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The Renegade Idealist

By Larrybob (larrybob@io.com)


April 18, 2003


Being Funny in San Francisco

Comedy in San Francisco is one of those formerly abundant species that is now on the brink of extinction due to lack of habitat.

The list of former stomping grounds now gone is formidable: the Other Cafe, Holy City Zoo, the Boarding House, the San Francisco Improv, Josie's Cabaret and Juice Joint, the Valencia Rose, and reaching back further, the Hungry I and the Purple Onion. A 1997 SF Chronicle comedy roundup listed half a dozen more suburban clubs now gone. (For insight into the golden age of comedy in San Francisco, I suggest a visit to the website of John Cantu, who ran Holy City Zoo, www.HumorMall.com.)

And as of last week, Cobb's has closed at the Cannery. The club had been dealt a blow by the fire in the adjacent hotel development, which resulted in flooding in their basement venue.

The owners of Cobb's plan to open in a new location, and doing so somewhere other than Fisherman's Wharf may actually be to their benefit. San Franciscans were reluctant to be caught dead at the terminally unhip Wharf, and the sorts of tourists who frequent the neighborhood are of the most bland variety. This isn't the first location change for Cobb's, which last moved in 1987.

But at the current moment, there is only one full-time comedy venue in San Francisco, the Punchline, plus a few one-nighters.

Cobb's had three nights a week -- Monday through Wednesday -- of new comedian showcases. The Punchline has only Sunday night showcases. The available time for rising comedians to get on stage at a full-time club has been slashed to a quarter of what it once was. There are few headliners who reside locally. There is usually someone in the hosting spot who's a local, however.

Standups are left with only a few options for stage time, and stage time is a necessity for figuring out if jokes work and polishing an act. The Mock Cafe, located on Valencia and 22nd, is the side room of the Marsh. It has comedy on Friday and Saturday evenings. Usually there is an hour of standup and an hour of sketch or improv. On one recent night, there was a mock talk show at the Mock with a host delivering a monologue and triggering his own segue music on a laptop balanced on a makeshift desk made of milk crates. He had guest comedians doing standup as well.

There are other open mikes such as Brainwash, One World, the Sea Biscuit, and so on. There aren't many audience members at these events -- mostly it's comedians waiting for their turn. When members of the general public do turn up, the comedians are glad to see them. The shows can be a mixed bag, but it's a free show, and especially if there's one in your neighborhood it could be worth a try.

The outlook for comedy in the larger Bay area is mixed. Sunnyvale's Rooster T. Feathers was the only peninsula comedy club for some time, and has recently been purchased by comedian Heather Woodhull. Reportedly San Jose's new purpose-built Improv club is very nicely appointed. The San Francisco Comedy College has been having shows there. Another South Bay venue is Big Lil's, which is not a full-time comedy club, but is the site of the filming of a weekly comedy show that's broadcast by KRON late Friday nights. The East Bay's only full-time club is Tommy T's, which generally features road comics but apparently doesn't have the budget for many major names.

San Francisco comics also go on the dreaded road gigs in small rural towns where there are one-nighters in sports bars. Not all road gigs are hell, though -- the Russian River Resort, an hour north of San Francisco, is a gay resort which has comedy shows every Saturday night where a mixture of locals and tourists gather in the resort's bar to hear a comedian or two. It's a good gig with an appreciative audience.

Besides the concert hall tours of major comedians, there is only one local promoter who consistently puts on large-scale shows. Lisa Geduldig of Kosher Comedy practices creative booking, featuring unique out-of-town guests. She's got a loyal following for her shows, particularly the Chinese restaurant banquet shows around Christmastime. She usually produces at least one other show a year, such as Funny Girlz and Feygelah Shmeygelah.

There are other people who book one-off shows, often in the form of benefits. There have been a couple of recent successful shows put together by and featuring black female comedians. There is a general feeling that women comedians are less likely to be booked in other comedy venues, but the all-women comedy nights at venues like the Mock Cafe are among the most popular there.

The San Francisco International Comedy Competition is a long-time Bay Area institution, with lead-up shows in locations in an hour's radius of San Francisco. It's furthered the careers of many comedians, and Bay Area comics have come out on top in the past. But remember, it's an international competition which happens to be based in San Francisco, not a competition of San Francisco comedians. And the winningness (or lack thereof) of San Francisco comedians is more a comment on local comedians (and the fruitfulness for talented performers to live here) than the competition itself.

Comedy Day in the Park still happens annually. Attendance has fallen off markedly from the peaks of 60,000 that it reached at the height in the late 1980s when it was at the Polo Fields. Comedy outdoors in the open air is a dicey proposition, where people have plenty of distraction and little incentive to concentrate on the far-away speck of a comedian. How could they see facial expression and other subtleties at a distance? But for many San Franciscans, it may be the only time all year that they see live comedy at all.

