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Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The End of an Era: So long, Suki's Comedy Open Mic

Posted by Temple Lentz on Wed, Jan 23, 2013 at 2:03 PM

The Sklar Brothers performing at Sukis open mic
  • Photo by Veronica Heath
  • The Sklar Brothers performing at Suki's open mic

On December 18, Suki’s Bar & Grill held its last comedy open mic. Sure, there are plenty of other mics in town, but the Suki’s mic had become somewhat legendary among both comedians and fans—for better and for worse. It was known as a really fun room, but also one that could be brutal. About a year ago, I was in a class with comedian Gabe Dinger, who told us that the Tuesday open mic at Helium is a great, really friendly mic. He could go there and have a great set and “get my ego good and inflated." Then he could head over to Suki’s afterward “to have it crushed.”

Brad Stephens, a comic actor and bartender at Suki’s, started the open mic in summer of 2006, “Before there were 5,000 other mics in town,” and before Helium opened with their Tuesday mic. Shortly after starting, he asked Dax Jordan to host it. Jordan eventually moved on, and passed the hosting on to Jimmy Newstetter in March 2011. Newstetter says that the end of the mic was “amicable.” Changes in format and time, and the fact that the thing could sometimes stretch on for hours, had a lot to do with the decision to kill it. Says Newstetter, “Considering the steady decline of performers and patrons, I think it was just an easy business decision to replace it with karaoke.” Stephens confirmed that over the last number of months, “The bar just wasn’t making money on comedy anymore. In fact it was losing money. Everybody at the bar wants it to be successful. And even though a lot of comics took it personally, we’ve got to keep the doors open. If we can make comedy there successful again, the owners are open to it.”

And indeed, the open mic may have run its course but comedy at Suki’s isn’t gone for good. Stephens, Newstetter, and fellow comedian Whitney Streed are developing a regular comedy showcase that will offer something different from other showcases and keep comedy on the Suki’s stage, in a more sustainable way.

They’re still working out the details, but Suki’s management is on board with the show and, according to Streed, “We'll have 4-5 local comics going up and getting suggestions from the audience on subjects to tell jokes about. They'll get a subject, exhaust its humorous potential, and ask for a new one. The whole thing will close with everyone playing joke improv games like we used to play at the end of the open mic.” They’re looking at starting with a monthly show on first Sundays, beginning in March. Once things are finalized, says Streed, they’ll publicize it in February.

Although local comics and many comedy fans are glad to hear that there will still be some comedy at Suki’s, many are still a little sentimental about the loss of the open mic. Following are some memories and anecdotes about the local legend that was the Suki’s Tuesday open mic.

Brad Stephens, originator of the Suki’s open mic
I’ve seen prostitutes get punched, the Sklar brothers do a set randomly, Dax Jordan doing gay cowboy porn. I told jokes and they were terrible. I’ve seen pretty much every comedian in this town be groomed. Richard Bain was one of like four comedians there in the beginning, awkwardly sitting in the back and saying thank you to me for giving them free tater tots for showing up. I’m nobody in comedy but I feel really special that I started a mic that means so much to everybody else.

Dax Jordan, comedian and former Suki’s host
Being a hangout for local drunks and weirdos, as well as being beneath a hotel frequented by the VA's and OHSU's "families waiting for someone to die," gave the night a funky vibe that occasionally broke out in violence. I and some other comics had to tackle an irate German visitor who ran the length of the room try and choke out Kyle Harbert, who escaped injury. I was close to the line of fire when Andy Wood made a joke involving race, and a patron facing away and sitting right at the bar just a few feet away from him, having only heard key words and not the whole joke, flippantly tossed a bottle of hot sauce over his shoulder at Andy and it shattered on the floor. That was pretty Blues Brothers for us.

Ira Novos retired here from Chicago, where he had a legendary status. He was like an awkward, keyboard-playing Borscht Belt relic who knew every song ever, so he became our in house musician. He played old west music for me as I developed what became a regular feature wherein I read the dirtiest, most ridiculous passages from an Old West period gay porn novel I found in the sound booth in my best Sam Elliott voice, index finger standing in as mustache.

