Since 2010, Eagle River native Becky Braunstein has been making headway in the Portland comedy scene, with routines that frequently touch on her Alaska roots.
On Nov. 16, the Chugiak High grad will take a big step in her career, as her special, as part of the EPIX Netowrk’s ‘Unprotected Sets’, airs.
The show is produced by Wanda Sykes and takes a unique approach regarding comedy specials by splicing on-stage routines with personal and sometimes deeply personal interviews. Braunstein’s interview will mark the first time she’s spoken publicly about her battle with metastatic thyroid cancer, getting treatment for which, forced her to leave Alaska in the first place.
“It’s really high-energy, all over the map — I talk about Alaska, relationships, travels,” Braunstein said of her episode. “My interview portion gets a little bit heavy… you get a complete picture. You see this happy, wide-eyed person on stage, but then to see behind the curtain is something you don’t get in most comedy specials.”
Braunstein’s comedy career was just beginning to get legs when she was diagnosed with cancer. The tumors were lodged in her throat, threatening her ability to speak.
“I was getting radiation in Anchorage, but I felt like I needed to go to a bigger city to get better medical care — that’s sad and I don’t like saying it, but it was a good decision,” Braunstein said. “It’s been a whirlwind… I thought I might lose my voice or die, so I’m kind of this happy, enthusiastic comedian, which is kind of unusual. I think every day that I almost didn’t get to do this, so I love it — every second of it.”
Braunstein has yet to work her cancer struggles into her act, but the interview portion of ‘Unprotected Sets’, gives her that opportunity.
“It takes time to get to the point where you can write jokes about a hard time,” Braunstein said. “Tragedy plus time equals comedy, but time is an important part of that equation.”
Braunstein last performed in Alaska at Koot’s in 2016. During that visit she filmed a number of walking around bits that included a stop by the office of Mayor Ethan Berkowitz. Those videos are available on her website www.beckybraunstein.com.
“It was really cool coming up and filming comedy and doing a travel show — it was real low tech,” Braunstein said. “It was surreal to do comedy at Koot’s. When I lived there, it was just a bar. There were a lot of people that showed up and the audience reaction was just awesome. I felt very loved.”
Somewhat the inverse of comedians who come up to Alaska and throw into their bits a couple of observations about the eccentricities of Alaska living, Braunstein talks about Alaska living down below. Naturally, most audiences are full of misconceptions.
“Most people have never seen a comedian on TV talking about Alaska, or even one who comes from Alaska,” Braunstein said. “I’m always amazed at what people do not know. I stand out here. I think wherever I go I am a little tougher around the edges. People (in Portland) are kind of fancy, even though they don’t think they are… People know Sarah Palin, they know it’s cold up there, they ask about the darkness and the polar bear with the shoe at the zoo.”
Braunstein says she working on making it back to Alaska for a comedy festival in the spring.
“I wish I did more shows in Alaska,” Braunstein said. “I’m hoping that with my special coming out it will be a little kick of exposure for Alaska. I’m out here talking about growing up there.”
Braunstein got her start in entertainment as a dramatic actor before making the switch.
“I just couldn’t be serious,” Braunstein said. “In Anchorage there was no standup scene. I did (the sketch comedy troupe) Scared Scriptless for a couple of years, and then I just wanted to go solo. When I got to Portland I got into standup and thought, ‘maybe I’ll give this a try.’ I’m a control freak and a lone wolf.”
EPIX is a paid channel on cable and satellite, but to see Braunstein’s episode on ‘Unprotected Sets’, you can log on to the website and sign up for a free trial.
“I’m working on just kind of getting out there and saying, ‘hello, world, this is my national TV debut’ and see where that momentum takes me. I’m working on writing a pilot, which is pretty standard,” she said. “I think all across the state people are probably going to want to tune in. How many times do you get to see an Alaskan on TV talking about Alaska?”