For budding gagsters, comedians, quipsters, and wisecrackers, trying to be humorous for a living in Portland is a lot tougher than making jokes about Cleveland.
That’s because, despite being a city renowned for its vibrant nightlife and arts scene, there aren’t that many places to consistently do standup comedy. And historically, there haven’t been that many.
But one local comedian hopes to change that.
Marcus Cardona, who has been performing comedy since 2011, said he plans to create a comedy club that will have open-mic events for people to work on their material, but also be big enough to bring in well-known headliners. While there are smaller places that produce comedy nights, he said there’s a need for a place dedicated to comedy.
“I’m trying to elevate it by bringing in bigger talent, but also create the comedy club business model that was absent,” Cardona said.
Cardona is partnering with the Free Street Restaurant & Cocktail Bar to create an independent comedy club called the Maine House of Comedy. The name follows the tradition of the Brooklyn House of Comedy in New York City, a club founded in 2012 that seeks to develop newer comedians.
The Brooklyn venue is managed by comedians, and Cardona was an assistant manager there, producing independent comedy shows. He said most comedy clubs in the New York-New Jersey area are managed by people who are more focused on sales than on creativity.
The Maine House of Comedy will give local comedians a place to grow, and provide a learning opportunity. Cardona said he envisions having panel discussions with comedians, so others can learn their approach to the art form.
The Free Street space, in the former Binga’s Stadium restaurant, was used for a show Cardona recently produced with Don’t Tell Me Comedy, a group he met in San Francisco when he was invited to participate in a festival that was canceled because of the pandemic
Don’t Tell Me puts on live comedy events around the country with little or no notice about who will perform or when. Cardona said he saw the potential for Free Street to become a dedicated comedy venue when he and the Don’t Tell Me producers put on a sold-out show there last month.
He said the Portland club will start with two shows a month, plus dedicated open-mic nights on Sundays to help grow the scene.
“Right now it’s just about growing the talent,” he said.
Cardona said the pandemic helped spawn a lot of people who want to be comedians, but haven’t been able to get on-stage practice. And for those who were already comedians, the pandemic cut them off from the stage.
‘You need an audience’
Ian Stuart, a local comedian who founded the Portland Maine Comedy Festival, said the comedy club scene is “immensely important,” especially for up-and-coming comedians who need experience.
“Practice makes perfect, and with comedy, you need an audience,” Stuart said.
Stuart, a co-creator of the web comedy series “Welcome to Maine,” said there are plenty of venues that offer comedy, but they can often challenge comedians who are performing to a crowd that wasn’t expecting comedy or was expecting music. So a comedy-specific space is ideal.
“It’s better than trying to bang it out on the open mic scene,” he said.
But open-mic events and independent promotions still provide great opportunities. For example, one of the best open mic events in Portland is at a very unexpected location: Cheese Louise, the grilled-cheese specialty restaurant on Fore Street.
“I have seen it work in some weird venues,” Stuart said.
Stuart is organizing the second New England’s Funniest Comedian, a competition from June 30 to Aug. 26 at Aura, which brings in comedians from all over the region. Last summer there were seven shows, and it was so popular, that they’ve bumped it up to nine this year.
The finals of that event will run right into the Portland Maine Comedy Festival, which is returning after a two-year hiatus. Stuart said the festival brings together local comedians, bigger names from New York City, and national headliners. (He said he couldn’t announce who this year’s headliner is, but said it’s “someone people will be excited about.”) The festival runs Aug. 25-28 at venues around the city, including Peaks Island and towns surrounding Portland.
Stuart said the comedy scene has changed dramatically since he started performing in 2003 when he was in high school. At that time there was only the Comedy Connection and one open-mic event at the former Slainte bar. Now, there are shows and open mic nights almost every night of the week, and several producers trying to make it work.
“There are so few art scenes that can support that many people,” he said. “I feel very lucky to be a part of the comedy scene right now.”
Portland still attracts touring national comedians, such as Patton Oswald, Marc Maron, and Nate Bargatze, who often play for packed crowds at the State Theatre or Merrill Auditorium.
But for local comedians, the opportunities don’t come along often.
Thompson’s Point, for example, has hosted Cabin Fever Comedy Night, an outdoor comedy show limited to 150 people and co-sponsored by Cardona and Empire Comedy Club – which opened in 2019 but closed early in the pandemic.
Cardona said he came up with the Cabin Fever idea when he was moving back to Maine from Brooklyn. He said he saw other comedians having success with outdoor shows, and thought that would work in Portland.
Initially, he thought about organizing the event in a city park, but since public parks don’t permit people to drink alcohol, he sought a different venue and landed at Thompson’s Point.
Cabin Fever is now entering its third summer, and Cardona said it has had 12 sold-out shows in a row. He said the hope is to eventually shift the monthly series indoors.
The most recent show, on April 20, was another success, he said, where he was talking with an audience member who had been to five of the shows who said she had now heard all his jokes.
“I’ve got to work on new material,” he deadpanned.
Otherwise, regularly scheduled comedy can be hard to find in Portland.
The Comedy Connection on Custom House Wharf served as the go-to comedy spot for nearly two decades until the 156-seat club closed in 2012.
The former Big Easy on Market Street closed as a music venue in 2013 and reopened as a comedy club in 2014. It closed again in 2015, and owner Ken Bell eventually opened the Portland House of Music and Events.
There are some smaller venues: Stroudwater Distillery, which operates at Thompson’s Point, has a regular Thursday Night Comedy event, and Island Dog Brewing in South Portland has monthly shows. But Cardona said these smaller series rarely allow local comedians to gain a strong following.
“The independent shows don’t really grow and can’t get bigger-name comedians,” he said.
One Longfellow Square and Lincoln’s, the speakeasy-style bar on Market Street, both have offered comedy shows, too.
But usually for a local comedian, getting reps means performing “at every VFW,” Cardona said. “I wasn’t really coming back to do comedy until Empire started.”
Until it closed, Empire Comedy Club, on the second floor of Empire Chinese Kitchen on Congress Street, was a step in the right direction, he said: It provided a space for local comedians to grow their craft that was big enough to also attract touring comedians.
Whether Empire will reopen is unknown; representatives of the business did not respond to repeated interview requests. General Manager Lucas Salisbury told The Phoenix in 2020 that several factors led to Empire transitioning away from music to a dedicated comedy space, including poor attendance for musical acts, greater flexibility for patrons to take in other nightlife after a comedy show, and reduced overhead.
Cardona said his Maine House of Comedy would build on the success that Empire had with the hope of “rebuilding a following for a comedy audience in Maine” – which he said he’s proved he can do with the Cabin Fever series.
But the Maine House of Comedy will also be different, Cardona said, because it will be run and produced by comedians who know what separates a good comedy show from a bad one.
The goal is to turn Portland and Maine into a comedy destination where local comedians can prosper, he said, a place that can compete with bigger cities so “you don’t have to drive to Boston for a show.”