A great comedy set is an extremely subjective experience. They come in so many different themes and styles that it’s impossible for one to be universally loved. Someone in the audience is bound to get offended, and typically, comics don’t care. On the contrary, it fuels many of them.
George Orwell’s words, “every joke is a tiny revolution,” ring true today in a time where comedy sheds the remaining vestiges of our puritan past and pushes back against the modern culture of political correctness.
And perhaps nobody’s material balances the line between the hilarious and the socially forbidden like Doug Stanhope, the national comic making a rare appearance as the headliner for the 2nd Portland Maine Comedy Festival at Empire this weekend. Billed as one of the most controversial comedians of all time by Complex Magazine, Stanhope doesn’t hold back on unleashing questionable opinions, vulgar language, and morally outrageous stories. One of Stanhope’s bits trivializes racism, while others seem to downplay the seriousness of drug addiction, suicide, and misogyny. While some might cringe at some of these bits, Stanhope, like most smart comedians, manages to make cogent points about society by the end of them.
And he’s also really, really funny.
While it’s all too easy to offend someone nowadays, it’s also too convenient to write someone off as easily offended. Language, even when wrapped as a joke, can have real-life consequences. Too often, people with legitimate criticisms of performers who frequently rely on racism, sexism, and homophobia as a comedic crutch are reduced to simple, humorless snowflakes.
Is it fair to laugh at the expense of others? Should comedy exist under the notion of “fuck your feelings”? We’ve seen the outrage over “jokes that went too far” recently, both in the cases of Bill Maher casually dropping a racial epithet, and Kathy Griffin posing with a bloody, disembodied Trump head.
So with an art form like comedy that’s built around breaking taboos, where is the line drawn?
The truth is, we’re not sure. But the Portland Maine Comedy Festival might provide answers, as many experienced and talented comics will take the stage. Ian Stuart's the comic and organizer responsible for the festival and he said that something like it didn't exist in Maine and it needed to. He's been in the scene for several years and wanted to showcase the talents of the friends he made along the way.
"I wanted to build shows on merit, get the funniest people I have available to me; so I asked 50 of my friends and we made a whole weekend of comedy possible," said Stuart. "I think it's special anytime you can celebrate and share laughter with your community, and I can't wait to do so this weekend."
In preparation for this three-night festival of unexpected ideas, we're bringing you tiny insights into the personalities of several of the performers.
Jenna McFarland – Relatable Comic, and Queen of Self-Deprecation
How and why did you decide to get into comedy?
I went to a show at the Asylum like three years ago. I signed up for this six-week long comedy workshop. Afterward, I started doing open mics around Portland and loved it.
But oddly enough, I hate being on stage. I do like the attention though. What draws me to it is that I’m able to be myself and know that people find it funny. It’s just part of my personality. I love making people laugh.
What stories do you typically tell on stage?
Really embarrassing stuff from my life.
I’m really open about my sexuality. I like to dispel the notion that females can’t be funny. But my humor isn’t gendered, it’s for everyone. It’s not girl only humor.
How do you feel about sexist jokes? Do they have a place in comedy?
I’m definitely a feminist, and I do see a lot of people rely on sexism jokes. It’s hard because there are some things that are funny and do stem from a real topic or stereotype. They’re not good, but sometimes they come from a real place.
I don’t tell jokes to hurt people. If that’s someone else's schtick, I don’t bash them for it, but it’s not my thing. I just stick with things that people can relate to, otherwise I get uncomfortable. So I just offend myself. I’m self-deprecating, but it’s not because I hate myself, it’s because it’s relatable. I joke about hiding my camel toe because so many girls have been there. Why not make a joke about it?
Are you nervous about telling jokes naked during The Adam and Eve Show?
This is actually my second year doing it! I really enjoyed it, but it was a little nerve-wracking. Originally, it was supposed to be a completely nude show, but some censorship issues came out. We just had to wear pasties and make sure no hair or bits were showing. One of the comics had a sock over his penis.
This time it’s straight-up naked, or whatever people are comfortable with. I’ll make a joke on stage, that most of that audience has already seen me naked either on Facebook or Snapchat.
Are you excited for your second comedy festival?
