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.
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.