Tag Archives: Brainwash

Comedy Godfather, City Outsider

“Humans! Listen to my face hole!”

Tony Sparks has been on stage long enough to know how to capture attention. He stands behind the mic at a sparsely occupied bar on a Monday night. He is two acts into an open mic show.

“Hey, humans!” Sparks shouts from inside the spotlight. “Even y’all in the back at the bar, ignoring the shit outta me. I need for everybody to give this next guy the big love.”

Sparks hands it off to the next comic. Slowly, people are drawn in. The bar fills up. Some people even come to sit around the stage. Two hours later, just before the show ends, the place is hopping.

Sparks is known as the “godfather of comedy” in San Francisco. He has run comedy events throughout the Bay Area for years. He came to San Francisco in the early 1990s, enticed by the city’s reputation as a nucleus of the comedy scene. Instead, he found himself ostracized from the prominent clubs and people of the day.

“This town was a piece of shit,” Sparks says. “It was really cliquey. So I don’t ever want to be that way with people. Hopefully when people hang out with me they get a sense of, ‘okay, I feel accepted and I can do this.’ I don’t want to do to other people what was done to me.”

Sparks set out to develop a more welcoming community of comics. In April of 1999, Sparks started hosting shows at BrainWash cafe and laundromat in South of Market. Calling the place an eclectic venue would not do it justice. The stage was set up against the huge, wall-high windows of the front of the building. The food line cut right through the tables, so most of the audience was separated from the direct vicinity of the stage. People usually talked at the bar, ignoring the show completely. And people were also there to do their laundry.

“It was more of a social hub than a great comedy spot,” comedian Hunter Stoehr says. “It was not a great place to do comedy, but it was a great place to hang out.”

“For people that were just doing open mics, it was the place you could go every single day,” comedian Graham Galway adds. “For people that were more established, it was a place to get an early set in. It was always a pretty large crowd, and it was a good place to meet people.”

Over the years, the strange hybrid establishment became a fixture of Bay Area comedy. BrainWash held open mics five nights a week, most hosted by Sparks.

“It was a great place. It was the foundation for the community,” Sparks explains. “If you needed to know what to do, and to grow, and where to go, you went to the Brainwash. The staff there was wonderful, the people were nice. They really took good care of me. It was like my family. I mean, c’mon, I spent nineteen years with them.”

 

In December 2017, BrainWash abruptly shut down. The cafe had been struggling to deal with a decline of customers caused by a large construction project next door. It closed with no fanfare, just a note on the locked door. It had been in business for more than thirty years.

The comedy community has been reeling ever since. There are other places that hold open mics in the city, of course, but none of them with the frequency that BrainWash did. Stoehr and other comedians describe the scene as “decentralized.”

“There was a huge gap, a void that opened up once BrainWash shut down,” Billy Catechi, manager of the bar Il Pirata, says. “That was a real shame. The place was one-of-a-kind.”

For the past twelve years, Il Pirata hosted monthly stand up shows. After BrainWash closed, said Catechi, Il Pirata decided to turn their monthly shows into weekly events. They asked Tony Sparks to host. The shows have been running every Thursday since early February.

Il Pirata sits on the corner of 16th Street and Potrero Avenue. Around 5 p.m. on a Thursday evening, Catechi brings a couple rows of chairs into the cleared-out lounge space and assembles a short wooden stage. In the room are several large booths, a spotlight, and a sound station with mixing boards and a big bank of speakers. This is the setup for the evening showcase of more established Bay Area comedians, which starts at 8 p.m.

Until then, there’s open mic out on the patio. The prep work for this event is less elaborate. Catechi pulls one table back a couple feet then plops a mic and speaker in front of the Jack Daniels dartboard. Mere feet away, traffic barrels by on 16th Street.

One-by-one, the comics come in and sign up for their four minutes behind the mic. Everyone who performs that night is a veteran of the process. Many of them know one another from the BrainWash. They mingle out on the patio until Sparks arrives just before six o’clock to kick the night off.

