Portland’s Bridgetown Comedy Festival starts on May 8 and it’s going to be awesome. We know that because we’ve been interviewing some of the comics and they are funny and great and you’re going to love them. Our fourth interview is with Curtis Cook, a young comic who hails from Portland by way of Cleveland, Ohio. Cook sat down with The Tusk to talk D.L. Hughley, working on the local scene, and telling “edgy” jokes.
The Tusk: So first off, where are you from?
Curtis Cook: Auburn Township Ohio. An hour outside of Cleveland.
The Tusk: How long have you been in Portland?
Curtis Cook: Two years. January 2013. I’m in my third year out here.
The Tusk: Did you do comedy before coming to Portland?
Curtis Cook: The first two years I did comedy I was in Cleveland.
The Tusk: What was that like?
Curtis Cook: The first year was open mics, trying to figure out how to write a joke. Just trying to figure out how to do comedy. I look back at old videos and there’s one early on where I’m clearly trying to be Steven Wright, and then there’s another one where I’m clearly trying to be Daniel Tosh. And then slowly that fades away. And then the second year was just kind of working on that, writing jokes, doing showcases, and then I came out here.
The Tusk: What is the comedy scene like in Cleveland? Is it a lot like the scene in Portland?
Curtis Cook: It’s similar. From what I hear it’s a little bit like what Portland must have been a few years ago. Parts of the city have been gentrifying, and there just now starting to get that hip, there’s a brewery every other block vibe in some places. That’s brought in a lot of young people and artists, and that’s been good. It’s a lot of do-it-yourself, there’s a couple clubs. A lot of the scene is run by this underground syndicate named ChukleFck, that’s Chuckle Fuck with the “u” taken out, and when I was first starting, I quote un-quote interned for the guy who ran it, which just meant I got to see great shows for free and all I had to do was set up chairs, and then in return I got to do the best open mic in the city every Monday. It was a good deal.
The Tusk: What are the Cleveland comedy clubs like?
Curtis Cook: Our Helium would probably be Hilarities, Pickwick and Frolic. And the Improv Theater is kind of more of the urban room, because we have one of those in Cleveland. And a little further out there’s the Funny Stop Comedy Club in Cuyahoga Falls, which is kind of our Harvey’s.
The Tusk: Where you working paying gigs before coming out to Portland?
Curtis Cook: I was doing showcases, so every once and a while you’d get tossed like $15. I’d done a couple club shows, but not a lot. The Funny Stop let me host like a week before I left, and I was able to move here because I won a comedy contest in Youngstown, and I used that money for the ticket.
The Tusk: Are you working a job right now besides comedy?
Curtis Cook: Right now I’m just doing comedy. Originally it was working out. I had a budget where I could make it at least through the summer. I’m very lucky to have gotten some opportunities that I’m getting, but those opportunities are not things I budgeted for.
The Tusk: Are you at the point where you’re ready to work as a comedian full-time?
Curtis Cook: I’m at the point where I’m starting to learn how. I have no delusions of being some comic mastermind who’s going to nail it by 25. I just started hosting at Harvey’s and Helium, which has been so much fun, and it’s been a great learning experience and I’m very thankful to both clubs for giving me that chance. I’ve gotten a couple one-nighter shows on the road, and a couple opportunities that aren’t stand-up, but someone sees you and they’re, “Hey like come do this.” I work for a company named Laugh Staff, writing wedding speeches for people. Some dude hit me up about trying to do a voice-over for his alien character. I think I’ve got a few more years, at least, before I make any moves. I want to make those moves, and I’m trying to do anything I can to make them faster.
The Tusk: Did you come to Portland specifically to do comedy?
Curtis Cook: I came to Portland because I’m from such a small town that I’d never ridden a bus before I came here. I needed a city that wasn’t going to swallow me. I don’t mean to belittle this place, because it’s been nice to me, but I needed a training-wheels city. So I came out here, the comedy scene I’d heard about, and it was definitely something I wanted to do, so I was only going to move to a place where I could do it. I think people view a lot of the art scenes (in Portland) especially comedy as being tertiary to everything else because it’s not Chicago, New York, or LA. Having seen the difference, like I’ll go to LA and New York and it will be a different experience, like famous people are dropping into mics and famous people are doing showcase spots, and we don’t necessarily have that in Portland. What we do have is a lot of stage time and an audience that wants to see you, and cheap rent, so you can really dive in. It’s super cool because we’re not LA, but people from LA are looking at this city. For that to happen without LA prices is pretty great.
The Tusk: How have you seen the Portland comedy scene evolve in the time that you’ve been a part of it?
Curtis Cook: It’s starting to grow a lot. There’s more people doing it in town now. There’s more people who are really passionate about it and hope to get better. Or even if they’re just in because they enjoy it, there are so many people that are going out and making opportunities for their voice, and people are making it a point to support the scene. I don’t know what it was like before, but six or seven guys versus twenty to thirty active people at any time, maybe it was better, maybe it was less of a mess, but I think it’s really great the way it is now. And because people like Shane (Torres), Ian (Karmel), and Ron (Funches) have all left recently, there’s hopefulness. There’s more of a link. Something that attaches this city to the idea that you can be on a sitcom and have come from Portland, you can write for Late Night and have come from Portland.
The Tusk: What kind of road work have you been doing recently?
Curtis Cook: I just got back from LA, I went there twice in April. I’m going back after Bridgetown. It’s been really fun. The whole process has been weird, like I thought when I left my job I’d do it with confidence, and I thought when I started going to LA I’d do it with confidence, and it’s still this just unknowing, like I sure hope this pays off.
