'Spilt Milk' comedy show brings laughter to Multnomah
Spilt Milk founders Betsy Kauffman and Joanie Quinn believe comedic collaboration invokes the most novel jokes and fully realized routines.
During Portland's 2016 "snowpocalypse," for example, Kauffman thought of a timely witticism. She said Portland can't just have rain or snow. Instead, the freezing rain that glitters in the sky and coats streets is "artisanal weather."
And Quinn then added the kicker: "Yeah, it's like they take the gluten out the snow."
There, a joke was formed.
The women have used this same collaborative spirit to produce "Spilt Milk — you'll laugh 'til you cry," a thriving comedy show in Multnomah Village, for the last five years. The show returns from a summer hiatus for its fall premiere on Sept. 13 at O'Connor's Vault (7850 S.W. Capitol Highway).
Performances, which begin at 7 p.m., last for about an hour and 15 minutes and include five comics and host Wendy Westerwelle. Quinn and Kauffman also perform regularly. The target audience is Multnomah community members and Portlanders who prefer parenting jokes to crass comedy and hope to meander home well before midnight.
"We call it PG-13. It's not squeaky clean, but it's clean compared to some of the comedy that is out there. So the comics that come have to have that kind of material that is not in the gutter and is smart comedy," Quinn says.
"It's really fun at the end to see everyone laughing for an hour and being affected by it," she adds. "You get comments like, 'I needed that. I needed to laugh.'"
Quinn and Kauffman complement each other, although they tell different kinds of jokes. Quinn draws inspiration from family life, while Kauffman tells jokes on a wider range of topics. Kauffman also manages the finances, while Quinn handles the online promotion.
"We're very different, but we complement each other perfectly for the business," Quinn says.
The duo have had an affinity for comedy for practically their entire lives, but they took disparate routes toward their business partnership.
Quinn moved to Hollywood after graduating from college and worked as a script coordinator for shows such as "My Two Dads" and "Dinosaurs." There, she spent ample time in writers' rooms listening to funny people — such as "Two and A Half Men" creator Chuck Lorre — bounce jokes and plot inversions off one another in rapid succession.
She also performed stand-up on the side and received her first stand-up class from "The Comedy Bible" writer Judy Carter. Though she left Los Angeles for Portland without achieving her comedy-writer dream and subsequently started a family, the comedic itch persisted.
Kauffman remembers listening to comedy records at her childhood home in Wisconsin and attending comedy shows with her brother in high school. Although she was a radio personality in Portland and Chicago, she says she once felt the verbal gymnastics of comedy to be as unattainable as the nimble feats of actual gymnastics.
"I watch those people (gymnasts) and to me it's miraculous. How do they actually learn to do that? And that's how I view comedy," she says. "It's so hard and unattainable, but wouldn't it be cool if I could actually do that?"
Then one day, she heard a radio segment in which Carter taught Internal Revenue Service agents how to develop a bit. By the end of the segment, Carter had in fact made these once unamusing fellows quite humorous.
"As soon as I heard that, I thought, 'Anybody?' 'Me?' I listened to this thing and they had excerpts of them coaching these people. They actually were funny," Kauffman says.
So she checked out Carter's book from the library and eventually signed up for a comedy class at Portland Community College. Unlike her classmates, she completed all of the homework and had a routine mapped out by the time she finished. And then her husband saw a Craigslist ad from a women seeking female comics for a fledging comedy show called "Time Out: The Mother of All Comedy Shows".
At that show, Quinn and Kauffman, as well as a gamut of female comedians, met.
"I remember at the time thinking the best possible outcome would be that I meet one other person and we could go to open mics together. I ended up meeting this whole group of women who are doing comedy," Kauffman says.
The show allowed Quinn to brush off the cobwebs and for Kauffman to develop her voice. But after it ended, Kauffman and Quinn lost a comfortable comedic space and grew tired of the sometimes grotesque jokes at run-of-the-mill open mic nights. So they started talking about launching their own show together in Multnomah Village.
Quinn knew that O'Connor's Vault hosted live music and so asked the owner if they could host a comedy show of their own. He agreed, and in 2012, Spilt Milk Comedy debuted.
After the first few shows, the monthly comedy event began to attract sellout crowds. In fact, it sometimes sells out a few days in advance. Both Kauffman and Quinn say they are surprised that the show has lasted this long and has sustained a loyal following.
"We did not know that the neighborhood would respond the way it did. Every year at the end of the year, we get tired. 'Are we doing this again?' And then we hear from somebody and something happens and, 'I guess we're doing it again,'" Quinn says.
Compared to most comedy shows in Portland, Spilt Milk's audience skews older and Kauffman says they're more attentive and respectful than most.
"Our audience isn't drunk, talking while comics are performing or on their phone. That's what strikes most of the comics about the audiences. 'Oh my God. They were listening,'" Quinn says.
Also, while comedy is generally dominated by men, Spilt Milk's lineup is occasionally exclusively female — although men are welcome as well.
Quinn says Spilt Milk's passionate and attentive audience attracted a wide-array of comedians who were interested in performing. For instance, Portland's Funniest contest winners, as well as Willamette Week's "The Funniest Five" members, have taken the O'Connor's Vault stage.
"The audience helped us out with our street cred in the Portland comedy scene. Even though they think we're just old people, they love coming and performing at the shows," Quinn says.
The lineup features a mix between comics who do it as a hobby and some who want to tell jokes professionally.
Other than her sets at O'Connor's, Quinn has performed at festivals such as the Idaho Laugh Fest and the Burbank Comedy Festival, while Kauffman has performed at solar energy and climate change conferences.
Though they don't plan to move to L.A. and become fulltime standup comics in the future, Quinn and Kauffman do have plans. Quinn hopes to start a comedy class, while Kauffman may start a baking class.
Still, they are comfortable at O'Connor's and with their niche in the Portland comedy scene.
"I'm settled with what I want to do with it," Kauffman says. "This is something that will always be on the side for me but something that is very important to me. I really like the fact I can get paid to do it, do it pretty well and it's manageable."