Tag Archives: comedy

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.

“Haters Gonna Hate” at Cafe Royale

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A spacious two-story bar with a pool table, paintings on the walls and a small stage in one corner, showcases a free comedy show called “Haters Gonna Hate” every second Wednesday of the month at Cafe Royale.

Josef Anolin, Chris Riggins, Mimi Vilmenay and Kaseem Bentley are the “resident haters” that perform permanently in the show. They also invite other guest comics to participate in a different theme every night. Black History Month and Valentine’s Day are the themes of this night.

Anolin started the show about two years ago as a way to create a space where local Bay Area comics could perform. The small stage creates an intimate atmosphere where comics can receive immediate feedback from the audience.

Mimi Vilmenay, resident hater, was raised in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. In her nine-minute performance, she talks about some of the stereotypes that Americans have about Haitians and what Black History Month means to her.

“Hey what’s up guys!” Vilmenay says. “Happy Black History month… real talk, you guys. Black History Month is really fuckin’ important to me because guess what? I’m Haitian, you guys. What!?”

According to Vilmenay, nobody believes she is of Haitian descent because she looks white.

“Elephant in the room — I’m not really black you guys,” she confesses. “I’m white, but I feel black. My dad raised me to be a proud black woman. When I was about 11 years old, every day my dad said to me when he dropped me off at school: ‘Never forget that you are black.’”

Brittany White came to the the show for the first time and didn’t regret it.

“I laughed at least once in each comics’ performance” she said. “They each have their own individual moment.”

The next show will be held at Cafe Royale on March 11. The theme will be Saint Patrick’s day.

‘Mortified’: a night of humiliation

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A group of people tell stories from their humiliating childhood diaries, journals, and love letters for the ‘Mortified’ stage show at the DNA lounge. (Lissette Vargas/ Xpress Magazine)

Six hundred and fifty people crowded the DNA Lounge last Friday where brave adults stepped behind a microphone to share excerpts from their humiliating childhood diaries, journals, and love letters.

Gray, a petite blond appears on stage with a seventy page blue spiral notebook in her hand. Confidently, she begins to read from her middle school journal that chronicles her seven-day plan to get her crush to fall in love with her; it is titled “Operation Metamorphosis.”

The self-conscious child writes about taping back her big ears as an attempt to get him to like her. Instead of love, the act lands her a humiliating moment worthy to take the stage at Mortified. In front of her crush, the tape comes undone and her ears pop out. He looks are her in wonder and asks, “What’s that behind your ear?” In sheer panic she says, “It’s tape… yeah it is.”

The purpose of Mortified is to “crack the lid off our cultural shoebox and expose our inner geek,” listed on their website. Back in the late 1990s, Dave Nadelberg began sharing old embarrassing love letters with his friends. They cultivated their first show in 2002, when they brought together a diverse group of people who wanted a chance to redeem themselves from their past through mortification.

The show has now grown with branches across the country including performances in Austin, Portland, and Brooklyn. This fall, the show crossed a new platform with a documentary streaming on Netflix, Mortified Nation. The documentary follows performers as they audition, go on stage and answer the question of why they would agree to reading their intimate diaries to a room full of strangers. The film hopes to remind us that we all share the same pains and struggles and inspire us to take what once brought you shame and laugh about it.

The DNA Lounge is home to Mortified San Francisco the second Friday of every month. New performers are constantly gathered to ensure a new and unforgettable show every time.

The doors open an hour before start time and almost instantly the few seats near the front of the stage are taken. The late arrivers quickly fill any open space along the balcony upstairs and around the stage’s perimeter. The sold out show’s crowd patiently waited with a pizza in one hand and an alcoholic beverage from the bar in the other.

The show begins with a brief introduction from the house band, The Freeze, whose improvised hip-hop routine is sparked by inspiration from the performer’s most embarrassing tales.

Tonight’s show was made up of five performers whose childhood tales were each funnier than the next. The diary entries included passages of insecurities, sexual tension, and quests for self-identity.

Younger, nerdy Sarah meets her dreamy badass boyfriend at the age of fourteen despite her parents’ conservative upbringing. Her act is made up of the notes they would pass back and forth in high school Spanish class and letters from the summer they were forced apart by their parents.