Yes! Portland’s comedy scene is fantastic. No matter who you’re seeing at the festival, it’s going to be a great show.
Nick Lavallee - National Traveler, Musical Comedian, and Breaker of New England Stereotypes
What was your first foray into comedy like?
I’ve been doing stand-up for over eight years. I was in a punk-ska band for awhile and people would always say that our music was good, but that I was really a comedian. I knew it in the back of my mind. Our lyrics were too goofy. People liked my music but were always waiting to see what I’d say in between songs.
Which comics have inspired you?
I always loved comedy, growing up in Manchester, New Hampshire. Sarah Silverman and Seth Meyers are from there. The first comedy record I ever bought was Adam Sandler’s They’re All Gonna Laugh At You. We went to the same high school. I loved watching him do musical comedy on SNL.
I’m glad I started comedy later in my life after the band broke up. People starting stand up in their early twenties may not have much to talk about.
Performing at the historic Laugh Factory, what was that like?
It’s a legendary club. It was totally surreal. It just doesn’t happen like that. For me to put a record of stand up and produce physical media at the Laugh Factory was amazing. I sent my material on a whim to Jamie Masada at the Laugh Factory, and I actually got a callback. I couldn’t believe it. This was the guy that helped usher Jamie Foxx and Jim Carrey's career. It’s a cool part of my story. I own it now.
Is it hard to market yourself as a comic from New England?
There are plenty of specific jokes I can only get away with telling here, but I can sort of paint New England in broad strokes, and people get it.
As long as the New England stereotype stays a benchmark reference in pop culture, people will get it. Especially if Ben Affleck keeps putting out bad movies.
For a while, I didn’t want to be pigeonholed as a New England stereotype, so I try to challenge that with my act. I’m proud of that. I’ve spent the past 20 months sober, so I use that as a way to break the stereotype. We’re not all Bud Light drinking Patriot fans. We’re so much more than that.
Tell me how you use swears and curse words in your act, and its place in comedy overall?
It’s hard not to answer this without doing a bit. I swear for emphasis. People will tell me, “Nick your act is great, but tone down the swearing or you’ll never get a TV spot.” And usually, my response is “Well, fuck you.” I’m from New England, I can’t help but swear!
However, I have done totally clean sets. You do have to curb it a little. I am trying to swear less. The only time I use the word “fuck” is during that bit I just did. You’ve got to be versatile.
Mark Turcotte – Father, and unapologetic fixture in the New England scene
What's the most amusing thing about where you're from?
I’m from Lewiston. How much time do you have?
Who’s your favorite comic?
George Carlin influenced me more than anyone. He taught me it was okay to question things I was raised not to; our culture, rituals, politics, and beliefs. Not only was I laughing at the material, I was exploring my own sensibility and personal boundaries. He could pull you in with a fart joke and leave you questioning your own existence. His career spanned five decades, evolved through multiple generations, and his final HBO special was as good as the previous 13. He died at age 71 with tour dates on his calendar. Incredible.
Do you have a favorite "dad joke?"
It’s one of my own and I’m sure it qualifies. I designed a newspaper ad for cold medicine and requested it be placed under the weather.
Why did you decide to get into comedy?
I became fascinated with stand-up after seeing Carlin at Carnegie at age 12. I always told myself I’d try it someday, but never really sought an opportunity. Five years ago I signed up for a comedy workshop in Portland. I’ve been writing, performing, traveling, and producing shows ever since.
What jokes would you say garnered the most emotional reaction from the crowd?
I have a bit on my wife Sherri and I dealing with her breast cancer diagnosis. She encouraged me to take on the subject with the rationale being if you can laugh at cancer, just for a few minutes, it loses its power and you get some of your life back. The bit is deeply personal and the response has been overwhelmingly positive. After shows, I’ve had people share their cancer experiences with me — some have resulted in tears from both sides — and express gratitude for allowing them to knock the disease down a few pegs.
Are there any themes/topics that you refuse to touch with your act? Why or why not?
No. I don’t believe any subject is off limits. I will not go out of my way to upset or shock anyone, but I enjoy a challenge. If I can find a way to construct a "controversial" joke that is true to my character, I’ll bring it onstage and hope the audience is up for the ride.