In addition to Il Pirata, Sparks also hosts a regular Monday night show (along with free pizza and videogames) at Milk Bar on Haight Street. The gigs he runs now don’t come close to matching the sense of camaraderie of BrainWash. Still, he continues to host shows, passionate about preserving venues for burgeoning comics to perform.

“What else am I gonna do?” Sparks says. “I’m an old man. I been doing this since I was 16 years old. I don’t know anything else to do.”

An open mic can be a brutal thing. A show is the only place for an aspiring comedian to hone new material. So they go out on a weekday night and try out their budding jokes in front of an audience made up mostly, if not entirely, of fellow comedians.

“There’s a lot of open mics where there’s no audience, there’s just other comics who have already seen most of your jokes,” comedian Travis Thielen shares. “And you only have a couple new things, so it can feel kind of disheartening.”

At Il Pirata, some do better than others. One comic’s tale about hiding pot from his parents as an adult garners some earnest chuckles, while another’s rant about millenials falls flat. Admittedly, the latter scenario is more common.

This is why the geniality of Tony Sparks is such a key to the success of the night. Even when he delves into darker personal topics, there is a buoyancy to him. Sparks has a way of delivering jabs that feel like both a roast and encouragement.

During a recent show at Milk Bar, Sparks addressed a comic who had just performed a set that was met with silence from the audience. The main factor for the icy response, perhaps, was a complete lack of discernible jokes anywhere in the routine.

“That was beautiful, although I didn’t understand shit you was saying,” Sparks said as he took back the mic. “Don’t feel bad. The rest of them,” he gestured toward the audience, “they were ignoring you very openly.” Then he turned on the audience: “You guys are bullies. He poured his heart out and you shit all over him.”

The ribbing is anything but discouraging. Comedian Tammy Clarke works at open mics and with Sparks to hone her craft. In August she will be opening for shows headlined by comedian and actress Mo’Nique.

“Honestly, I’ve gotten nothing, but love and support in this comedy sector,” Clarke says. “It feels good.”

The moment each comedian finishes their set, Sparks belts out an enthusiastic “Yaaaay!” and prods the room to break into another round of applause. When a brand-new comic comes up, Sparks leads the audience in a short chant of “lots of love” to build up the energy in the room.

“Sometimes there’s one thing that you do in life that just makes you so fucking happy,” Sparks explains. “When I host these shows, or when I get on stage, I’m so happy. I’m so incredibly happy. I have so much fun.”

Still, there’s no filling in the hole that the loss of the BrainWash created in Sparks’s life. His discontent about living in San Francisco hasn’t abated in the nearly three decades of his residency.

“I don’t trust the city, I don’t like it,” Sparks admits. “I don’t like the people. I hate everything about it. Everything. The only thing I loved about it is gone; that was the BrainWash.”

Sparks says he has gotten invitations from venues in other cities to go create his own BrainWash-type establishment. Still, there is something that, for now, keeps him in San Francisco.

As the open mic wraps up at Il Pirata, Sparks thanks everyone for coming out and congratulates them on their performances. Then he goes inside, hops up on the stage, and launches into his next comedy showcase.

Open City: A Week of Comedy Open Mics in SF

Wednesday Night Comedy at The Flying Pig brings crowds in to see 2 minutes speed rounds for 2 hours offering a plethera of the bay areas finest comedians such as Ken Townsend. Photo on Wednesday, April 3, 2013.
Wednesday Night Comedy at The Flying Pig brings crowds in to see 2 minutes speed rounds for 2 hours offering a plethera of the bay areas finest comedians such as Ken Townsend. Photo on Wednesday, April 3, 2013.

