In 2015, Jason Lamb helped launch a new comedy showcase in Portland, creating space for standups of color. He was told it "wouldn't last six months." It's still here, and it's coming to Seattle.
In 2015, a new stand-up showcase arrived on the vibrant comedy scene in Portland. It had a mission. In an industry dominated by white, male comedians, Minority Retort was the city’s first regular showcase spotlighting comedians of color.
In some respects, Portland was a natural fit: With a progressive comedy scene and an all-women comedy festival (since quietly rebranded to include transgender comics), it had garnered a reputation as a forward-thinking comedy community open to comics who don’t look and sound like Jerry Seinfeld.
In other ways, it was the opposite: Portland is commonly listed among the whitest major cities in America, and it’s in Oregon, a state whose racist history includes, among other things, a constitution that once made it illegal for black people to live, own property or hold jobs in the state.
Minority Retort’s co-host and producer, Jason Lamb, was there from the beginning. And if launching his show seemed like a risk in 2015, it’s one that seems to have paid off. Since then, it’s provided meaningful space for comedians of color throughout the Pacific Northwest and beyond — from Portlanders like Debbie Wooten and Marcus Coleman to part-time Washingtonian (and forever joke king) Nathan Brannon. Ahead of Minority Retort’s Seattle-based show with headliner Yogi Paliwal, here’s what Lamb had to say about the challenges and successes along the way.
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Q: Minority Retort started in Portland. When I interviewed you about it then, you talked about the importance of creating space for comedians of color in a city with a reputation for being very white. Do you think it’s succeeded in doing that?
A: It’s funny, when we first started the show, people said we wouldn’t last six months because there just weren’t enough people-of-color comedians to have on the show to sustain it. That was almost four years ago. I’m really proud of that we’ve been able to give POC comics a unique fellowship experience that they perhaps don’t get to have on other shows. So many comics reach out to be on the show because of that. It’s also tremendously gratifying to bring comics to town to do the show, who wouldn’t normally think of coming. “Portland, why would I go there? There’s no audience there for me.” Now, I think they’re more apt to consider it because of what we’ve built.
Q: One of the criticisms I hear about safe-space shows from comics who will not be named is that it makes it harder to get away with edgier material. Do you think there’s any truth to that?
A: To a degree, I do, but this is a tricky thing, because comedy is so subjective. Comedians probably do have to walk a finer line than they have in the past because social media has given so many members of historically marginalized communities a voice and they tend to use it when they feel slighted. I’ve heard the Chris Rocks and the Jerry Seinfelds complain about it. But to be honest, I’m OK with that. In my view, “safe spaces” exist because much of the world was so unsafe on numerous levels for nonwhite, non-male, non-straight people. Sure, we have to respect freedom of speech, but I think comics have to realize that times have changed and are always changing.
I look back on a movie like “Eddie Murphy: Raw,” which I thought was great at the time, and I cringe at some of the stuff he said about the LGBTQ community because I’m more educated now, I have a better understanding of the struggles they’ve experienced and I can sympathize. At some point, could we split hairs so finely that every joke can be found offensive? Possibly, but I think we’re a long way away from that. I sometimes question the motivation behind so-called “edgy material” anyway. Are you truly trying to be funny or do you just have a racist, sexist, anti-politically correct ax to grind under the guise of “comedy”? I just heard an interview with Dennis Miller where he talked about his act not playing well on “the coasts” these days and he tours mostly in middle America. I guess if your edgy material isn’t getting laughs, you need to keep going until you find a place where it does. But is your audience made up of the kind of people you want to be getting laughs from? Is that worth it?
That said, I don’t consider MR a safe space necessarily. I just hope it’s a funny one.
Q: Your show has changed so much since it started … What has it been like to see the project through from the beginning? Were there lessons you encountered in producing it?
A: I’ve definitely learned a lot. Although I’m a lifelong comedy fan, I never truly had an understanding of how putting together a comedy show even worked prior to being involved with MR. Since then I’ve learned how to book shows, work with agents and the like and what it takes to bring in talent from some place far away. But also, even though I co-host the show, I’m not a comedian and I don’t really have those chops. So, as a result, I’ve also had to learn things outside of my skill set within my role as co-host: how to effectively communicate information to an audience, figure out what they’re responding to and what’s not working. Sometimes learning those lessons goes great and sometimes it can really suck.
Q: What have audiences been like? When I was living in Portland, a black film programmer I interviewed described seeing a line of white people snaking around to see “Straight Outta Compton.” He had serious questions about how to bring in diverse audiences, because just screening a movie like that felt like a rarity in and of itself, but he wasn’t seeing changes in the audience who showed up for it. How has your experience of this been with Minority Retort? Do you see the makeup of your performers reflected in your audience?
A: My experience with producing the show has been VERY similar to what you described. In fact, when the show was first getting up and running, someone told me (third-hand) that there were people who were concerned that it would just be a minstrel show, simply because, by the numbers, we’d be performing for a largely white audience. Thus far, I can say that the makeup of audience members has not been reflective of the performers on the show, certainly not to the degree I’d like. It’s something I need to work harder to crack the code on, to build a greater connection with the people-of-color community. My goal with the show has always been to bring people of diverse backgrounds together in a room to share a positive experience, not to preach or politicize necessarily. But I’m extremely grateful to the POC who do come to the show. Whenever I go onstage and I see a black woman in the audience, I think to myself, “Whew, it’s gonna be OK …”
Q: Lastly, do you have anything (seriously, anything!) you’d like to add? Anecdotes, misconceptions, upcoming performers you’re really excited about?
A: Yes, a couple of things: One, that I’m very excited to work with Yogi [Paliwal] and so honored that he chose our show as a platform to record his new album.
Secondly, we’ve got some exciting things planned for next year, including producing a spinoff that’s more of a panel show where comedians literally offer retorts to questions, stereotypes and long-held misconceptions white people have about POCs (such as “why don’t immigrants just come here legally?” or “why are black people so good at sports?”). We’re working with another Portland personality named Kielen King to put it all together and it’s gonna be lit!
And lastly, if I can make a plea to any women of color that might be reading this, give stand-up comedy a try! We need more of you! (But only if you’re funny.)
Minority Retort presents: Yogi Paliwal, 7-9 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 21; Central Cinema, 1411 21st Ave., Seattle; $14; centralcinema.com
An earlier version of this post misidentified comedian Nathan Brannon as a former Seattle resident. Brannon has lived elsewhere in the state, but not in Seattle.