Historically comedy has been all about breaking taboos and ruffling uptight sensibilities. Do you agree with that?
To quote the incomparable Mel Brooks, “comedy is protest.” If comedians aren’t allowed to expose the dishonesty and hypocrisy of our world, who is? It’s a scary concept, but why think about that when Fuller House is on Netflix? I’ve been opening with a bit on the United States and how, for better or worse, we are number one in a lot of areas. I wouldn’t say it’s controversial, it just shines a light on a few disturbing truths and comes back around to provide more of what we all need — laughter.
Rachel Gendron - Thriving Montreal-via-Portland comic and impressionist
Who were the first comics that made you want to tell jokes?
Kyle Ruse - Tattoo Artist and Total Ball-Buster
Do you have a favorite comic?
It’s such a hard question to answer because there are so many different comedians these days. Clean, political, crude, impressionists — that's like asking your favorite musician; it could change with your mood. Lately, I've been on a Sean Rouse kick, along with Dave Attell and my buddy Danny Bevins.
Why did you decide to get into comedy?
I just always admired stand-up and watched a lot of it growing up with my parents. I did stand-up at the fifth-grade talent show and roasted all my teachers. I tried it in college in NJ and fell in love with it. I quit for a few years and had some personal problems adding up, got back on stage as an outlet and haven't stopped since.
Do your tattoos ever make it into your act?
Yeah, I talk about tattooing a lot — the customers, the stereotypes, the difference between this and an office job.
I’ve been tattooing ten years. It’s an industry with a lot of baggage, it's not what tattoo shows make it. We're not all divas or egomaniacs. Most of us are just kids who doodled instead of taking notes in class. Some of the funniest people I know tattoo for a living. It's like a barber shop as far as constant ballbusting and sarcasm. There's no HR department holding us to what we can and can't talk about.
Yesterday at the shop we debated what classifies as a shart. Contrary to popular belief, it's not just a wet fart. What really classifies it as a shart is the volume and sound. It has to have both. Customers in the tattoo world are hilarious. They’re not Macy’s shoppers; we deal with the bottom of the barrel most days.
How do you feel about the festival’s headliner Doug Stanhope?
One of my favorites, he's a legend in the comedy world and I’m really stoked to get to see him perform again.
How do you feel about the quote that every joke is a “tiny revolution?”
I write dick and fart jokes so this doesn't really apply. I have face tattoos; no one wants to hear an opinion piece from me. But I admire people like Carlin and Bill Hicks who were able to push their strong ideals and still present it with humor. It's just not my thing.
What's your opinion on the two comedians (Kathy Griffin and Bill Maher) that caused outrage with their jokes a couple weeks ago?
People just love to complain. I see open mic comics say far worse things weekly, the only reason anyone cares is because they're "famous." They're both boring to me, trying to make waves in a kiddie pool.
Aharon Willows-Herbert - Smart, Witty, and Totally PC
Who are you watching in comedy nowadays?
I don't watch much stand-up on TV anymore. If it isn't live it feels really dull to me. So my favorites are usually people I have on shows. Connor McGrath and Will Green are my buds, my biggest current inspirations, and I never get tired of watching them. If we're talking real comedians, Richard Pryor, Louis CK, Shane Mauss, and Mike Birbiglia.
Why did you decide to get into comedy?
I always watched a ton of stand-up when I was a teenager but never thought about doing it. I was living in NYC and found out a co-worker, Charles Gould, did stand-up so I begged him to bring me to an open mic. I did two open mics the first night and I was hooked.
So what’s it like to be a straight white male in comedy?
I think it's about the same as ever. If you're a dumb SWM (Straight White Man) you probably think it's hard because "PC bullshit" or whatever, but if you think that, than you probably suck as a human and comic.
As a SWM that tries to book diverse comedy shows in Maine it's impossible. Having a couple white women and a person of color from out of state is usually the best you can do.
Have SWMs changed your feelings about comedy at all?
