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Closed Mic

Remembering Portland's Wildest Comedy Night

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ON DECEMBER 18, Suki's Bar and Grill held its last comedy open mic. Sure, there are plenty of other mics in town, but Suki's had become somewhat legendary among both comedians and fans—for better and for worse. It was known as a fun room that could turn brutal. "Doing stand-up at Suki's," says comedian and Mercury columnist Ian Karmel, "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."

Brad Stephens, an actor and bartender at Suki's, started the open mic in the summer of 2006, "before there were 5,000 other mics in town," and before Helium Comedy Club opened with their Tuesday open mic. 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 Jimmy Newstetter, the mic's last host, "Considering the steady decline of performers and patrons, I think it was just an easy business decision to replace it with karaoke."

The open mic may have run its course, but comedy at Suki's, a bar that's tucked under the Travelodge on SW 4th, isn't gone for good. The bar's owners are interested in exploring a new model, so Stephens, Newstetter, and fellow comedian Whitney Streed are developing a regular comedy showcase that will keep comedy on the Suki's stage in a more sustainable way.

They're still working out the details, but Streed says it will hinge on comics improvising jokes based on audience suggestions, followed by improv games like they used to play to close out the open mic. They expect the monthly show to start on the first Sunday in March.

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

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Brad Stephens, Originator of the Suki's Open Mic

I've seen prostitutes get punched, the Sklar Brothers do a set randomly, Dax Jordan do gay cowboy porn. I told jokes and they were terrible. 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 meant so much to everybody.

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Dax Jordan, Comedian and Former Suki's Host

Some other comics and I had to tackle an irate German visitor who ran the length of the room to 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... 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 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 where I read the dirtiest, most ridiculous passages from an Old West-period gay porn novel I found in the sound booth. I used my best Sam Elliott voice, index finger standing in as mustache.

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Jimmy Newstetter, Comedian and Former Suki's Host

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.

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Virginia Jones, Comedian

Suki's, with its hilarious combination of [Portland State University] 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.

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Shelley Miller, Comedy Fan and Supporter

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 performed. Some of the best and brightest have started there and moved on. I'm very sad that Suki's open mic is no longer.

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Whitney Streed, Comedian

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.

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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 at Suki's!).

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Ian Karmel, Comedian

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.

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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. 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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Christian Ricketts, Comedian

Once I started comedy I went to Suki's whenever possible, and it was a great space for doing more abstract and experimental sets, such as using a tape recorder, playing a washtub bass, and later characters. Somehow the shittiness and low expectations made me feel more comfortable.

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Joe Hieronymus, Comedian

When I performed at Suki's, I felt like Jeff Healey and his band in Road House, but before Patrick Swayze was hired. It was truly the Wild West of Portland comedy open mics. I'll never forget when Shawn Fleek and I were struggling to escort out an inebriated and 86ed patron and Jimmy Newstetter walked over, took hold of the guy, looked him in the eye and dropped him to the floor with a headbutt. Incredible.

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Gabe Dinger, Comedian

From the beginning it was a tough room. No one understood what the open mic was. It was the most likely place to get heckled. Or have a homeless man come in and say he'd been "eating lipstick to get fucked up."

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Kristine Levine, Comedian

Since people can stay upstairs [at the motel] sometimes customers get a little rowdy. And you could always tell. "It's gonna be one of those Suki's nights, right?" Yep. Another weird night at Suki's. I think that's because nothing was off limits. It just felt free there. I always call Suki's Portland's Art Bar. So many creatives hole up there and call it home.

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Cody McCullar, Comedian

With any set there, the first challenge would be to get the room's attention, a skill that every comic desperately needs. Being funny was just a bonus. I saw numerous young comics struggle there just because they couldn't find a way to be heard, and I saw many conquer that struggle.

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Andrew R Tonry, Comedy Fan and Writer

Suki's was... a flashpoint. As one of the few incubators of young Portland talent, it was a place where growing comics gathered to learn and, in effect, challenged each other. It was like Lennon and McCartney, except with Bain, [Ron] Funches, Ricketts, and [Don] Frost. But they were all friends. All of them. It was a place where everyone cared. And got stoned in the parking lot.

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Comedy Open Mics

Suki's wasn't the only open mic in town. There are plenty of other bars and clubs that host weekly or monthly open mics for stand-ups. Be sure to check each venue's website for details on how to sign up.

The Boiler Room, 228 NW Davis, Mon 9-11 pm, boilerroomportland.com

Brody Theater, 16 NW Broadway, Wed & Thurs 9:30 pm, brodytheater.com

ComedySportz, 1963 NW Kearney, first Sat of every month, 10 pm, portlandcomedy.com

Curious Comedy Theater, 5225 NE MLK, Sun 8 pm, curiouscomedy.org

Funhouse Lounge, 2432 SE 11th, Tues 8:30 pm, funhouselounge.com

Gypsy, 625 NW 21st, Thurs 9 pm, cegportland.com/gypsy

Helium Comedy Club, 1510 SE 9th, Tues 8 pm, heliumcomedy.com

Red Room, 2530 NE 82nd, Mon 10 pm

Tonic Lounge, 3100 NE Sandy, Wed 11 pm (after the Tonic's Weekly Recurring Comedy Night at 9:30 pm)

Compiled by Alison Hallett. If your open mic isn't on the list, email arts@portlandmercury.com and we'll update the web version of this article. Hat tip to the PDX Comedy Blog at pdxcomedyblog.com, a great resource for local comedians and fans.

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