Isaac Kozell, staff
Eugene, Oregon comedy stalwart — and the writer behind Savage Henry Magazine’s “Cliff Hanker” series — Seth Milstein knows that it takes more than a few hell gigs to build both a scene and a career. After slowly making his way across America, Milstein finally settled down in Eugene to raise a family. “I looked at that life that I thought I wanted and was like, ‘There’s something missing.’” That something was standup, an ambition that would require him to overcome his stage fright in an almost non-existent scene. Flash forward to today and Milstein is still at it in a scene that has grown exponentially since his first open mic. I talked to Milstein about the Eugene scene, his comedy nightmares, and how he was once upstaged by a skydiver.
IK: You’re originally from New York, but you had a couple stops in between before you ended up in Eugene, right?
SM: Yeah, that’s true. I did a lot of time in the Midwest. My family moved there when I was in high school, so I couldn’t say no.
IK: What ended up taking you to Eugene?
SM: I was moving to Portland with friends and they backed out. I had one friend in Eugene and had already bought a plane ticket. I was going to stay here while I looked for a place in Portland, but I ended up liking Eugene and it was crazy inexpensive, so I stayed here. Portland was close enough if I wanted to go up there.
IK: Did you start comedy in Eugene or were you already doing it before you got there?
SM: I started in Eugene. It was a lifelong ambition, but I never really had the guts to do it. I settled down, got married, had a kid, looked at that life that I thought I wanted, and was like, “There’s something missing.” My wife and I went to a comedy festival and I was like, “I want to try this.” I did and I was terrible at it. I didn’t do it again for a year. I got the bug again and went up at a different open mic, did the exact same set I did the year before, but got laughs on every joke. I was like, “Oh, this is something I’ll do forever now.”
IK: What comedy festival were you at that made you want to try it?
SM: It was the second-ever Bridgetown.
IK: Were you familiar with a lot of the comics at that time?
SM: Yeah, I think I had just started to listen to podcasts because podcasts were beginning to take off. I knew a couple comics from that and I had always followed comedy. The festival kind of kick-started that ambition. After I started, Bridgetown was kind of a reset for me. I would go and focus on different things. I would always get different things out of it like, “I should be more confident onstage,” or “I should use my hands more,” or whatever.
IK: I read that you had a fear of public speaking.
SM: I had stage fright. I used to do theater when I was a kid. I don’t know if there are different chemicals in your brain that get triggered when you’re on stage with a group, as opposed to being by yourself, but there was less fear of failure when it wasn’t all on me. The idea of stand up was terrifying for the first two years that I did it. The scariest part was from the moment they called my name until the moment I got onstage. Once I was up there the adrenaline would take over. The first couple years was just learning how to face an audience.
IK: What was the scene like in Eugene when you started?
SM: Almost non-existent. We had one guy that was doing a showcase every couple of months. There was one open mic that was every other week and you had to pay five bucks to get into it because it was a comedy show and then an open mic. Usually 10 to 15 people would show up for that and not a lot of them would stay for the open mic. It was basically an open mic for comics and two or three drunks. And it was in a Chinese restaurant. It wasn’t a great scene, but it motivated me to kind of get into the business end of it, promoting, booking, and so on to create opportunities.
IK: Where is the scene at now?
SM: A lot bigger. We have six mics a week now that are dedicated to comedy only. I would say there are 16 to 20 active comedians that come out on a regular basis and another 10 that dip in once a month or every couple of months. It’s become a destination where Portland comics will come down here. Sometimes you get people from LA coming up. We just had a show with Billy Wayne Davis. It’s flourished quite a bit since I started.
IK: I saw that you were in I Am Road Comic.
SM: I am in that movie.
IK: How did that come about?
SM: I was actually in I Am Comic for a two-second scene. I was wearing a Todd Glass T-shirt and I had met Todd Glass. The guy that was filming filmed me and put it in this montage of fan stuff in the movie. The next year they showed it at Bridgetown. I was working for the festival and I ran into the director. He ended up following me on Twitter and we would make jokes back and forth. I heard he was making a sequel and I said, “Hey, I do comedy now. If you do anything in the Pacific Northwest I’d love to be a part of it or help out.” It turned out they were doing shows in Washington. The anchor of the documentary is these two shows in Washington. I think the premise is that they were kind of hell gigs where it was just showing what it’s like to be a road comic in a hell gig situation. I was the local opener. My role in the documentary was to be one of the comics enduring this gig. I was part of the hell gig because I was the local guy that they had to hang out with for a weekend. I think I’d only been doing it for two years when they filmed it. I wish I had a little more experience going into it, but if I didn’t do it somebody else would have. It gave me a credit, but not the best credit.
IK: Speaking of hell gigs, you were recently talking about having a nightmare where you’re performing in a Southern church and you can’t stop doing dirty material.
SM: It wasn’t just dirty material. When I would open my mouth the only words that would come out where vulgar. Nothing made sense. It was just me saying all the swear words.
IK: How about a real life hell gig that you’ve experienced?
SM: I’ve had a lot of them. Three years into comedy this guy booked me to do this festival in Creswell, Oregon, which is a very small town. It was a biker festival on private property. It was very rowdy. I was getting paid in barbecue chicken. I had to do two 15-minute sets in between psychedelic metal bands. It was 98 degrees outside, middle of the summer, and I wore jeans because I’m a professional. I can’t wear shorts on stage. It was in the middle of the day and nobody was interested. When I went up I thought I would shave a little time off because nobody was paying attention, but the guy who booked me was standing at the edge of the stage with his arms crossed, watching me the entire time, looking at his watch. I did the first 15 minute set to very little interest from anyone in the crowd. During the band somebody skydived out of a plane and landed in the festival. Everyone that was watching the band ran over to watch the skydiver. I thought to myself, “Thank God that happened now and not while I was onstage.” I went to do my second set and another guy dove out of a plane. The only person who stayed to watch my set was the guy who booked me, still standing there with his arms crossed, looking at his watch. He still invited me to do the fest the following year. I politely declined.
Follow Seth on Twitter @sethmils and look out for his upcoming column Milstein at the Movies, where he reviews films he hasn’t seen yet