Katie’s journal was filled with details of her horny make-out sessions from her sixteenth summer of love. “Dear journal, Aaron asked me out last night. We dry fucked so much my twat bone hurts. My twat bone is still kind of sore but not really. Love always, Kate,” she reads from her journal.

Will, who was dubbed the “gay kid” at school, got the most awws from the audience because he was constantly beat up at school. “A kid said he’s going to kick my ass. I don’t even know him. I don’t know anybody,” he reads from his diary.

Sometimes it is easier to laugh at others than to laugh at yourself. This comedy show full of real people sharing their most intimate thoughts with strangers is almost therapeutic for those who come to watch. The show reminds us of the awkward years that make up our childhood memories and give us an opportunity to remember that we are not alone.

The show ends with a simple memorable statement from the MC, “We are freaks. We are fragile. We all survive.“

 

 

The State of Comedy in SF State’s Comedy

Before I roll up my sleeves and unload, first things first: going up on stage in front of people and doing anything takes giant testicles or massive ovaries. Public speaking is more feared than death meaning most people would rather be the corpse in the casket than the person delivering the eulogy at the same funeral.

That is important to note while reflecting on SF State’s comedy night on September 25th, a night where amateur comedians go on stage at The Depot and do some good ol’ fashioned stand-up comedy. It would be too easy and quite rude to dig into amateur comics for not being equals to Louis C.K. or Dave Chappelle. After all, every comic has to start somewhere and that somewhere usually is not that funny.

Photo taken by Michael Leri. Comedian Mark Smalls, the night's best act, took the stage on Thursday and handled hecklers at The Depot.
Photo taken by Michael Leri.
Comedian Mark Smalls, the night’s best act, took the stage on Thursday and handled hecklers at The Depot.

But it would be impossible to casually gloss over the shortcomings of some of the comedians. Comedy is made up of four pillars: delivery, timing, originality, and (most importantly) sting. Every line, every joke, and every set must at least utilize a few of those elements. The best jokes do all four.

Each comedian succeeded and failed in different respects. The opening act may have seemed like a loud, dry fart that only received blank stares and nervous coughs from the audience, but the jokes slightly improved as each comic took the stage. Despite the stumbles, most of them had at least one great joke that allowed them to cruise to the end of their set, which is sometimes enough. After all, this was a free show. However, it became harder and harder to enjoy the jokes – great or not – because of one simple aspect: the terrible heckling.

Heckling is a part of comedy; it just happens. But that reasoning does not excuse it.

Photo by Michael Leri. David Naimyar grabbed the mic after a rocky start by the opener.
Photo by Michael Leri.
David Naimyar grabbed the mic after a rocky start by the opener.

Every single comedian had to go through the same thing: screaming, swearing, and interrupting from the drunk people in the audience at every possible moment. Bad jokes were met with shouting. Great jokes – given that they were not cut off and nearly ruined – were met with even more increasingly-incoherent shouting. It bred an increasingly hostile environment between the crowd and the comedians on the stage – and that is the saddest part.

Comedy, at its very core, is about having a good time. Satirical reflections on society or just really great punchlines yield escapism that stand-up comedy – at its best – does better than any other form of comedy. Laughing at hypothetical issues is a good way to forget about the very real problems that happen in your life. That’s why comedy exists; to escape our lives for a bit. It is equally as confusing as it is depressing when this goal is not shared by certain bad eggs in the audience. This mentality ruins the experience for everyone in the room and no one benefits from it.

It is a mentality that, frankly, I do not understand. It is almost as if the people in the audience cannot stand to see someone else getting attention. So, in a pathetic attempt to direct attention back to them, they do the only thing their tiny, lizard brains allow them to do: starting becoming a loud asshole. Being incredibly rude is commonly mistaken by idiots to be the shortest route to being funny. It is commonly why a lot of unfunny people you may know are probably overly sarcastic or derive their material at other people’s expense. There is a certain nuance to being rude and funny, something only the greats like Daniel Tosh understand.

Stupid people in the audience usually do not pick up on those subtleties.

The rude comments made by the hecklers were butting head-to-head with actual jokes, and, sadly, the loud bellows from the idiots were overshadowing actual jokes by the actual comedians. It became a dick waving competition filled with a bunch of chodes from the audience and the louder chodes usually “win.”

