Room Review: Portal’s Tavern

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It’s an open mic. An open mic is an open mic: it’s the karaoke of musings; it’s the intellectual cover band, it’s the Tito Jackson of artistic endeavors (maybe even Marlon). Sure, Portal’s Tavern open mic, located in the gallbladder of San Francisco, is well operated, well staffed, well attended and well received, but it’s still an open mic.

Mondays are notoriously adverse to comedy, especially of the unpolished variety. Stand-up is small potatoes, and on a slow night it can potentially poison the well for sports – Go Niners! Go Giants! – and good ole fashion alcoholism. And for additional subtraction, whether by frugality or poverty, comics are notorious tightwads. Since the great Purge of 2011 (Kimo’s; 50 Mason; 800 Larkin, again), and finales of other castoffs (farewell Deco Lounge), the bow of the week has been adrift. Thankfully, Portal’s Tavern floated along and jokers clambered aboard like ill-fated lovers on a freezing door.

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Pubs favor open mic comedy. Their seedy symbiosis attracts similar boozing, throwers and tossers. Motley scenery, layered promotions embroidered by tchotchkes, pinball stalled, static darts, coffee sleeping in a bulb o’er electric fire, television retires – with protest – or is more likely muted. Comics bombastically congregate in the rear; the more anxious, supportive or early-queued settle in close. Center stage straddles the bar, a makeshift theater in the round. A flat arcade cabinet lingers in the background and a gaggle of chairs and tables flank stage left.

Three constants keep Portal’s abuzz: a late start, Randy the Bartender, and Justin Alan, host and impresario. Some open mics start near twilight, often placating later revelry, catering to normal people. Comedians, for the most part, are not normal people. They don’t keep day jobs, refrain from responsibilities, and are negligible to an almost self-destructive degree. On the highs or lows of the night’s previous mic, and under the guise of “work”, a late set could satiate adequately. “It’s late,” the excuse for an early departure, is an added bonus.

Randy, distinguished by time and demeanor, captains the establishment’s taps, tops and soda pop. As beloved as an eleven-year-old Labrador, the bartender shares a commonality with his Monday night patrons: he’s a comic. The veteran of the Midwest during the mid-eighties – a dusty time in dusty lands – fosters a great spirit and supportive energy. The true vitality of a comedy space is measured by the enthusiasm of the staff; Randy loves comedy and thus it thrives at Portal’s.

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Justin Alan is a benevolent enigma, adventurously ubiquitous, and master of ceremonies of Monday’s at Portal’s Tavern. Ageless, weightless, shameless: Alan’s casual repertoire contrasts (ironically?) with his dapper exoskeleton. One could deem the jokester as professional as his bow tie, professional as in dick jokes are probably notarized if you work at the National Lampoon. Justin’s pointed organization lifts him soundly past his peers as a businessman. His attention to detail and respectfulness allows others to succeed. His awkward, “your-next-comedian-has-a-vagina” introductions, intrepid interactions nearing intromission, and strict penchant for post-set handshakes are petty nitpicks; Alan, affable dandy, purveys pleasantness beyond further pelting pleasantries.

Even on the dreariest, most lethargic, and unapologetically stoic nights, the bar has uniquely festive potential to be tipped or tripped accordingly.

And it keeps getting better. Over it’s fledging existence the mic has provided snacks galore, added auxiliary lighting and a third thing. It’s still an open mic night, but still, it’s soup to the eager masses, a sling to a fracture, an embrace from a stranger. Portal’s Tavern is needed relief.