 

By Molly Sanchez
Photos by Frank Leal

By day I am a journalist. I sit in classes, carry a voice recorder in my purse, and find clever ways to mock my superiors within the confines of the Chicago style. But by night I am a standup comic. I sit in bars, carry a voice recorder in my purse, and find clever ways to mock my superiors within the confines of three-minute long sets. Open mics are a right of passage for entry-level comics, and the best way to get stage time. Richard Dreyling, comic and Marine corps veteran says, “Open mics are important because they provide a venue for comics to get good though trying material, figuring out what works, and getting more comfortable on stage. Most good shows won’t let comics on until they progress past that level, so open mics are a bit of a crucible. Everyone sucks at the start, its just that some people stick with it and with that consistency, get better. I look at it as a shitty boot camp that never ends, but you have to go down there to work those skills, like hitting the bag or running. You have to do it.” What follows is a guide to doing it every night of the work week. Even if you’re not a comedian these are events worth attending because nothing makes a good night great like a dark bar and hours of quality dick jokes.

Monday
Portals Tavern
179 W Portal Ave,
21+
Sign up:8
Get there: 7
Set length: 5 minutes

I’m a firm believer that good things can be found behind even the dingiest of exteriors, old wardrobes, faded Mission taco shops etc. The open mic at Portals Tavern is no exception. Behind the unremarkable wooden door that most people mosey past en route to West Portal’s other attractions (RIP Squat and Gobble) is a bar lit by Christmas lights and warmed by a fireplace. The ratio of comedians to civilians is a decent five-to-one here on a good night and the audience tends to be respectful of sets. The mic is hosted by loveable stoner, Justin Alan, and by the more coherent Scott Simpson. Both hosts insist on a strict code of conduct for the comedians ascending the makeshift stage, a microphone that abuts a jukebox. “Shake my hand when you get on,” Alan says. “Shake my god damned hand. Don’t make me look like an asshole!” The bar is usually filled with laughter either from bartender Randy’s weekly sets (ask him to tell the one about the Lone Ranger and the whores) or from the antics of comedians offstage. “Did anyone else hear that fart?” asks comic, Mean Dave, mid set. “This guy puked outside, what kind of place is this, someone take a dump right now!” The back patio area of Portals is also a great place to network with fellow comedians. Just watch out for the puke.

The last Tuesday of every month offers The Break Room hosted by Rajeev Dhar at Amnesia on 20th and Valencia. Combing through the bay areas finest comedians with 2 minutes rapid fire shorts. Photo on Tuesday March 26, 2013. Photo by Frank Leal/Xpress
The last Tuesday of every month offers The Break Room hosted by Rajeev Dhar at Amnesia on 20th and Valencia. Combing through the bay areas finest comedians with 2 minutes rapid fire shorts. Photo on Tuesday March 26, 2013. Photo by Frank Leal/Xpress

 

Tuesday
Amnesia
853 Valencia St
21+
Sign up: 6:30
Get There: 6
Set length: 3-4 minutes

Amnesia is a dark bar. I’m talking bat cave, basement apartment, and “future for graduates with a humanities degree.” The bar, featured prominently in my other article, is lit by glowing red candles on the high tables that line the wall and the pink-gelled theatre lights that blast on thestage. Climbing the stairs to the stage, the brightest spot in the whole bar, I always feel like Indy in Raiders of the Lost Ark and worry that I haven’t brought a heavy enough sand bag to displace the totem safely. The mic, called “The Break Room,” is run by comedian and producer, Rajeev Dhar, though sometimes it is run by his sun glassed alter ego “Prince Rajeev The Everlasting.” The room is populated completely by comics with only a few civilians who trickle in around nine to witness the bar’s nightly transition into a music venue. What no one tells civilians about comics watching other comics is that no one laughs. One comic, William Lushbough astutely labels this issue “the comic’s room chuckle” and describes the usual slight groans to the quiet intonations of “funny” as comic’s way of saying “ah yes, we agree with what you say there.” This relative silence is tough on later comedians, sometimes embittering the material. “I think a lot about guns,” one comic says. “Especially at open mics.” Amnesia is a good spot for networking or trying new material on peers. Beer lovers can avail themselves of the secret happy hour (dollar off taps from 6-7p.m.) and music lovers can show up at 8 p.m. and dodge the cover for the music act that comes
in at 9:30 p.m.

