Open City: A Week of Comedy Open Mics in SF
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.
179 W Portal Ave,
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.
853 Valencia St
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.
433 S Van Ness Ave
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!
1122 Folsom St
Sign up: 6:30
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.
21st and Florida St
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”.
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.”