NORWAY — “I was always obsessed with comedy as a kid,” divulges Portland-based comedian Ann-Marie Keene, a performer who is headlining an age-21-and-up performance at Norway Brewing Company Saturday night. “Things were in turmoil [for me]. I bounced around a lot in foster care, but comedy was my constant. It would always make me laugh and pull me out of whatever situation I was going through.

Comedian Ann-Marie Keene will perform at Norway Brewing on Sept. 2 and 15, along with Marc Turcotte and Nic Default. NIcole Carter / Advertiser Democrat

“I didn’t have money, I wasn’t the pretty one. I was a little chubby, and I was always new [kid], wearing foster kid clothes. So humor got me out of everything. Laughter has always been important to me. I couldn’t live without it.”

Keene began performing for laughter later in life, when she was 42. Like with many people, COVID-19 turned out to be a game-changer. She was working at an essential job – as a pharmacy technician – and the stress of it had begun taking its toll.

As things began to open up more in 2021, several friends who performed as comedians began cajoling her to join them doing stand-up until she gave in and gave it a try.

She took to the stage, loved it, and now Ann-Marie Keene is bringing her brand of laughter to Oxford Hills, among other out-of-the-way areas in Maine. She lives in Portland but she seeks out performance gigs in smaller towns and is finding a niche doing it in craft brew pubs.

“There’s nothing wrong with Portland, but they have enough comedy and it’s established,” she said. “I think it’s fun to do comedy smaller towns like Norway, and people really, really like it.”

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Working as a public-facing pharmacy tech through a pandemic provided early Keene with plenty of early material.

“I began writing about the pharmacy, and it was really kind of cathartic,” she said. “I had to get it out. You write what you know, so those were my first bits.”

Keene credits friends and fellow comedians Marc Turcotte and Nic Dufault, who will perform with her at Norway Brewing, as catalysts for her taking to the stage, along with Doug Birgfeld and Sheldon Bird. She also took some classes, notably with comedy instructor and public speaking coach Tim Ferrell, a veteran of the business who in the past has worked with luminaries such as Jon Stewart and Chris Rock.

It was not until after performing on stage around 20 times did Keene discover the value of performing at open mics, too.

“People were asking why I wasn’t doing open mics,” she said. “I was like, ‘can I?’ I’d been to open mics, but it never occurred to me I could! I didn’t realize how important it is, and it’s great practice. It’s like taking another class.

“Open mics helped me over the anxiety part of it. It took a good year and maybe 100 times being on stage. Doing open mics really sped things up. I would get hives, or throw up, before I’d do a set. Massive stage fright. Open mics helped my body learn that it wouldn’t die from [being on stage].”

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Keene relied on pharmacy jokes for much of the first year, but after six years on that job, including during COVID, she was burned out on the work and wasn’t finding it that funny to talk about anymore.  She began drawing inspiration from an elderly friend who was then 102, as well as from her current day job as a nursing home receptionist.

“My friend, she’ll say hilarious things, like ‘life is short.’ I’m like, ‘yeah,’ that’s a punchline. I got enough material in my first week at the nursing home to scratch my pharmacy stuff out and start over.

“Now just in the last month I’ve felt emotionally removed from the pharmacy enough that I can bring some of it back in, and it’s actually working. I did it here the other night and people loved it.”

More recently Keene has established herself as a comedy show producer, forming Cat’s Meow Comedy. Now she lines up acts for Norway Brewing and other venues like Rusty Bus Brewing in Lewiston and Jokers & Rogues Brewing in Farmingdale

“It’s one way to guarantee that I get booked to shows,” she said. “It’s a cool way to bring shows to new audiences.  But it takes a lot of networking, and you also have to sometimes be strict about who you book.

“But I get booked through other producers, at shows around New England. Next week I will do a show in Everett, Mass. I’ve gone to Boston, New Hampshire and down into Connecticut. I will perform anywhere in the country that that has a stage and audience.”

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A couple of Keene’s reels can be viewed on Facebook reels: artificial intelligence and post-pandemic shopping.

At the age of 45, is Keene surprised that she is living her passion by performing stand-up comedy?

“I’m very surprised,” she admits. “I’m surprised I even tried it in the first place. I’m surprised I’m fairly good at it. And I don’t ever want to stop.”

She describes her humor as sarcastic and self-deprecating. Some of her idols include the late George Carlin and Joan Rivers, Sarah Silverman and Ricky Gervais. She recalls practicing in the mirror as a child, telling dumb little jokes.

“I always wanted to do stand-up,” she said. “Star Search. When I was little-little, I would visit my grandparents in Oxford and we’d watch Star Search. The kids, they would sing songs. I was like, ‘why can’t the kids do a stand-up segment? I want to go on and do stand-up!’ And my grandmother said, ‘well, you’re not funny, so you’re not going to.’

“I didn’t think that I could. Until I was told that I should. And at first I thought ‘no, I can’t!’ I was 42, and it seems weird to get started in this so late. But Marc, he started when he was 42. So if he could, I guess I’m good to try …. And a little life experience makes your comedy better.”

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Only a couple of years into her stand-up career, Keene is mentoring other budding comedians. At Norway Brewing, brew master and marketer Cory Nicholson caught the bug with her encouragement.

“One of the owners told us Cory had started writing comedy,” Keene said. “So we asked him if he wanted to get up and try it. And he did and got bit hard, and he’s been going at it since.”

“Ann-Marie and Marc have been a guiding light in my comedy,” Nicholson said. “They’ve taken me under their wing, and any question I have they’ve got an answer that will make me better. I wouldn’t have ever started without them. I had always been told I was funny but never had the confidence to do it.”

Keene’s favorite onstage moment happened in Ogunquit and also became one of her biggest regrets.

“Two weeks ago I had a really good set,” she said. “It was a packed house and a really beautiful theater. No empty seats, and to hear that huge wave of laughter in the packed theater was [the best].

“And then after the show, and after he left, I realized that Barney Frank who used to be in Congress was in the audience. I saw some of the comedians at the exit saying goodbye and this guy was taking pictures with them. I went to get a beer instead, and it was Barney Frank! I would have fanned out on him. I used to love watching him on TV.

“But it’s still pretty cool that he saw me, and that he saw a good set.”

Keene is on a mission to deliver comedy wherever she can in Maine, and beyond. She will perform at Norway Brewing this Saturday and again on Sept. 15. Both shows are 21+, start at 7 p.m. and tickets are $10 each. Visit Norway Brewing’s Facebook page for ticket information.

“Of all the events we book here, comedy is the most successful,” Nicholson said. “Just bringing [comedy] to these small towns with breweries, it brings us new customers.”

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