Casey Grim is the hostess for The Flying Pig's Wednesday night comedy show, aiding the audience to watch with a crowd wide beer game, screaming for visitors to drink when ever comedians utter the phrases she had picked through out the night. Photo on Wednesday, April 3, 2013
Casey Grim is the hostess for The Flying Pig’s Wednesday night comedy show, aiding the audience to watch with a crowd wide beer game, screaming for visitors to drink when ever comedians utter the phrases she had picked through out the night. Photo on Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Wednesday
Flying Pig
433 S Van Ness Ave
All ages
Sign up: 7:30
Get there: 7
Set length: 5 minutes

Wednesdays at the Flying Pig are the brainchild of comedy power couple, Casey Grim and Adam McLaughlin. After meeting via sessions at the infamous Comedy College, McLaughlin and Grim devoted their married life to raising several cats and the bar set for open mics in their neighborhood. The Pig, as it is affectionately referred to, is bright and homey that serves delicious sandwiches, local beers, and salads the size of a grown man’s head. There is also free Wi-Fi so comics can tweet their jokes that didn’t make it into their sets. Because this venue is a restaurant rather than a straight up bar, the civilian-to-comic ratio is a healthy four-to-two. Audience members keen to be featured in everyone’s set tend to sit at the very edge of the bar, giving them a front row seat to the keg surrounded stage. Grim, twitter fight instigator and main emcee, has high energy and a loud laugh that gives comics new and old an onstage boost. “Comics aren’t funny, open mics help comics understand that. Or at least that’s the goal,” says Grim who takes pride in the organization of her mic.” The unfortunate thing is our lack of quality open mics has really trained poor habits into people. We need stricter open mics & showcases with higher expectations. That would really do the comedy scene a WORLD of favors.” The beauty of baby open mics like The Pig, baby here referring both to the event’s recent inception and the age of potential comics, is that they are often more generous with stage time than more established and thus more crowded mics and usually pull a wider audience. Sooie!

Thursday
Brainwash
1122 Folsom St
All ages
Sign up: 6:30
Get there:5
Set length: 4 minutes

Brainwash is by far the best venue for new comics. Bar freaking none. First time comics are given a warm welcome by host Tony Sparks, a prestigious fixture of the bay area comedy scene. “Baby,” “Human” and “Sugar –nasty” are among the many terms of endearments Sparks applies to comics and audience members and he rallies the crowd to greet new comics with a boisterous call of “GIVE THEM A LOT OF LOVE!” That love can be seen in the sign up priority new comics get on a list that sometimes reaches over thirty comics a night. The same priority is given to women comics (I’d be mad about my vagina being seen as a handicap if I wasn’t so busy getting on stage early). Because of the supportive atmosphere of this venue it is often packed past capacity with comics and civilians and their combined laughter can be heard even over the rumblings of the adjacent laundromat. Because of the sprawling sign up list this mic lasts well past 11 p.m. but civilians tend to stay and laugh for the majority of the time. Comic Drew Harmon, a veteran of the Brainwash scene says “open mics are where that guy who everybody in the office says “is SO funny, you should do comedy!” finds out that he would rather just be the funniest guy in the office and not spend the next seven to ten years hanging out in bar basements and laundromats. Those that are left are sad, disturbed narcissists who will never know peace.” This spot is a great place to be seen by producers in charge of showcases and many a new comic lands their first gig at Brainwash. If you’re a comic looking for inspiration, the back bathroom is covered floor to ceiling with sharpied jokes and quotes from literature, history, and pop culture. Patty Hearst was right, Brainwash is a great thing.

