This weekend, one of Oregon’s most prolific and famous comedians will return to the Northwest to perform at the tenth annual Bridgetown Comedy Festival. Ian Karmel, a Beaverton native who quickly moved up in the Portland comedy scene after starting in 2009, will be performing a few sets and recording the first live edition of his popular podcast All Fantasy Everything.
Ian was a writer and roundtable contributor for Chelsea Lately, and now he writes for The Late Late Show with James Corden. He’s performed sets on Conan, made a cameo appearance in Portlandia, and talked Trail Blazer basketball as a post-game commentator. He recently filmed a pilot for a Comedy Central sports show that he writes and stars in.
Throughout his move to LA and continued success in the comedy world, Ian has always kept his Oregon upbringing at the forefront of his jokes. Listen to him and fellow Oregon transplant Ron Funches talk about their hometown on Conan.
Ian was gracious enough to take a few minutes out of his busy schedule to talk with me about life in LA as a Blazer fan, his dislike of shock humor, and why our splintered culture is leading to a golden age of comedy.
If you’d like to see Ian perform this weekend at the Bridgetown Comedy Festival, you can catch him Thursday night, Friday night, Saturday night, and at the live All Fantasy Everything recording on Sunday afternoon.
How do you think growing up in Beaverton affected your comedy or career trajectory?
I think growing up in the suburbs definitely affected my comedy. I don’t even know if it’s in a good way or a bad way. When you grow up in the suburbs, the stakes are kind of lower. It’s not like issues of survival every single day. It’s pretty inane.
So from a young age, the things you have to consider or think a lot about are minutiae more than the big things. And I think that definitely informed my comedy. I wasn’t like the standup comedian doing jokes about racial justice issues when I started out. I was doing jokes about stealing nacho cheese from a 7-11 using a Slurpee cup.
I felt very much like a suburban comedian, especially early on. Now that I’ve lived a bit more of a life, I can talk about other stuff. But definitely early on, it made me joke about mundane stuff. That’s the other thing about the suburbs. You’re kind of bored growing up, so you really just spend a lot of time indoors thinking. The nearest thing to me that wasn’t another house was 3 miles away.
When you come home to do a show like Bridgetown, is there added pressure performing in front of people you grew up with?
I’ve never thought of it as pressure. It’s always felt like a real privilege. It’s really like playing a home game. If there is any pressure, it’s from people asking for tickets and stuff like that, and then you can’t hook up as many people as you’d like to. That’s really the only kind of pressure.
Portland somewhat made my comedy. You know when you do sets in other cities, it’s like wearing a new suit, and the suit fit is fine, but when you go to Portland, the suit is tailored perfectly to you.
Going back to Portland, it’s just a joy man. And Bridgetown is the best version of that joy.
How often do you make it back to Portland?
I try to only do Bridgetown and then at most one other show a year. I go home a lot, because my family is there, my friends are there. Although there are fewer friends every time I come back because many of my comedian friends are now moving to New York or LA.
Sometimes I’ll drop in at shows, but I try to limit that. I don’t want people to pay money to see me, and then for me not to have any new material. For the price of a ticket, I want to give them a new 45 minutes of comedy.
And how long does it take you of touring and trying out bits before you reach a new 45 minutes?
It’s usually about a year turnover. It really depends on where I’m at personally and what’s going on in my professional life. I write for a TV show [The Late Late Show with James Corden] and James Corden also hosted the Grammys, so we were writing for that as well. Then I was also doing my own pilot for Comedy Central.
So while all that was going on, I was barely writing anything for my own standup. I was also in a happy relationship, so there wasn’t much personal turmoil that I felt I needed to scratch and write about. Now that the pilot is filmed and we’re done with the Grammys, I’m just writing for The Late Late Show, which means that I have more time to work on my own set.
Do you ever take jokes from The Late Late Show writing room that you pitched but for whatever reason the other writers weren’t feeling them?
A lot of the jokes we use for the show are topical, and I’m not that topical of comedian. James will write a joke like, “Taco Bell has a crazy new burrito coming out,” or “Did you hear what Trump said?” And those jokes are good for like two to three days. Also technically, CBS owns those jokes, even if James doesn’t use them. So sometimes I’ll tweet them out, but that’s really the extent of it.