Photo taken by Michael Leri. Comedian and host Jordan Cerminara telling his own jokes.
Photo taken by Michael Leri.
Comedian and host Jordan Cerminara telling his own jokes.

The chodes from audience even had a chance to snatch the mic during the open mic, which is where the real fangs whipped out. Tension was already high but exponentially increased as the awful hecklers took the stage and attempted to do some “comedy.”

Or I should say “The Thing Formally Known as Comedy” because a few of the hecklers that were drunk enough to stumble on the stage basically committed homicide against all things funny. Getting their intoxicated selves up there was almost a godsend because it cemented the fact that being funny is way harder than it looks, so, when in doubt, shut the fuck up.

Photo taken by Michael Leri. SFSU student Michael Oberst takes the stage during open mic.
Photo taken by Michael Leri.
SFSU student Michael Oberst takes the stage during open mic.

After a “performance” that was basically just the word “faggot” shouted sixty-five times, it devolved into a mess that it did not ever completely recover from. Rap battle scenes in 8 Mile were not as hostile as some of the stand-up duels that took place upon that tiny stage within the college. The situations allowed from some solid insults, but, even then, it did not feel like it had the essence of comedy inside them – just mean-spirited burns.

I walked out of The Depot not only disappointed as a fan of comedy, but as a person. There were some good laughs, sure, but the sheer hostility of a small, loud section of the audience soured me on the whole experience and overwrote the good time that was buried within there. I love to laugh and absorb comedy. It is a shame that others cannot respect that.

Waiting for the Punch Line

By Molly Sanchez

On Sunday, they gather. Some dressed up in slacks and blazers, others casual in hoodies and t-shirts. They congregate, exchanging hugs and fist bumps. They laugh and they wait for the talking to begin.

This is not your typical Sunday service, a point made abundantly clear when the be speckled Ivan Hernandez ascends the stage and yells, “Fuck your baby!” into the microphone.

This is Sunday night showcase at The Punch Line club; a ritual comedian Nicole Turley has dubbed “Comedian Church.”

The Punch Line has been one of San Francisco’s most prolific comedy spots since it’s opening in 1983. Its stage has been graced by some of the world’s top comics and everyone from Robin Williams to Ellen DeGeneres to Louis C.K. has done a set there. The stage itself is a landmark, a lighted platform against a backdrop of a mural of the city. When a comic performs there it’s like performing on top of the city itself.

It’s a stage worth waiting for and that’s what they do. The club is divided on Sunday nights with paying customers sitting in the front of house, chatting and sipping their two drink minimum, and the hopeful comics waiting at the bar nursing their free glasses of water. Sunday nights are for comics. The showcase is comprised of 7 or so local comics and host, each getting about an 8 minute set. But these sets are coveted and the process to get one is a rite of passage for aspiring comics in the area.

Comics have to wait about 6-10 months to even be considered for a spot on the coveted stage. “You go in you start going to the Sunday shows and you introduce yourself to the manager,” says Allison Mick, an aspiring comic and a regular at the bar side of the club. Jeff Zamaria is the booker for the club. He’s “the man with the plan,” according to Turley who is always sure to pay homage to him with a hello whenever she comes in the club. Zamaria is only an ominous figure to those who are hungry for a spot otherwise he’s a “dark haired dude with a beard and glasses,” says Mick before chuckling and adding, “I know I just described half of the SF comedy scene.”

According to Mick, new comics have to go to the Sunday show as often as they can and just hang out, waiting to be seen. This, Mick says, “Puts you on Jeff’s radar.”

“Jeff really listens to everyone,” says comedian Sandra Risser “he’s the one who really decides.” Jeff keeps to himself in the club’s back right corner, fielding handshakes from reverent comics and holding up a flashlight to signal to the comics onstage that their set is running out.

Comedian Richard Dreyling describes the process as “a type of interview really,” and says it took him ten months before he got a set there. Comedian, Nato Green also sees the method to the waiting madness. It took Green ten months to get up on the Sunday showcase “the purpose of the wait was to make sure that by the time I got up I understood what did and didn’t work at the club.” Green calls the system of waiting “transparent and fair,” adding that the involved waiting ritual weeds out the “dilettantes and dabblers.”

“If your goal is to become a working comic, then coming up at the Punch Line is part of the process,” he says. “I don’t see any reason why the stage of one of the best clubs in the country should be a place for people who aren’t serious to try something out.”

