After two-plus years of pandemic life, Seattle could use a comedy festival. Enter Upper Left, an ambitious three-day extravaganza organized by some of the city's most organized and well-connected comics. This inaugural event featured Jackie Kashian, David Gborie, Ron Lynch, Derek Sheen, Adam Pasi, Andy Iwancio, and many other locals and out-of-towners. The lineup was diverse and well-curated. Showcases took place at Northwest Film Forum and Club Comedy on May 12-14. I attended two of the three nights (Friday I hit Boots, which was lit). Here are some Upper Left highlights:
The first comic I saw on Thursday was Mitch Mitchell (apparently no relation to Jimi Hendrix Experience's drummer), a trans man who reeled off some pithy one-liners about dating and Grindr, and who delivered the freshest take I heard over the weekend on COVID life: “Taking off a mask now is like going to the nude beach for the first time.” Alyssa Yeoman, a Black nonbinary comedian who co-hosted Is This Normal? with Erin Ingle, ventured into well-trod territory about weed, interracial dating, and racism in the Northwest vs. that of the South. Nevertheless, she cracked a crucial code of Caucasity: When white folks respond to something as “interesting,” it really means “fuck you.” And I chuckled heartily into my mask as they signed off with, “Drugs aren't cool... but you are when you're on them.”
I caught Travis Nelson, a 6'9", straight white man, in medias res, as he was riffing about 23andMe. “I'm not white enough to spend $100 to find out what kind of white person I am,” he quipped. Nelson's found rich inspiration from his poor upbringing in Hoquiam/Grays Harbor, the (red)neck of the woods where the frontman for grunge superstars Nirvana grew up. “Kurt Cobain died from natural causes, where I'm from.”
The polar opposite from Nelson in appearance, David Gborie, a short Black man from Seattle who's broken out to national fame, repeatedly doled out contrarian hot takes and then backed them up with hilarious explanations: “I would like to have sex with a racist person”; “Karate is a scam”; “I miss drug dealers”; “I like religion, but I don't like god.”; “I don't like hockey. Hockey's the only sport not taught to at-risk Black youth”; “Doing coke is like peeing your pants. For the first 30 seconds, your body feels all warm. You think, 'This is what I need to be doing all the time!' Then 30 seconds go by and you start to get cold.” Narrow-shouldered Portland comic Sam Whiteley projected an appealing sad-sack vibe; you believe him when he said he'd worked at Pizza Hut during the pandemic. His best joke involved seeing a bumper sticker that read “God is my co-pilot,” and wondering if it wouldn't make more sense for the driver and the Creator to switch seats.
If you'd told me that two of the funniest and filthiest acts at Upper Left would be by white, middle-aged ladies, I'd have eaten your AARP card. But the set by Cheri Hardman, a disabled woman in her 60s, could've made Richard Pryor blush. She's one of the few comics who could pull off being both self-deprecating and self-aggrandizing, with the ease of flicking a switch. Her pun game was on point, too. And ending the set with a cascade of jokes about her vagina took massive balls.
Quick-witted gay comedian Ricci Armani offered brilliant bits about hanging out with straight male friends, working retail, and the tech industry. Even when he's being mean-spirited, his natural charm and ultra-smooth delivery win you over. Armani has star potential; it's hard to imagine him remaining in Tacoma—not that there's anything wrong with that—for much longer.
My fave local performer of the fest, Levi Manis, came off like Steven Wright... if he were a roadie for Sub Pop-era TAD. Wearing a Gojira T-shirt, Manis grimaced absurdist non-sequiturs amid nine-month-pregnant pauses, his angst convincing enough to have you Googling the suicide hotline. “I'm not good at segues,” he admitted. “This is a series of hard left turns.” At one point, he parted the curtains behind him and said, “Oh my god, you guys, I have no idea where the fuck my band is.” Also, it's doubtful a straight man has ever conceived a better joke about a lesbian sex position.
Perhaps the fest's biggest name, Jackie Kashian has overcome unmistakable Midwestern housewife vibes to develop into a rapid-fire dispenser of whip-smart jokes, both observational and meta. Even her seemingly tossed-off ad libs smack of genius (“I was in Eastern Europe, catching up on second-hand smoke...”). Her set abounded with observations that elegantly balanced humor with intelligence. Kashian excelled at breaking down sometimes complex subjects to common-sense resolutions. Self-described empaths? They're actually narcissists. What to say to the generation younger than you? “I'm sorry we couldn't fix it. Please help.” Oh, you say you are your pet's “mommy”? No, you're just friends—you're different species, for fuck's sake. She did literal dad jokes about her father that miraculously didn't cloy. And for a 56-year-old, Kashian proffered brilliant analyses of the importance of gender pronouns and a perceptive riff on whiteness. She overshot her allotted time, but she left the crowd craving more.
The final showcase I witnessed was Ron Lynch's Crapshoot at Club Comedy, where a ginger ale cost me $7. That's not so much a punch line as a gut punch. Anyway, the Crapshoot concept enabled comics to get out of their comfort zone by placing them in ridiculous and/or goofy scenarios, which were determined by having audience members pick out instructions written by Lynch from a hat passed around by the LA-based comedian. The zenith of this show was Lynch's pre-recorded, speculative fiction about a futuristic Disney World Comedy Pavilion presented by “Hacky Sheckerstein,” in which he roasted hoary comedy tropes to cinders. The other bits ranged from semi-amusing to middling. Honestly, an hour of Lynch standup would've been preferable. Maybe I wasn't drunk or high enough to enjoy the random and at times strained zaniness, but most of the crowd roared for almost two hours. Well, at least I won an emerald necklace.
One of Upper Left's co-founders and creative director, Isaac Novak of Central Comedy, relays that, in his view, Upper Left went great and it received positive responses. He said the crew sold 600 tickets, and had a number of sellout shows. "All in all a successful weekend," he added. I saw enough high-quality sets to make me eager to see what Upper Left's brain trust will bring to the stages next year, provided Putin doesn't wipe us all out in a petty snit.
One thing that seemed to be lacking—unless somebody on Friday tackled it—was incisive takes on politics. Nobody seemed to be shooting for the Stephen Colbert/John Oliver/Michelle Wolf stars. Nobody channeled late-career George Carlin. Future Jon Stewarts and Samantha Bees could not be detected. Maybe the news right now is just too grim to wring humor out of it. But I'd rather see comics address rampant political corruption/hypocrisy or the NRA or homelessness than tell the 10 billionth weed joke. (To make a bong story short, let's have a moratorium on pot routines, eh?)
Seattle's traditionally been an underdog in the comedy industry, receiving little media coverage and seeing its biggest talents invariably bolt for LA or New York to further their careers. Upper Left looks like a commendable vehicle to boost Seattle's status in the humor trenches nationwide.