Can you tell me a little about the Comedy Central pilot you filmed on February 2nd?
I can talk a little bit about it. Its status is still kind of up in the air — I think I’ll find out in a couple weeks whether or not it gets picked up. But I can tell you what it’s about.
It’d be a weekly sports show that would take whatever big issues were happening in the world of sports that week, and we would talk and joke about those. Then we would also examine all the similar stories that have happened in sports throughout history to bring us up to this point.
So it takes a hyper-focused view and then zooms out to give the context. I really like what the ESPN 30 for 30 documentaries did. Even non-sports fans could get into the majority of those. So I thought to myself, “Hey, you could do that every week.”
One of the big things I love about sports is the story lines. As much as I enjoy the spectacular plays and all that, I really enjoy the narrative aspect of sports. I haven’t seen a show examine that before, especially a comedy show.
Do you have a favorite 30 for 30?
Yeah, I think my favorite 30 for 30 is Winning Time, the Reggie Miller one. It’s just so beautifully made. The storytelling is amazing, and the characters are amazing. That was actually the year I got big into basketball as well. I was of course a Trail Blazers fan, but still I was watching as much basketball as I could.
That leads me into my next question: if your pilot is picked up full time, how difficult will it be to not spend your entire show talking about how awesome the Blazers are?
Luckily, there are so many interesting Blazer narratives. We could do a segment on the Jail Blazers or something like that.
But I would definitely spread around the coverage though. As much as I love the Blazers, I would love even more to have a successful TV show. Then I’d be able to afford to buy tickets to more Blazers games.
Is it tough living in LA surrounded by Lakers and Clippers fan? Or is it fun being a Blazer transplant that they CSNW can interview during Blazer games at Staples Center?
Having worked with Comcast SportsNet and the Blazers before, I really feel like I owe a lot of success to those experiences. When I went on Chelsea Lately for the first time, I already had a ton of experience being on television because of Talking Ball, the Comcast SportsNet post-game show.
So I feel like I owe a lot to the Blazers and Comcast SportsNet for where my career has gone. It is hard not being in Portland, but luckily with NBA League Pass, I can watch Blazer games whenever I have a free night.
Do you get the full 30-team League Pass package, or do you go with the smaller five-team one?
Oh, I do the full 30-team one. When you do a comedy sports show, you can just write it off as a business expense.
It’s been said a lot that we’re living through a golden age of comedy with various networks and streaming services willing to invest huge sums of money in comedy projects. How do you feel about Netflix and their big push into the comedy market?
I think it’s great! I think culture today as whole is very splintered. There’s no longer any real monoculture. So like 20-30 years ago, there were massive comedians like Seinfeld and Chris Rock. Everyone knew them, they had massive television shows that everyone watched, and they made a couple million dollars per episode. Which is great, if you got to be one of those people and be amazing.
Now the culture is shattered a bit. It’s so much easier for fans to curate their own experience as far as comedy goes.
Whereas 20 years ago, someone would go, “Oh yeah, Seinfeld. I love him.” Now fans can be more like, “Seinfeld is cool, but you know who I really love is Kyle Kinane. That guy is amazing.” And Kyle Kinane might not ever make a million of dollar per episode on a sitcom, but he can make a good living doing comedy. And so can the rest of us. I love it.
The more comedians that are working, the more we can inspire each other. I think comedy is having a golden age because there are so many more opportunities. And it’s better than it’s ever been because people can be themselves more now than ever before.
So you don’t have to structure your comedy to be quite as universal? You can reach a more specific and targeted audience.
Right, exactly. You can talk about what’s in your heart more. And there are still those massive comedians that are truly universal. I mean, Kevin Hart sold out the Eagles stadium. And I love that, but at the same time, there are much smaller comedians who are still able to make a living by catering directly to people with more specific interests.
Kyle Kinane is certainly a specific brand of humor. Grantland did a great piece on his cultish following years ago. He will also be performing at Bridgetown, right?
Yes, Kinane will be there for sure.
Well now I think we should talk about some of your other ventures, like your column for The Portland Mercury titled “Everything as F*ck,” as well as your very successful podcast, All Fantasy Everything.