Friday
Mutiny Radio
21st and Florida St
All ages
Sign ups: 7:45
Get There: 7:30
Set Length: 5 minutes

To say Pam Benjamin, comedian and host of Pamtastic’s Comedy Clubhouse, is enthusiastic is to say chocolate is just ok, or the BP oil spill was just a little messy. At the beginning of every open mic Pam, a former cheerleader, leads the crowd in a loud rendition of the Comedy Clubhouse theme song. The song is the Mickey Mouse Club theme …if the Mickey Mouse Club theme was sung by middle aged stoners. “M-U-T-I-N-Y Comedy Clubhouse/ Forever we will all get high, high, high( audience pretends to take a toke, all cough exaggeratedly).” The mutiny radio feels like that song, something wholesome and familiar with a little twist around the edges. The studio is small and the walls are bedecked with local art. The stage is teeny and abuts the bathroom. Sometimes, if the station’s djs have been negligent, the bathroom smell permeates the small space. “We called it Pam’s Comedy Outhouse last week,” Benjamin confides with a wink. Friday nights are fueled by her enthusiasm and sheer bouncing presence. She smiles and laughs so uproariously that a child seeing a bike under the Christmas tree would look at Benjamin and think “ Sheesh woman, get a hold of yourself!” Called affectionately “a grown up Rainbow Brite” Benjamin’s childlike glee can be seen when she introduces one comic as “a fireball inside the mouth of an angel from space”.The mic, which is every Friday (save for the first of the month) draws a mostly comics crowd with very few in-studio civilians. Still the show, which is converted into a podcast weekly, draws a crowd. Longtime intern and comedienne, Lalique D’Bruzzi, says that the listenership has reached “eighteen thousand or so”.

Side bar
Top five tips for Open Mics

1) Come early: SF is a city full of hungry comics aching for stage time. Since most of them are unemployed they arrive at mics an hour to two hours early and position on the list is normally decided on a first come first served basis.

2) Don’t run the light: When you have one minute remaining in your set,
the emcee will flash a light. This means it’s time to wrap up. Very few places penalize for going over time but doing so cuts into the stage time of your fellow comics. Think of it this way, you wouldn’t bring a book into a crowded bathroom stall; you’d do your business and get the heck out. Yes, comedy is like one giant toilet.

3) Drink…a little: If you are of drinking age and the mic you attend is at a bar you should buy one drink. This serves the dual purpose of being polite and patronizing the venue and taking the edge off before your set. Be warned though, too many pre-set drinks can be detrimental to your material and your ability to avoid being a jerk offstage.

4) Try new things: Nothing is more annoying than a comedy that does the
exact same material at the exact same open mic week after week. It’s ok to try different iterations of the same joke to see if a slight change of wording unlocks the elusive comic’s room laugh but doing the same material verbatim week after week is asking comedians to do the same job your bathroom mirror or shower walls could do, and I don’t mean help you practice kissing. If you must repeat a set to work out serious kinks take it to a different mic another day that week and challenge yourself to generate new material for the old mic.

5) Keep Freaking Going: Open mics get old. Sometimes people don’t laugh,
sometimes the set feels too short, sometimes you have cramps and would
rather go home and use your computer as a heating pad on your aching uterus than schlep out to a mic (so I hear anyway). If you’re serious about the business of being funny you need to ignore all these excuses and just freaking go. Going to mics is like running on a treadmill, it may seem like you’re going nowhere, but you’re conditioning yourself to live differently (shoot Sanchez, is comedy a treadmill or a toilet?? Make up your damn mind!) But don’t take my word for it; Patton Oswalt said it best when he said, “Go onstage a lot. Go onstage as much as you can. Don’t read books on comedy. Don’t take comedy classes. Don’t ask anyone how you should write material, or what they think of your material. Develop on your own. Go onstage. A lot. Every night. If there isn’t an open mike in your town, start one. And then go onstage. A lot. That’s it.”