Bridgetown Comedy Festival feels like a different beast this year, and it took me all of yesterday, stumbling half-drunk up Hawthorne to catch my friends and idols’ performances to figure out what has changed.
Bridgetown finally has its shit together. Completely.
In the first or maybe second year of Bridgetown, I helped the two biggest names in Portland’s then-still-tiny comedy scene put up promotional flyers on Hawthorne telephone poles. The flyers were an aesthetic nightmare and the biggest name on that year’s festival had to drop out at the last minute (for entirely legitimate reasons that nobody begrudged). The venues and cash-boxes were under the supervision of volunteers, and plenty of people who should have paid didn’t. Shows collided like trains in a Michael Bay blockbuster as drunk comics showed up late or not at all. Transportation was a logistics disaster. Some rooms, even as recently as last year’s festival, were tragically filled with amazing talents playing to military-precise rows of empty chairs. And my God, the cramped after-parties. What the fuck are all these people doing in this tiny room? How did an open-mic comic from Denver who is not performing at the festival end up DJing and making out with that volunteer everyone wants to bang?
This year there is a professionalism to Bridgetown, like the young foal that finally has its legs. Shane Torres didn’t need to put up any promotional flyers, the after-party has competent security, the stage managers have strict orders and the performers have been warned about punctuality. It makes me so proud to have witnessed the growth and development of this fine annual event, and just a little bit misty for the days that it felt like anything could go wrong at any moment.
No one person at the festival more perfectly embodies this change than Festival Director Andy Wood. I recall specifically that in those first couple of years, Andy was seemingly everywhere at once, dropping off boxes of T-shirts at one venue, frantically calling another to try and get a car sent to the airport, and another sent to a hotel. I am sure his workload is substantial this year as well. But on Wednesday night at Tonic Lounge during the unofficial opening ceremonies, Andy was sitting at the bar by himself for a moment and I walked by and said hello, as I only see Andy in person once a year. He has a calm, even and cheerful demeanor that is an unmistakable mark of a professional entertainment producer. It is inspiring, having seen him sweat through the early years and seeing him now, able and willing to relax and enjoy himself as his well-oiled machine of venue, volunteer, talent and transportation coordinators puts out a quality festival. (full disclosure: PDXComedyBlog owner-operator Whitney Streed walks among the organizers this year).
Bridgetown is at the peak of its festival game. The talent is consistently impressive, with newcomers, mid-level acts and internationally-known stars mingling, sharing stories, industry contacts and sometimes bodily fluids. My only concern for Bridgetown’s future is that people in Portland will take this event for granted, that the smooth functioning of this amazingly elaborate affair will make it seem less precious to DIY-crazy Portlanders whose tastes skew toward the Wabi-sabi, which Bridgetown once embodied, over the flawless and modern, which this festival has officially become.
Andy Wood and his cohort of festival-organizing friends have altered Portland permanently, and there is not a comedian in Portland or the world who would return us to the days before Bridgetown, when roughly one dozen people made up the regular contingent of open-mic comedy performers, when opening a show at Harvey’s Comedy Club was the gold-standard for Portland comedy success, and when Ian Karmel was still in college and taking improv classes instead of teaching them. In those days Andy Wood was just leaving his career in engineering to pursue his dreams. One could have been forgiven back then for seeing Andy as a man with his head in the clouds. Nowadays he just seems to float around on one, the calm bird of the furious storm that is the Bridgetown Comedy Festival.
See ALL THE SHOWS at Hawthorne area venues this weekend, along with Hollywood Theater and White Owl Social Club.