Jimmy Newstetter, comedian and former Suki’s host
I believe Suki's had a sense of chaos that made it feel like anything could happen. … In my opinion there is no greater comedy proving ground in Portland. If you can get a laugh at Suki's, you can probably get a laugh anywhere. Not because you're the greatest comedian in the world, but because you are capable of generating something worth noticing. I also truly believe (and this is a bit harsh, granted) that if you can't get a laugh at Suki's, then you probably shouldn't be telling people that you are a comedian.

Virginia Jones, comedian
Suki's was the second place I did open mic in Portland. This is typical, because the Boiler Room was the only open mic that had an ad in the Mercury stating that they had an open mic, so comics would start there, and they'd hear about Suki's from other comedians, much in the way that people at AA meetings pass information to new people on the same journey.

Suki's, with its hilarious combination of PSU students, comics, and real full-time die-hard alcoholics, was like performing in front of wild animals on a potent combination of synthetic opioids and speed.

Shelley Miller, comedy fan and supporter
I first went to Suki's with Veronica Heath for her very first attempt at stand up comedy. That was in mid October, 2006 and I was hooked. I continued to go every Tuesday.Suki's was always a place that comics came to perform and to network and socialize. I thought of the bar as being the family room of the Portland comedy community. It's a wonderfully welcoming place with a friendly staff and a very eclectic group of regulars. Occasionally a nationally known comedian would drop by and do a quick set. My favorite was the night the Sklar Brothers did a set. Some of the best and brightest have started there and moved on. I'm very sad that Suki's open mic is no longer. I am looking for another place to touch bases with my funny friends, but nothing is quite the same.

Whitney Streed, comedian
Suki's has been a huge part of Portland since long before I started doing stand-up. I remember when I first started it was like this gauntlet that you had to pass through. Whether it was raucous or painfully silent, your set at Suki's was likely to be soul-crushing, and I have spent more than one evening in tears in my car wondering what on earth I was doing with my life. But then sometimes this amazing thing would coalesce and somebody would become a giant: Richard Bain talking about Portland, Auggie Smith railing at the world, Dax Jordan reading gay cowboy porn. I remember Christian Ricketts and Jimmy Newstetter improvising some kind of canoe scene, I couldn't even tell you what happened in it, but every single person in the bar was completely consumed with laughter. There's a weird kind of magic in Suki's that lets us transform the most base and average parts of our lives into something transcendent.

I'm quite sad that the Tuesday mic is going away. It feels like my parents just had to move out of my childhood home. So I'm excited to be working with Jimmy on producing a showcase there at the beginning of March, so at least comedy will continue to happen in some way in the space. I think it's going to be a blast.

Veronica Heath, comedian
Some of the biggest events of my life started there. I did my very first open mic there in October 2006, so that's where I fell in love with stand up, and I met my now-husband there over four years ago (he is also the daytime bartender there at Sukis!).

Sukis has so many memories for me that it is really hard to hammer down just a few. It was always awesome when a big(ger) name was in town for a show or Bridgetown and they would do the mic.

Ian Karmel, comedian
Doing stand-up at Suki's was like doing stand-up in the back of a moving garbage truck, and if you can succeed in the back of a moving garbage truck, you know you're on to something.

I think the idea that Suki's represents is this notion of having fun and hanging out with friends without worrying so much about impressing anyone, or how your set went, or if your performance is going to affect how you're booked. That spirit hung out at Suki's, but it wasn't owned by Suki's, it was owned by the Portland comedians—and they, and that notion, aren't going anywhere.

Belinda Carroll, comedian
Suki's was a comic's mic in the true sense of the word. Comics would come with brand new material and succeed—or bomb—and get feedback on the set. A lot of new comics did their very first sets at Suki's. It was like a big comedy clubhouse. I think like everyone else, it's a passing of an institution and we're all sad about it. There will be other mics, but Suki's legend will live on.

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