Well, that was unexpected! Last night was Helium Comedy Club's annual Portland's Funniest Person contest. The final round is always hosted by the previous year's winner; last night's host, Shane Torres, said that 180 people signed up for the contest this year, which are winnowed down over about a month (based on audience response in the early rounds, then by judges in the semifinals) to the final 12.
I've always been skeptical of Funniest Person's popularity-contest element—comics are given a bunch of free tickets to the contest's first round and encouraged to pack the house with supportive friends, and it's always seemed very likely that good comics could get ousted by less-talented standups with louder friends. I gotta say, though: Last night's lineup was a very good, very representative snapshot of comedy in Portland right now. I've been a judge at the final rounds for three years running now, and this year's lineup was easily the best.
And everyone did great, some technical difficulties notwithstanding (WTF was up with that mic?). To name check a few people: Gabe Dinger, Amy Miller, Sean Jordan, and Bri Pruett had some of the best sets I've ever seen from them, Jacob Christopher keeps getting funnier, and I'll put $5 on Stephanie Purtle being one of the best comics in town in a few years.
I was one of about nine judges, which means I got to weigh on on the outcome, though my opinions were not particularly well represented in the final decision. The other judges included the wonderful Portland comic Susan Rice, who shared my dismay that Bri Pruett didn't place; Ground Kontrol's Art Santana; three hosts of the podcast Funemployment Radio; a Seattle comedy booker; a guy who produces a sports radio show and goes by "Pork Chop"*. (If you enjoy counting these sorts of things—I do—there were three women judges, and three of the twelve comics performing were women.)
So on to the results: No one expected Steven Wilber to win. I very much doubt that Steven Wilber expected Steven Wilber to win. He's very funny but not particularly high profile; he has a terrific five minutes that include some awkward white-guy rapping and a brilliant series of high-concept mnemonic devices for remembering the presidents and the planets. He was also the only comic last night to do a character-based set, which I think probably helped him out with the other judges. He had a great set, and he stood out. Is he ready to host at Helium, or to take on the entirely unenviable task of killing vast swaths of time while the Funniest Person jokes are being tallied up, like Shane Torres had to do last night? We'll find out next year...
Adam Pasi took second place. He's got tremendous stage presence and charisma, so it didn't come as a surprise, but he didn't get my vote because I'm not sold on his material—I'd really like to see Pasi develop some jokes that aren't based on the idea that a big dude being "girly" is hilarious, or that a straight dude sucking a dick is hilarious. He does the best-case, most-progressive versions of these premises—and they're very funny—but I still find them at core a little underwhelming.
And Gabe Dinger, always a bridesmaid, came in third (he's placed for three years running). He had what I thought was one of the best sets of the night, and I'm surprised he didn't place higher, though he almost did: The judges had to do a second round of voting where we were asked to choose between Pasi, Dinger, and Pruett, which means those three were neck-and-neck in the voting.
For the record, my top three were Gabe Dinger, Bri Pruett, and Curtis Cook**. Dinger's a punchline machine and the audience loved him last night. For charisma, confidence, and stage presence, no one beats Bri—she's gotten very, very good. And while Curtis Cook's delivery can be inconsistent, he's ridiculously smart and his material consistently surprises and impresses me.
Again, though: Last night's lineup was ridiculous, the show was beyond sold out, and every single comic brought something interesting to the table. It's a very, very good time to be a fan of Portland comedy. And congrats to Steven Wilber, Portland's new Funniest Person!
*Helium really, really needs to be more strategic in selecting their judges. Why weren't any of the producers of Bridgetown on the panel? They were at the show; I saw them. How about the O's Kristi Turnquist, who's been covering Portland comedy for years? Why not get an agent or manager in there, or someone from Kill Rock Stars, since they produce comedy records now? (I think someone from KRS judged the semifinals, though I'm not positive about that.) The complete randomness of the judging panel is always a head scratcher—it undermines the credibility of the contest, frankly. Seriously, why the fuck is John Canzano's producer judging a local comedy contest?
**I went down a conflict of interest rabbit-hole on this one, and spent a long time last night second-guessing my own opinions: Bri is a columnist for the Mercury, I've profiled Curtis, and Gabe recently gave me great advice on trying standup for the first time. I think they're all wonderful. Is it because I'm biased? MAYBE. I don't think so—voting was anonymous and I certainly wasn't worried about hurting anyone's feelings—but... It's worth noting.