“Some people check in earlier and really push for it but that’s not usually advised,” says Turley who got up after nine months of waiting. Dreyling disagrees “I don’t think there is harm in going at the very beginning of doing stand up” Dreyling is a 5 time veteran of the club and says “ Jeff likes to see how people get better.”

Once a comic gets up and does well on a Sunday night they can usually expect to be thrown into a three-month rotation of comics and may even be asked to headline weeknights or emcee Sunday’s show. To Turley “it’s a good way to get your name out there.” Dreyling concurs and says a set at The Punch Line is a “way for comics to benefit and develop by having a paying audience in a great club with a high standard for comedy. New comics benefit by seeing comedians who have been at it for longer and don’t make some of the mistakes common to open mic rooms.” Green adds, “The Punch Line system is good at training people to become working comics. If the process is too much for someone, it is a fraction of how hard the rest of show business is. They’re not going to stay a comic anyway. Nothing about show business is fair.”
This Sunday Mick sits on the patio outside the club. It’s mid showcase and the soft rumble of laughter can be heard even outside. She smokes a cigarette and laughs with the comic who gives her a light. They banter about open mics and go on a tangent about what a “porn method actress” would look like. Comics sidle in and out of the club, gently ragging on each other’s sets or talking shop and smoking.

As far as Mick’s Punch Line aspirations go she says she’s looking for “Fame and fortune,” before bursting into sarcastic laughter. She admits more humbly that she’d really just likes “to do well and get booked for shows.” “I love open mics, like a lot,” she says “ but I guess I’d like to do more showcases.” She’s been waiting at the Punch Line for 3 months.

Inside Turley sits at the dark bar and reminisces about her first time onstage there. “That’s when I had the most fun. The sound travels forward and it’s really laughter inducing,” she says sipping water and nodding towards the stage “even with a small crowd the sound travels forward, it’s just designed for it.” Green also recalls fondly his times onstage saying “I feel as comfortable on the Punch Line stage at this point as I do on my own couch, more or less.”

Green has reverence for the club that gave him his start but says “I really built it up in my head. At a certain point, I realized that every stage is just another stage. No stage is magic.”

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.”

Women Who Kill: Comediennes of San Francisco

Words: Molly Sanchez

Loren Kraut, Mary-Alice McNab, and me: All women who know what it feels like to kill.

“It’s exhilarating,” Kraut says, her small face breaking into a large smile.

“It’s f***ing magical,” concurs McNab banging a fist on the table for emphasis.

Personally I feel like Mary Poppins after a good kill, like I could float all the way home.

These women and I aren’t murderers, we’re comedians and it’s the high of laugh lust we’re constantly chasing.

It’s a Tuesday night at a dark bar where people get onstage one by one and try to remember what to say. The bar is called “Amnesia”.

Amnesia is trendy. It’s illuminated by tiny red candles glowing on tables against the wall. The tentacles of what appears to be a paper mache sea creature reach out at patrons from the bar ceiling. It’s so dark one can barely read the names on the beer taps and is reduced to grunting vaguely at the bartender “I’ll have the one with the fish on it.”

Against the back wall of the bar is a stage. It’s lit by pink theatre lights from above and is cluttered with black microphone stands. None of these mics ever seem tall enough for any of the comics that ascend the small set of stairs to the stage so that the first few minutes of everyone’s set is spent adjusting it to fit their needs.

Tuesday nights at Amnesia are the brainchild of comedian and producer, Rajeev Dhar. I met Dhaj at the SF Comedy Burrito Festival earlier this year and he encouraged me to come check it out. “ I used to hate open mics ,” he confided “ I hated waiting around all night just to do 4-5 minutes.” “ Then I realized it’s part of the process, you know?”

I’ve never been to an open mic before, unless you count the times I barged into the music open mics on campus. I don’t really consider those days of doing penis jokes between acoustic guitar renditions of “Wonderwall” to have been very helpful in the way of developing my process. In my four years of doing standup I’ve mostly as an opener for my friend’s improv group. They did monthly shows at a bar downtown and every month they would dutifully smuggle my under 21 self in to do a 10 minute set. A long set, people who loved me and laughed at me, the occasional sneaked sip of beer? No wonder I loved this gig! When they stopped performing at the bar and my gig dried up it felt like a divorce to leave a comfortable loving space and venture out into the great unknown.