So applying a deep analytical lens here…they both have the word “Everything” in the title. Care to elaborate on what you like most about “Everything?”
So I haven’t done the column for a couple months now. “Everything as F*ck” used to just be called “Portland as F*ck,” but then once I moved from Portland to LA, I felt bad about using Portland in the title. So I thought, “What do I write about? Well, I write about everything.” So I just went from “Portland as F*ck” to “Everything as F*ck.” It was the least creative name change ever.
With All Fantasy Everything, the basic idea was that we would fantasy draft anything. So I guess I could have called it “All Fantasy Anything,” and not typecast to such a degree with “Everything.”
What was the motivation for creating a podcast based around fantasy drafting real life?
It was less like I saw how well podcasts were doing and though, “Oooh, I gotta get me one of these podcasts.” I had been thinking about if for a while because I don’t get to tour as much as I’d like, and podcasts are a great way to stay in touch with your fans in another city. I might need to be able to make it somewhere like Madison, Wisconsin, this year because I only get about five weekends off. So a podcast is a good way to stay in touch with those people.
More than anything though, I had the idea one and thought, “That would be super fun. That would be fun to get some friends together and do a fantasy draft every show.”
I also thought it would be a great way to passively interview people, because look, you’re not going to beat Marc Maron’s WTF podcast or You Made It Weird with Pete Holmes, or any of those really good podcasts. So I thought, what would be a good way to find stuff out about people without being like, “So who was your biggest musical influence as a kid?”
I was like, OK, we’ll just come up with a funny fantasy draft format, and the stories will flow from there. So that’s where it came from. It came up pretty organically.
It genuinely sounds so much fun being in the studio and being a part of those fantasy drafts.
It’s crazy fun. We’re doing the first live one at Bridgetown, so I hope that the fun translates. I think it will.
Speaking of the podcast, I have to quickly thank you. In the first episode, the Airheads draft, you drafted a GIF of Brendan Fraser. I’d never seen it before, so I looked it up and it might be the funniest thing of all time. I use it all the time now.
I know! It’s amazing. How can you not know how to clap? What was he doing? He must have been heavily sedated or something. Poor guy.
Alright final question, then I’ll let you go. I was reading an Oregonlive article about you from 2011 or so, right when you were gearing up to make the move to LA. You had a quote saying, “There is no lie in a laugh.” Is that an original Ian Karmel line, and would you elaborate on what you mean by that?
I think it’s an original Ian Karmel quote, although people have certainly expressed a similar sentiment before. It’s still true.
People come up with – and I don’t even remember the context I said it in – but people will come up with so many rules about what you can’t talk about onstage, and who can or can’t talk about what onstage. And a lot of that is smart. There’s a lot of wisdom in being careful.
But what comedy ultimately boils down to, is that there is no lie in a laugh. Laughter is honest, and one of the few times were all being honest with each other. When a comedian laughs, they’re genuinely being honest and when the audience laughs, that’s an honest reaction to whatever the comedian said.
We get so bogged down, especially nowadays and particularly in Portland, in conversations about what comedy can and can’t be, and what it can and can’t do. Ultimately though, all comedy is really here for is to make people laugh. And if it makes people laugh, good.
Now it’s obviously more complicated than that, but I think it’s a good thing to come back to you if you’re initially setting out to make people laugh with the right intentions. The “No Lie in a Laugh” rule doesn’t apply as well if you’re a prick or if you’re trying to hurt people feelings.
And I hate that. I’m not a big fan, personally, of comedians who go up there and just try to be controversial. What I like to hear is someone who has the standing and personal experience to talk about something from a knowledgeable and well-thought-out angle. I don’t want to hear some guy making a rape joke, because dude, that’s not something you’re thinking about every fifteen minutes like some women have to. Why the fuck would I care what you have to say about it? Don’t just try to go for a shock laugh.
I feel like the best comedians, even when I’m not laughing at their sets, what they’re saying is interesting and is making me think.
Yeah, exactly. With the best comedians, it’s always well thought out.
You can follow Ian on twitter HERE.
To see Ian live, you can purchase tickets to the Bridgetown Comedy Festival HERE.