It felt like the longest five minutes of my life. It was my second time performing standup comedy, but my first at the appropriately-named Boiler Room. It was in the Old Town neighborhood of Portland, Oregon, surrounded by a few strip clubs, bad Chinese restaurants, and homeless shelters. A week or so earlier in November of 2007 my set at the Hungry Tiger Too went well (for a virgin set), or so I thought. This was a different kind of room, with a bar running down the center of it dividing the audience into two separate groups, neither of which were paying attention. (The word “audience” reads better than people waiting to sing karaoke.)
When your earliest sets in standup are opening for drunks singing Billy Joel songs and young women performing horrid renditions of Spice Girls songs, you’re clearly off to a roaring start. I failed for the length of my set and put the mic back in the stand, leaving the stage to one or two undeserved claps from generous people. Stepping outside to have a smoke and think about what had just happened, the host of the open mic, Kevin Michael Moore, walked out and said “keep coming back.” Nine years later, I came back for the last time.
It was the final night of The Boiler Room open mic’s 15-year run as the longest-running independent comedy open mic on the west coast. The bar is not allowed to renew its lease – the Boiler Room is open too late and doesn’t open early enough, according to the new owners. The Old Town neighborhood is rapidly becoming gentrified, with $500,000 condos and mommy & me yoga classes popping up everywhere. So comedians flew in from NYC and LA to say goodbye and watch the bar get shuttered.
The night was emotional for many in the room because it was the place where many comedians learned to fail and succeed on stage. Anybody can kill in a good room where the table is set and all you have to do is sit down for dinner, but if you can force a room to turn and listen you’re doing something right. Simply put, this was not just a place where you did an open mic, but a clubhouse for a lot of Portland comics. These kinds of rooms are special in every city and scene not because they’re good, because they’re where you are battle tested with other comics, first timers, and – if you’re lucky – friends. If the secret and key to comedy is timing, it can’t just relate to the stage. You could be fortunate in your early years in comedy and find a place with a group of peers that make you want to be a better comedian, not because you want to get on New Faces or a mention in Splitsider, but because you want to get better. The Boiler Room was that place for a lot of comedians in Portland over the past 15 years. I met a million people in this room that I can’t remember and handful I will never forget.
Many of the comics took the stage at what essentially turned into a wake and talked about some kind of specific memory. Bridgetown Comedy Festival founder Andy Wood told the story about how on one of his first nights there he walked out to see a pregnant woman squirting breast milk into comedians mouths so “they could know the taste.” Another highlight was local legend and Portland favorite Don Frost fresh off a vasectomy that morning yelling and wincing about how when the building is turned into a Dutch Brothers coffee shop or whatever the fuck it happens to become he would come back and steal something from it. The night was drawing to a close and comedian after comedian was being marked off the list and the room grew heavier with emotion. The final comedian to take the stage was one of Portland’s reigning comedy champs, Bri Pruett, and comics rushed in to watch it go down. She was an actual employee of the bar and may have held the closing a bit closer to her heart than anyone else in the room that night. Rather than playing to the crowd’s desire for a sweet goodbye, she did a real set and turned the room one last time. She handed the mic back to host Kevin Michael Moore, who actually started this show on his birthday 15 years ago, and the room filled with tears and cheers.
As is tradition at The Boiler Room open mic, every comedian who performed could go on stage and get one last laugh out of the crowd in a short-form improv game of “I like my women” or “Is Like.” These are just audience suggestion-based games that typically ended up being crass ways to make a joke. This tradition started a few years into the open mic’s existence as a way to fill out the show when no one was showing up to it. Everyone was shoulder to shoulder on stage trying to get in one last joke as the show ended.
The good news is that the night does not end here – there are still a gaggle of drunks and young women who need to sing Billy Joel and the Spice Girls.
The truth of the matter is that scenes and communities change based on who participates in them and how they choose to work together in them. While change is a necessary part of growth for anything, so is letting things go. So as the drunken viking funeral that was the last night of the Boiler Room came to an end, comedians from many different eras in Portland comedy huddled over glasses of well whiskey, sharing stories about bombing in this room as if they were scars earned on a battlefield. It’s not the St. Crispin’s Day speech, but it’s funnier. The Boiler Room provided a harmony to the Portland comedy community not because it was a room where everyone killed, but because it was difficult.
Photo by Jason Traeger.