Comedian has passion for the punch line

Vancouver man overcomes fear of public speaking to excel at stand-up

By Sue Vorenberg, Columbian features reporter



Honest Comedy, Hosted by Todd Armstrong

What: Stand-up comedy show hosted by local comedian Todd Armstrong. Features Tim Hammer, Don Frost and Brian Blank.

Where: Old Liberty Theater, 115 N. Main Ave., Ridgefield.

When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 12.

Cost: $8 in advance, $10 day of show. Ages 21 and older. Show may contain adult content.

Information: Old Liberty Theater or 360-887-7260.

Todd Armstrong

Todd Armstrong's heart pounded in his chest and his hands shook the first time he tried to speak in front of a small crowd.

And for him, the crowd was literally small -- he was talking in front of grade-school kids while working on his elementary education degree at Clark College.

But rather than giving in to what could be a career-ending phobia, he decided to meet the problem head on. So he made a New Years resolution: Try stand-up comedy five times.

"I felt like performing stand-up comedy was the worst thing I could do," said Armstrong, 34. "I did it. I hated it, but I did it five times."

Then, despite his feelings, he found himself going back for more.

"It wasn't better after five times but I found it enriching," he said. "Then I decided to do it 15 times. And by the time I got my degree, I was working pretty consistently at Helium and Harvey's (comedy clubs) in Portland."

Armstrong's anti-anxiety tactic turned out to have an unintended side effect. He discovered that comedy is his life's calling, he said.

"It ended up being kind of a bucket list meets anxiety thing," Armstrong said. "It definitely gave me momentum."

Armstrong, who graduated from Evergreen High School in 1997, is now an up-and-coming comedian in what has become a hot Portland area scene for stand-up.

He's performed at a variety of prominent shows, including Portland's Funniest Person, Bridgetown Comedy Festival and the Laughing Devil Comedy Festival in New York

In September, he was selected as part of Comedy Central's "Comics to Watch" Showcase in Portland.

"He's got a lot of the right ingredients," said Don Griswold, owner of the Old Liberty Theater in Ridgefield. "He's got wit, he's got intelligence. His approach is not anger or pissed off. (His style) just sort of reflects what's going on in life. And he's been opening up for some pretty big names over in Portland."

A couple years ago, Armstrong started producing a showcase called "Honest Comedy" at the Old Liberty Theater. The performances, which occur every few months, feature a variety of well-known regional comedians.

The next one, on Saturday, will star Don Frost, a Portland-based comic who's been touring nationally since 2003. His style has been described by others as explosive, stream of consciousness and philosophical.

The opening acts will be Tim Hammer, a young Portland comic known for his one-liners, and Brian Blank, a Denver comic who moved to Portland three years ago and is known for his silly take on the world.

"It will be a really fun show," Armstrong said. "It's a mix of zany; dry, witty one-liners; and impromptu stuff."

Armstrong picked the name "Honest Comedy" because it reflects the way he approaches his performances. He tends to tell stories based on his real-life experiences, he said.

"I don't write things out, everything I've done, it's all reality," Armstrong said. "I don't want to lie. And I can't have a victim in my jokes. It has to be genuine, that's why it's Honest Comedy."

He paused.

"Well, I do like to make fun of (country singer) Toby Keith," he admitted. "But he's the only one."

Armstrong was born and raised in Portland but moved to Vancouver in 1995 and finished high school here. Since graduation, he's lived in a variety of places in the region, including seven years in Ridgefield and four years in Battle Ground.

"I'm a former aquabilly," he said of his time living in a Ridgefield house boat. "My dad's name is Cletis, actually."

He's not lying about that, by the way. His grandfather's name is Cletis, too, he said of the stereotypical hillbilly name.

"When I was born, my mom asked my dad if he wanted to give me that name, too, and he said, 'Hell no,'" Armstrong said with a laugh.

Many of his jokes and funny stories take a look at some of the contradictions of people in our region.

In one routine, he described Portland as "if Amsterdam and Texas had sex and gave that baby to liberals."

In another, he talks about a Tri-Cities area club owner who told him that he couldn't talk about meth or the nuclear plant during his act.

"What do you think is going to happen when those meth heads find out there is copper inside that reactor?" he quipped. "You have problems today? Imagine when they're glow in the dark."

For now, Armstrong is spending most of his time on the road between nightly gigs at regional comedy clubs. Eventually, though, he'd like to move up to bigger national tours.

He and his wife, Nicole, travel together -- she goes to almost all of his shows -- and when they're in the Portland area, they usually stay at his parents' house in Woodland.

"It's a vagabond lifestyle," Armstrong said. "Sometimes we stay at a hotel, sometimes people from Twitter offer to let us stay with them. It can be tough, like playing in a band. But having my wife with me? She's the most down-to-earth person I know. She's rad. It's a great life."