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.”