Amnesia is terrifying. It’s a bar filled with comedians that already know and like and talk to eachother. It only takes two sets for me to realize a crushing truth: Comedians rarely laugh at other comedieans. Some of them barely look up from squinting at their notebooks to even acknowlege at person is onstage . Some comics that go up at amnesia get flustered at the lack of response. “These are called jokes, folks,” one guy in a grey hoodie heckles into the void. He’s rewarded with at feeble chuckle from the back of the bar. “ I really wish I was white so I could say white things you people would laugh at,” barks a Native American comic. The crowd laughs uncomfortable. One guy at the door mutters “well he sure got us!” sarcastically into his beer.

McNab, sitting at the bar’s corner rolls her eyes at this. She hates when “ people think open mics are shows,”. “This is practice, this is training wheels,” she says to me later. “This is something you can only learn onstage,” she says “If you don’t get on stage you’re not a standup comedian.” She shrugs “ I don’t know what you are then.”

McNab has been on the comedy scene for 15 months now but she’s always been funny. Growing up she went to catholic schools and eventually made the move from Colorado to California when she was in her late twenties. At the encouragement of other comedian friends McNab enrolled in the Comedy College and started going to open mics. Some places she go to even let women do longer sets than men “ because there are so few of us in the industry.”

That’s how I’ve always felt, even in my limited experience, that I was a lone lady in a boys world. Yet at Amnesia some nights, women comics make up about a quarter of the performers.

“It’s an uphill climb,” says Loren Kraut a diminutive comic with glasses and brown hair. She shakes her head “ we’re not really wanted.” She adds “ I hate to be introduced as the ‘lady comedian’” she says scowling slightly “I want to punch someone in the face!”

Kraut has been doing comedy for 6 years. Before that she lived in new york trying to be an actress. Like McNab , Kraut is also a graduate of the Comedy College. “ I always wanted to do it,” she says of comedy “ but I didn’t have the nerve.”

And it takes nerve for Kraut to climb the stairs to the stage and do her set, especially considering what she talks about.

She sidles up to the mic, takes it off the stand, blinks languidly at the crowd before saying “ Over the years I’ve written a small, and I think well written , pile of suicide notes.” The crowd giggles awkwardly, Kraut continues “ I’m always loath to throw out anything I might need someday.” She’s deadpan even about death. “It’s ok to laugh,” she coaxes gently “ I’m still here.” The rest of her set ranges from her time in an anorexia clinic, her title as “most pathetic lesbian” and her OCD. The  last one is evident by her stooping down in the middle of her set to pick a speck of glitter off the stage floor.

Her matieral, deep and uncomfortable though it may be, gets laughs. She smiles as she walks off stage and sits back down at her table. Later she tells me “it sounds corny but I do it for freedom of expression.” She says she talks about the kinds of things that she talks about because “if I make fun of it, I get to work out the kinks.”

McNab concurs “ You can work out your shit if it’s funny.”

She says it’s hard for women sometimes to access this method of catharsis and even get onstage. “ Women are trained to be pretty and smart and together,” she says . “Comedy is so much about self deprication that if you’re trying to maintain that façade, you’re fucked.”

Kate Willet is the next to go on stage. She’s the only comic I’ve ever seen in a dress. It’s mauve and she pairs it with brown boots. She could be any other girl, and the beginning of her set sounds about as incendiary as any girl slagging off her friends. “ All my friends are married, and they worry about ‘where should I buy a house’ and things like that,” she says. Then the façade drops and the comedian in her kicks in to full, filthy gear. “ I think about ‘how am I going to pay rent’ or ‘is this really the guy I want to get HPV from?” The crowd bursts into shocked laughter and she smiles innocently “Because you want it to be the right person, you know?”

The second comedian I’ve ever seen in a dress is also at Amnesia. Her name is Casey Grim and as she mounts the stairs to the stage one audience member says “ ooh look Katy Perry” under their breath. Grim looks the part with her dark black hair and bright doe eyes that peek out coquettishly from behind square eyeglasses. Her cuteness is why it’s so alarming to hear her say, in a fairy voice that is high and bubbly “ I’m like any other girl in that I’ve been sexually assaulted.” The crowd laughs, again somewhat uncomfortably and Grim continues to recount her story. She says she woke up in a strange dorm after a night of drinking to find a man with his hand down her pants. In the middle of this assault, she says campus police burst in and start to arrest the man. She says while he was being handcuffed “ I got to say the one thing that every girl who has ever been a victim has wanted to say.” “You suck at fingering!” she chirps gleefully. The crowd roars.