There's a lot of shithead SWMs in every comedy scene and I think that turns other people away from trying it and continuing to perform. And it's not great for shows to just have a bunch of SWMs as the only voices on stage, the crowd is more diverse than that and they want to hear different shit. When I got into stand-up I thought comedians were like brilliant mental superheroes who were the smartest, coolest people around. I don't feel that way anymore.
There are definitely topics that feel weird to talk about because I think "who the fuck am I to talk about this?" Like race and gender. But I can't act like that's a hardship. I go back and forth with some stuff about miscarriage, abortion, and rape where I'm only ever punching up, but it's easy to shut people off by triggering them in the setup of a joke. And I'm not trying to make victims feel bad. So sometimes it's best to avoid that stuff. I think as you get better as a comedian it gets easier to talk about whatever you want.
Do your jokes ever get political considering these strange times we live in?
I don't do much political material because it's impossible to be the first person to make the joke. Between late night shows and Twitter, someone has already said what you're thinking. I mostly talk about myself, my girlfriend and things that happen between us. I like storyteller comics and people being real and honest. If I can tie a topical political joke into something bigger, I definitely will.
How do you feel about the state of the comedy scene just here in Portland?
I'm so happy Connor McGrath won the Phoenix’s Best Comedian, he's in my top 10 favorite comics in the world and he's a great person. I mostly stick to my shows at Blue and Lincolns and I like those. We get a consistent turnout every Monday and Thursday and that's incredible.
Sometimes audiences can have a few drunk shitheads in them but usually, it's really nice, attentive people that appreciate comedy. I don't stand by every show or comic in Maine. It doesn't seem to take much to convince someone with a crappy room to let you do a comedy show and put bad comics on it, and that's bad for everyone. I wish there were more good comics in Maine and more diversity, but that can be said about everywhere. What's the open mic music scene like in Portland? Mostly white guys and a lot of them aren't good. It isn't specific to comedy.
Any last minute thoughts on the direction comedy is heading in and your place in it?
This is actually my last month in Maine because my girlfriend and I are moving to Michigan. I'm looking forward to a change of scenery and Connor will be taking over my shows Worst Day of the Week and Laugh Shack. It's going to feel weird not doing those shows anymore, but I'm interested in doing it somewhere else.
There's this anti-PC fervor that's been going on for a while in comedy where people think somehow it's anti-free speech, and it annoys the shit out of me. Comedy at our level is not an exercise in free speech. Bars have comedy so people will come and buy drinks. Bars are not doing it to defend your right to be vaguely racist and overtly sexist to a group of their customers.
I think at least trying to be PC — a/k/a not being a piece of shit — is worthy as a comedian. There are a lot of progressive comedians but you'd have no idea after seeing them perform because they just seem like shitheads the way they approach topics. It seems transgressive to be like "fuck the liberal whatever the fuck" because that might ruffle some feathers in Portland, New York or Los Angeles, but "fuck the liberal whatever the fuck" is how too many people in America already think. I'd love to see more smart, PC comedy.
Bill Brock - Storyteller and Bigfoot Hunter
Who are you Bill, what do you do?
I am a storyteller. I host a show on Destination America called Monsters Underground where I go across the United States to ancient locations and try to find their connection to the paranormal and the extraterrestrial. We haven’t shot Maine yet, but we’re going to cover the Allagash abduction.
What got you into that?
I’ve always had a fascination for Bigfoot, the Mothman, and other cryptids. I’ve had my own UFO experience as well. It’s been ingrained in me since I was a kid.
Are you going to be sharing that story on stage?
Oh yeah. I’m going to be talking about some experience I’ve had, as well as other Mainers.
What legends are out there in Maine?
In the Allagash, two canoers got picked up by aliens and recalled the story later on. It’s pretty creepy stuff.
In Maine, we’ve got the Many Bumped Monster, Pamola, the Turner Beast. I approach these stories like an investigator. I try to be pretty scientific about it, but I do look into the spiritual side and bring in psychics.
Of all the myths out there, which one do you think has the highest likelihood of being true?
Aliens. It would be ignorant to think that we’re the only life in the entire universe. We can’t be the only ones. Cryptid-related, I believe there could be something to Champ a Loch Ness Monster type creature that lives in Lake Champlain, Vermont. I think it’s pretty legit.
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