Unlike many other cities, San Francisco doesn't have a standup comedy festival. There's a sketch comedy festival which is a small affair, generally happening in January; San Francisco is not as sketch-crazy as Chicago. And there's the San Francisco Fringe Festival, an annual event modeled on the Edinburgh festival, which is concentrated on solo or small group performance pieces.

Killing My Lobster is a sketch comedy troupe, the core of which emigrated here from Rhode Island. Their shows tend to be attended by a fairly young and hip crowd, perhaps people with the idea that comedy clubs are for suburbanites. In the case of their most recent show, they had a theme -- travel. They seem fairly publicity savvy -- they were recently featured on the cover of the SF Weekly.

Oh yeah, there's the twice-monthly QComedy shows which I co-produce. The show is at the LGBT Community Center, and each show we have a different featured host, plus half a dozen comedians, and the night is capped off by a closing set by Bridget Schwartz. We've been doing the shows for over three years, since the closing of Josie's Cabaret.

There are a few local comedy schools. One is the Comedy College, which also puts on graduating class shows, usually including a more seasoned local comic in the lineup for their events. Hank Hyena teaches comedy workshops out of a space in the basement of a Mission Street mall. His classes concentrate on writing and delivering comic monologues. He has shows with the graduates of his classes, generally at the Double Door on 16th Street. The Harvey Milk Institute offers standup and improv classes taught by veterans of the gay comedy scene Maureen Brownsey and Karen Ripley.

Bay Area Theatresports, based at Fort Mason, offers both classes and performances. The classes are not cheap, and it takes quite a few rounds of the classes before people can perform. Nonetheless, their shows are very involving and amusing. It's great seeing a suggestion that you shouted out being brought to life onstage. It's one of the best entertainment values in San Francisco.

It seems like very few of the people who take standup classes end up pursuing comedy further. Comedy requires quite a bit of time commitment. You have to be out as many nights as possible to get your face known in the clubs, and you need to spend time writing new material.

Why is San Francisco's comedy in such a sad state? For starters, the economic situation that's devastated so many financially marginal artforms. Who can afford to be a struggling performer in San Francisco?

But there are also problems with the attention paid to comedy. In researching this article, I went through the indexes of the San Francisco Chronicle. Back around 1980, the Chronicle would actually print reviews of comedy performances. Columnists such as Gerald Nachman (author of the 2003 book Seriously Funny: The Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 1960s) would make reference to local comedians and the comedy scene. And year-end comedy scene roundups (along the lines of this article) regularly appeared.

These days, if a promoter of a big show really pushes, she might be able to get a feature article written about a headliner. But a lot of local writers seem to be clueless about the proper way to write about comedy. It is wrong to retell comedians' jokes, particularly because writers almost always tell the jokes wrong. And if you read the articles most people write, there are few usable quotes for the comedians to repeat on future posters or press material. They would have to stitch things together with some ellipses to make a useable clipping in many cases. No wonder you see quotes like "Comedian X... [was]... brilliant..."

In London and New York, Time Out magazine has a weekly comedy section which includes not only event listings but a small column which points to a hot comedy show, and a sidebar in which a comedian picks their five favorite clubs. No publication in San Francisco has regular features on comedy. Comedy is rarely picked in the day-by-day features. It's an afterthought.

Another form of missing media are locally originated broadcast shows booking comedians. Alex Bennett used to have comedians as guests on his morning show frequently. Now Live-105 syndicates Howard Stern, or I assume they do, as I haven't tuned in for years. The only local commercial radio show that regularly features comedy is on Radio Alice, where Scott Capurro (who got his start on Bennett's show) is a regular, and thereby is able to get many radio listeners to come to his performances. True Fiction does their improv on the public radio show West Coast Live; their live performances are a must for the visual aspect not seen on radio. It's doubtful whether anyone knows to watch KRON's late-night comedy show, and cable access comedy shows are even more obscure.

On the other hand, many of the local comedy promoters are not that good at publicity and promotion, missing opportunities for free publicity in papers or on websites. The ball is dropped on keeping information on events that are no longer happening up to date, resulting in inaccurate listings, which must frustrate members of the public. Few promoters seem to try to collect email addresses or have up-to-date websites.

These days, nobody is going to stay in San Francisco and get discovered. People hone their acts for a few years here and then move to Los Angeles where there are more performance opportunities and more of a chance of getting on television. There's no industry here.

Perhaps the caliber of most local performers is not at the level of the primes of Lily Tomlin or Steve Martin. However, I think there are local performers that given the chance to develop and get attention can make a mark on a major scale. There are some pretty funny people out there who should not be completely ignored.