of that, if you think you are killing [it] every time, you should quit.”
Miller will be featured on the upcoming season of the reality TV show Last Comic Standing, starting July 22.