Kristine Levine: Not First, Not Last

October 10, 2018

Interview by

Valerie Lopez

Article by

Richard Goodwin


As proof that the Altercation Comedy Festival is full of new experiences, the 2018 edition gave us a first: an interview recorded at a liquor store. To be honest, we thought we’d end up there sometime anyway, but for a different reason; the good news is, this time it was the unique opportunity for Valerie Lopez to grab a few minutes with Portlandia regular, and part of the “Doug Stanhope family”, Kristine Levine.

Valerie has a knack for getting guests to open new windows on their lives and thinking, and Levine is no exception. The big difference here is that Levine already has quite a few of them cracked wide, and doesn’t hesitate to share how formative (and absurd) moments shape her approach to comedy.

A native of Portland, Oregon, and mother of three, Levine faced hardship early on with a difficult home life. As an escape from the psychological confines, and to help those around her in similar situations, she turned to invent quick skits and jokes to provide relief to the group. It’s helped form her philosophy of the benefits of entertaining. “I noticed when artists helps heal other people,” she tells Valerie.

“I noticed when artists helps heal other people." Kristine Levine

Levine married early, and when the first of her children arrived, the idea of comedy took a backseat to raising the family. In one of life’s unique random encounters, she found herself sitting across from a psychic who saw performance in her future. While we don’t formally endorse paranormal phenomenon, here we are, so thank you, nameless arcane practitioner, wherever you may be.

While her debut open mic flopped, Levine knew she had a story to tell. Many stories, in fact. Her first marriage ended when her husband left her for a woman he met on; tears may have been shed, but, as the mark of a true comedian, Levine immediately noted that she had been gifted the seed of a darkly fun story, practically on a silver platter. (Star Trek fans: yes, I almost said “silver replicator”, but I would like it to be noted I showed some rare nerd restraint.) She remarried, and the now trio of grown kids were the co-stars of her family’s podcast, Levine Large.

The Portland comedy scene is known as one of the best in America, and Levine definitely did her part in helping build it. Her show Critical Comedy showcases people that...almost nobody knew, which was Levine’s goal: give them a chance to try out comedy in a timed set, but ruled with a bit of an iron fist. If the performer doesn’t follow the rules, or takes things in a negative direction, off the stage they go.

“I know what’s coming, and where we’re going...and I love the fact that you don’t.” Kristine Levine

It was in the same spirit that Levine herself landed in the Stanhope “family” mentioned earlier; as proof that Facebook does occasionally bring good things to the world, she first connected with Stanhope in a comedy discussion group. (To this day he calls her by his nickname for her, “Mamu”.) It led to meetups, more friends joining the circle, and turned into a tight-knit group that traveled the world, supporting and promoting each other.

That kind of trust and support is a central theme with Levine. She describe comedy as like “tickling a toddler; if the toddler doesn’t trust you, they won’t laugh”. Some of her jokes and stories run dark and she tells Valerie about how building that relationship with the audience is key: so they’re prepared, yet not, for what’s in store. It’s a tricky balance to set up, but Levine embraces it, saying “I know what’s coming, and where we’re going...and I love the fact that you don’t.”

At the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, Levine tasted a bit of the sour bite of a negative “professional” review of her performance. The show itself, titled Fat Whore, couldn’t be more plain in setting the stage for comedy that would “walk the line”, but some reviewers somehow missed the joke. Levine shares some important lessons with Valerie about how sometimes the audience just doesn't quite join the ride, and how to keep it in perspective.

Soon after, when the casting call came in for Portlandia, Levine jumped at the opportunity. She expected a one-off role, and was never sure she was nailing the part, but the episodes kept coming. It hasn’t led her into a life focused on acting, but she’s not ruling it out.

Now a resident of Tucson, Arizona, and co-host of the acclaimed radio show Frank Show, Levine is still a fierce ambassador of comedy community. And I do mean fierce; there’s a sombering yet supportive vehemence in the stories she tells Valerie about the troubles she found in the scene there, and advice for comics on demanding the value and treatment they’re due, no matter the stage of their career journey.

It’s a journey Levine admits she hasn’t yet mastered. Despite the TV and radio gigs, and an album out, Hey Sailor, she still wants to do more. Like it or not, there’s a mundane side of the road to comedy success, fielding emails, keeping up websites, making connections. It’s almost as if she needs someone for her. Is a “manager” a thing in show business?

If you know of one, or are one, here’s your chance. You just might have to follow up a couple of times; she’s worth it.

Kristine Levine