Over the past 10 years I’ve spent 93 months creating a weekly late-night talk show at Dante’s; a downtown Portland bar that’s home to rowdy crowds, stiff drinks, open flames, a leaky roof, and the gnarliest toilets to ever receive the Midas touch. While it might be the least likely venue to present the Rose City’s version of The Tonight Show, over time Dante’s became my non-conventional comedy kingdom. No applause sign, audiences required your constant quickness & attention. I was often host, hype-man, and security, all rolled into one. At Dante’s you didn’t work around hecklers, you worked with them. It was sink or swim, adapt or die. And so it was this fertile ground in the middle of the roughest part of town that taught me how to be Ginsu fast, engage anybody & everybody, and to keep the show going no matter what. I am eternally grateful to owner FRANK FAILLACE for taking not one, but two chances on me, and giving me the unchecked freedom to do whatever I wanted, from the beer ziplines over unsuspecting audiences, porn tosses out the front door, epic exhibitions of flesh + pole prowess, to a bartender that would spend as much time shredding hot licks as he did serving cold drinks…
…THE GUITARTENDER aka Sunshine aka Shawn Sonnenschein became the quintessential Dante’s addition to the show, each night wowing audiences who couldn’t believe that amidst this quirky comedy show there was an far more impressive ax-wielding, one-of-a-kind Guitartender behind the bar. His inclusion into our program wasn’t a calculated move…like most things in comedy, the idea of a “Guitartender” was a stroke of luck/genius/right place, right-time improvisational double-down. I love Sunshine, not only for his talent, but for his desire to improve/add to his contribution on the show every week, effectively becoming the 4th member of our house-band, my long-range co-host that spoke with an equal mix of solos, smiles & suds, as well as a character actor, all wrapped into one epic dude!
In creating this comedy show week in and week out, fans are often surprised to hear that we have a staff numbering in the double digits. Some of our staff members are seen on stage nightly, some are strictly behind the scenes, but all are integral parts of the team. And the more you’ve been to the show at Dante’s, the more you notice all the inside jokes we have about each other during the live program. These sort of jokes are often made by those most familiar with each other, and that familiarity comes with being FAMILY; a bond that is created from being in the trenches and having faith that those around you can a achieve the unthinkable, the relatively unreasonable, creating a brand-new late-night talk show live, every single Tuesday night.
The most senior member of our team, who has no doubt worn the most hats figuratively AND literally, is announcer ROB EMS. First interviewedon the show thanks to his “high profile hobby,” he quickly became the show’s #1 fan, and as with many a super-fan he quickly became an employee: first a PA, later settling in to his true calling on WTR (and perhaps in life) as our one-and-only announcer. Rob’s intro to the show is legendary; an epic, succinct, eloquent/energetic call to laughter that will always be a part of our program.
We often joke about the “fan turning into employee” phenomenon on “WHO’S the ROSS?” but I think it’s a real endearing quality of our wacky world. We welcomed like-minded, passion people who loved the show like we did, not only become part of our comedy community each week, but also to take ownership of “the machine” and help create the humor they came to love.
One such addition from the audience was DAN RIQUER, a transplant from Buffalo I met hosting a Sexy Sunday Showcase at Dante’s called Sinferno. After accepting my invite to come watch my weekly comedy show, he quickly ascended to the level of “super fan,” staying so dedicated that he missed fewer shows that you can count on one hand during the course of 5 years. That unprecedented dedication & loyalty led him to become our bonafide utility man, filling almost every position possible on the show. He’s interviewed celebrities, worn diapers onstage, filmed the show, booked guests, drank, smoked, laughed, cried, and went from every-man to the only man to morph from Portland Fan to Portland Famous.
Our program has been lucky enough to be blessed with TWO fabulous house-bands, first was THEM! THE BAND! followed by JUSTIN CHASE & HIS MERRY BAND. The former was led by JP DOWNER, my Ace of Bass who long-ago told me during a random encounter at a rock show that his dream was to lead a late-night talk show band, and after contemplated how the hell he could do that in Portland Fucking Oregon, he realized there was one man who was brave/stupid enough to think that could work live, in a lounge, on a work night. For SIX YEARS JP led the WTR house-band, and in that time he revolutionized the game for the entire genre, becoming the first late-night band to regularly back musical guests, enhancing & extrapolating on their original compositions in such an awe-inspiring manner (all this with little more than a soundcheck to rehearse). The result was the musical counterpart to the interviews I presented with our guests; an improvised experience that had to be seen to be believed, something truly one-of-a-kind and a product of being IN THE MOMENT! He also authored one of the best theme songs in late-night talk show history, an iconic tune that legitimized our show from jump-street, long before we deserved such recognition. JP was accompanied by the insanely talented/silent keyboardist “MATTY ICE” JOHNSTON & TONY “THE TIGER” LINTZ, a hardworking, sweet, delightful man who became the master of the rim-shot (TONY!) and a stoic anchor for the program.
JUSTIN CHASE picked up right where JP left off, becoming a calming musical force for the program, which was striking given the talent he was armed with. Justin stepped in right as the show had truly found its voice, and was always game for every challenge we wanted to tackle. He continued the trend of gloriously backing musical guests, never afraid to improvise or present the songs in a unique manner for their one-off showcase. For this new-era of musical accompaniment Justin topped off his trio with bass player ANDEN OQUENDO, who became as much a part of the show as a musician as he did a character, and CARL LARUE whose dedication to the musical guests often turned him their best friend onset and their greatest asset.
Of course there have been many unsung heroes behind the scenes too, that truly elevated our game from being just a fun Tuesday night party to a professional presentation that began to elicit the response of “Wow! This is just like a talk show on TV!” Producer ZACK MORRIS deserves a lot of credit for fine-tuning the show and applying the vision of being “TV sharp” to live show in a bar that could’ve been nothing more than a fuck around jam. My dear childhood friend RACHEL MEYER has been with this show since Day 1, off-and-on applying her real-life production skills to the show, ushering Zack’s ability to “Save the Bell” and become the “Boss Hogg.”
Another unsung WTR hero was makeup artist CHRISTIE KASUBUCHI, who not only helped me discover I actually have eyebrows, but became our “Show Mom” – a calming force that helped settle our pre-show anxiety and brought smiles to everyone in her path.
Finally there’s my long-time co-writer, my right-hand man (who’s left-handed), my brother from another mother (that still lives with his Mom), JORDAN PALADINO. It’s hard to explain what it’s like to spend 5+ years creating a live comedy extravaganza like WTR hand-in-hand with one partner. From a time perspective, it means meeting twice a week to create the material, then dedicating a third full-day to willing the show to stage, followed by the all to brief experience of actually entertaining our live audience. From a creative perspective, it meant consistently churning out new material, but I’m proud to say we pushed ourselves to create humor that challenged us, our audience, and could endure the test of time (of course, being in a bulk art form we presented plenty of very idiotic material too).
In performing with such consistency, remembering to reflect on our successes, and more importantly our failures, we found ourselves in the rare-air of our late-night idols, as we were actually lucky enough find our voice. Often that voice was silly, playful, and welcoming; a voice that spoke WITH, not just TO the audience. As the political climate changed, the voice added a reassuring, passionate, thoughtful, challenging tone that sometimes went beyond comedy. But regardless of the night or theme, our focus was to engage the audience, giving them something they could only get by being at our live show, and presenting memories that would last long after they finished their second PBR.
It is also a great accomplishment in our field to have a stock pile of bread & butter material that people actually began to request and call out by name. Segments like “Insane in the Drinking Game,”“Rapper Not Rapper,”and“Rotten Tomatoes,”elicited instant responses, improvised R&B monologues like “Be My Barbecutie” became joyous sing-a-longs, and phrases like “PEDIA-TIGHT!” became classic call & responses that energized the crowd & crew.
None of the aforementioned growth, consistency, and relative maturation would have been possible without the Yin to my Yang (or Wang) that Jordan Paladino became, because it was our own personal growth that was ultimately reflected in the show’s material & presentation. No matter my future successes on TV (where I fully plan on sharing the fruits of our formative labor when ascension to the top of our genre is nigh) nothing will match the feeling of meeting mano y mano, late into the night as we challenged ourselves to make (regardless of the resulting laughter) the most engaging, silly, stupid, visceral, memorable comedy we could. I love you brotha, and will always reflect fondly upon our ragtag roots for the rest of my life!
The preceding photos were taking during the WTR “Dante’s Finale Show” – a curtain call to our years of weekly performances at 3rd & Burnside, and were shot by the incomparable TOM CHAMBERLAIN, who deserves his own special shout out. Tom photographed us weekly for a year from 2014-2015, often returning to capture our “comedy rodeo” every now & then. Tom’s photos made us feel like a big deal, because he made us look like rock stars. He is another one of the satellite characters that revolved around this silly project that became a silly lifestyle. and a silly family. Thank you for the ability to reflect on all the wonderful planets in the WTR Solar System, Mr. Tom, and thank you to all those that shun so brightly with us here at Ground Control. This may indeed be the end of an era, but it is not the end of an Aaron, so I look forward to continuing this project and many other comedy endeavors with my WTR compatriots for the rest of my life. THANK YOU ALL!!!