Talking openly about things not acceptable in “ polite discussion” is important for women Krout says. She has come to feel “ the need to express myself is greater than the fear, and it is fulfilling .”

I remember a time, a while before my night at Amnesia that I felt fulfilled. I was in the midst of a grand maul breakup, broken totally on the inside and constantly having to change direction every time I saw my ex in a crowd. I was onstage doing a set when I saw his sidle in the back and stand staring by the door. I took a deep breath and began .“ I want to tell you a story about my ex boyfriend,” I begin, my heart pounding furiously in my chest, “ and because some of you may know who he is I’m going to change his name slightly so that you’ll know who I’m talking about but you won’t know who I’m talking about.” I see him roll his eyes but I continue “ so shmasshole and I were dating..” The rest of the set killed and I had the crowd laughing uproariously at several other jokes that skewered my still present ex. “We’d have sex, snuggle, and I was obligated to like his friends but he said he wasn’t ready for a relationship,” I said at one point before grimacing and saying “ that’s like saying ‘I like marshmallows, I like chocolate, but I’m just not ready for a s’more”. I killed and with the audience’s laughter I sauntered off stage thinking “ this must be how it feels to be Taylor Swift.”

Back at Amnesia McNab is about to go up. As the previous comic finishes up their set she nurses her dark beer and squints down at her set list . She scribbles something on a coaster before getting up onstage. I look at the coaster as she goes  up. “Camel Toe/holiday/muffin top” is scrawled in black pen around the coaster’s border.

“Does my camel toe make these pants look weird?” she asks the audience, pelvic thrusting slightly. She goes on to elaborate that she’s concerned about her body, namely her “muffin top.” She rubs the small fold of skin above her waist affectionately and says “this is a specialty muffin made out of whiskey and ice cream.” She laughs slightly saying “ It’s my job as a comedian to share these awkward tidbits with you.” Later on in her 4 minute set, McNab forgets what she was going to say. “Think, think” she says doing deep squats onstage, scrabbling for the rest of her set. It’s painful, as a performer and as a person that likes her, to watch the struggle. She snaps up from the squat and grins “Fuck it, I’ll end it here,” she says walking off the stage. When she sits down she mutters “I can’t drink before I go up, that’s the problem,” before leaning her head back and trying to remember the part she’s forgotten. This set is a perfect example of something she told me earlier “ it’s better to do a short, good set than a long rambling one.”

It’s hard to see a comic stop short like that but bombing is a right of passage we all need to pay at some point. Kraut recalls her worst time onstage, “ I was heckled by a dog!” she says. According to her a woman went to the bathroom during her set and the dog barked  the entire time. Bombing, Kraut says, “ feels like all the terrible things.”

All the terrible things are in my head as I too ascend the stage. After McNab’s set I’ve taken only tentative half sips of my own beer so my mouth tastes sickly of IPA and fear. The applause is lukewarm and as I start my set the room becomes so quiet I can hear almost perfectly the conversation of the smokers just outside the door. During my set, which garners only a few laughs even on material I know works, it occurs to me that doing standup comedy is like trying to play fetch with cats. Once in a while you’ll meet a great cat willing to lob something back to you. More often than not you get a cat that stares blankly at your attempt with a look that clearly says “ what do you a take me for, a fucking dog?”

Still even those who bomb are given a warm reception after their set at Amnesia and everyone is receptive to praise. Grim grasps both my hands in both of hers when I say I like her set and thanks me fervently. Willet comes over and places an affectionate hand on the small of my back saying she’s so glad I could make it out. McNab acts as a sort of one woman Little League receiving line, offering a high five to everyone as they walk past her offstage. She envelops me in a bear hug and says she can’t wait to see me again.

Even on days when I don’t do my best I am so glad to have comedy as a release and as a way to meet other women brave enough to do it too. They inspire me to get back up again.

All of us are chasers of the same feeling. The feeling Kraut describes as “being in the exact right spot.”