The Tusk: What kind of shows were you doing in LA?
Curtis Cook: A lot of alt ones. I did one show at the Improv down there, but a lot of them were just people who have come through here, have done Bridgetown before, and you ask them like, hey can I please do your show?
The Tusk: Has anybody outside of the Portland scene reached out to you to do shows?
Curtis Cook: Some people have reached out about a couple things. It’s all just so up in the air though. I’m really hopeful that a few things go through, but who knows. And that’s part of it, it’s going to be who knows for a couple of years.
The Tusk: Is Bridgetown going to be a good chance to talk to some people and meet some comedians you’ve never met before?
Curtis Cook: I’m not really a schmoozy. I don’t go for all that stuff. I’ve never been excited for Bridgetown because I’m going to give somebody my card or something. But it’s awesome to see people perform that I’ve never gotten a chance to see before. It’s awesome to get to perform with people and for people. I think the best thing is it lets Portland flex a little bit. Some of the best comics in the county are coming here and seeing that, if we aren’t already, we have the potential to be some of the best comics in the country.
The Tusk: Which comedians influenced you when you were young or just starting out?
Curtis Cook: I really liked Richard Pryor when I was little, like not too little, but when I got old enough to be allowed to watch it, I liked it a lot. And just this last year I went back and watched all that stuff again and finally got it, kinda. D.L. Hughley. I really liked D.L. Hughley as a kid. I got to watch The Original Kings of Comedy. I think they’re all great, and every time I watch that as I get older, something about it changes, but always D.L. Hughley. I fell like he does not get enough credit.
The Tusk: Just D.L. What about Bernie Mac?
Curtis Cook: I like Bernie Mac a lot, but I think the first time I saw it was on Comedy Central, and they usually cut him out for time and because you can’t bleep everything, but later I got into him. Not to make it racial, but comedy specials and Comedy Central Presents and all that stuff, I grew up in a really white town so the only black voices I heard for a really long time were all comics. I don’t know how much that influences the type of comedy I do, but I think it was the first time I was like, a role model that’s not holding a ball, there are options.
The Tusk: What about comics your own age? Anybody you like?
Curtis Cook: The three people in Earthquake Hurricane: Bri Pruitt, Anthony Lopez, and Alex Falcone have been really great to know. Jesse Elias, I think is in LA. Tommy Pope is a guy in New York who’s the nicest guy in the world. He’s been killing it, I’m excited for him. Ramon Rivas from Cleveland, he was a big influence when I first started, and really help me get anywhere that I am today. He’s in LA killing it right now, and I’m really excited to see where he goes.
The Tusk: Are you tracking their moves?
Curtis Cook: I’m not trying to compete. I hope we all get where we’re going. I think there’s enough space for us all to get where we’re going, and I think everyone, especially the people that I’m looking at, has a unique enough voice where if we all become kings of comedy, there’s space enough for all of us to have what we need to say out there. I’m looking at what people are doing mostly so I know what to do. The last temp job I was working, I knew clearly that after five years I could be a manager there, and here I don’t know how that works. So I look at people who are getting things that I hope to have one day, and not being angry at them for it, but just looking at how they got there.
The Tusk: What about your comedy style? Where does your rapid fire delivery come from?
Curtis Cook: When I was really little and I saw the Kings of Comedy, there’s a part where D.L. Hughley says that he got fast because you’ve been waiting all week and you have five minutes. I didn’t really get that until I started. I lived in Auburn Township and I would drive an hour in, I would have three to six minutes to do comedy, and I would drive an hour back, so I was trying to get everything I could possibly fit into that time.
The Tusk: Do you write out your jokes?
Curtis Cook: Towards the end. I come up with an idea. I think about the idea, and I’ll bullet point. Then I’ll try it out, and then I’ll bullet point a little bit harder, and then as it shapes I’ll write it all out, because I like specifics.
The Tusk: You’re very knowledgeable about the topics in your material; is that because you don’t just tell dick and fart jokes?
Curtis Cook: My goal is to not hurt someone’s feelings, so if I’m doing a joke about race, or gender, or sex I want to make sure I say male and female as opposed to woman and man. I’m still learning. I’m lucky enough to be working with enough people who are willing to coach and guide instead of yell. I think that’s why I’m so specific. Because this is what I’m saying, and this is how I’m saying it, and I don’t want you to take it and assume I’m saying something else.
The Tusk: Did you come to your material naturally?
Curtis Cook: I just want to be funny. I just want to be a comedian. Something that I am learning to navigate now is that because I tell the jokes I tell, people want to be me in the category of social justice warrior, and I don’t like that. I just want to be funny. I’ve chosen the jokes that I’ve chosen, not because I want to stir things up, but because they are important issues to me. When I was in college I really thought that comedy was a way you could change things, and then I got the opportunity to talk to Dick Gregory, and I was like, “So man the people think you’re really like a leading voice of the Civil Rights movement,” and he was like “That’s bullshit. Comics didn’t get women the right to vote; comics didn’t free the slaves. You just look back and point at something that was the most pleasant way and you say that’s what helped the most.” That really shook my perspective. I don’t want to change anything. I just want someone who feels the same way to know they’re not alone. Any jokes I have about feminism are about me learning, not me trying to get an applause break because I said a word. Any jokes I have about race are me being angry, not me trying to get a white-run newspaper to talk about how edgy I am. Nothing’s put on. It’s just what I’m thinking about, in the way it will do the least harm. I don’t think it will do any good, I just think it will do the least harm.
And listen to the entire interview here: