San Francisco Comedy
In light of the extraordinary renaissance in standup comedy both locally and nationally, it’s difficult to believe that prior to 1977 there was virtually nowhere to see comedy in San Francisco. Today, the Bay Area is known, in the words of top local talents, as the “university of comedy, the comedy capital of the world.”
The catalyst for this comedy explosion was the First Annual San Francisco International Stand-Up Comedy Competition, held in 1976. Young talent Robin Williams, who cut his teeth between belly-dancing acts at the recently-closed Holy City Zoo (the first local club to feature comedy at all), placed second.
Simultaneously, Bob Ayres of Other Productions and the innovative Other Cafe (at 100 Carl Street at Cole in Haight-Ashbury, 681-0748) decided to chance one night of comedy per week. The Other became the first club to pay its performers. The debut show featured Robin Williams, Mark Miller, Dana Carvey (now starring as Clinton Wonderlove in the television series Blue Thunder), and Mark McCollum. Williams was soon offered a stint on the revived Laugh In series and then the lead role on Mork and Mindy. His career snowballed and suddenly the Other Cafe—and San Francisco Comedy—were on the map.
San Francisco’s first all-comedy club, The Punch Line (444A Battery Street, 474-3801), was opened in October 1978 by Jon and Anne Fox of Fox Productions. Backstage at the Third Annual Comedy Competition, they sensed from the energy generated on stage and in the audience that the time was ripe for a return to the days when the Hungry I on Broadway was in its glory as a comedy club. The Foxes, along with Frank Kidder, gradually assumed the reigns of the annual spectacular, which pits 40 young talents in a month-long contest boiling the pool down to five finalists. This year, the Ninth Annual Competition offers $16,500 in prizes, with $5,000 going to the first-place finisher. Previous years’ top finishers include Dana Carvey, Michael Pritchard and, in 1983, Will Durst.
The consensus among club owners and comics is that San Francisco is a unique and alive context for experimentation and growth. Anne Fox calls it “a development town.” Dana Carvey told me that this is the most creative environment for a young comic today. In New York or Los Angeles, there are a lot of pressures; comics tend to lock into styles, to stagnate. San Francisco is less competitive, the environment permissive, the city liberal; “you can try anything here.”
Carvey, who was raised in the Peninsula suburb San Carlos, is certainly one of the quickest and most audience-responsive stand-up comics in the country. After initiating his career in 1977 at San Francisco State College, he was “weaned in the SF farm system,” when there were hardly more than a few dozen comics working in the Bay Area; now, there are hundreds. A direct result of this resurgence in the comedy scene has been a sophistication of material, approach and audience. According to Carvey, “people are becoming more educated to stand-up, more discriminating. If you don’t change, don’t grow, you suffocate. Stand-up is still a challenge to me; there are always new boundaries. That’s why I keep doing it; and San Francisco is perhaps the most interesting place to do it.”
Chip Romer of Other Productions echoes Carvey: “You can take a lot more chances here; sometimes you bomb, but you learn. There’s not that certainty that an agent or talent scout is in the audience; there’s an honest and direct relationship between comic and audience.”
Comedienne Ellen DeGeneres, a relative newcomer to San Francisco, offers another perspective. Winner this spring of Showtime’s first annual “Funniest Person in America” contest, DeGeneres believes that one is never certain, even here, that there isn’t a scout in the audience. “I just do what I’m going to do anyway. I never want to be intimidated by who may be watching my act. I want to be natural, be who I am and have fun. The key to success is to show your real personality, to work hard and keep your material fresh. I try to avoid cheap laughs and transcend stereotypes and expectations imposed on female comics.”
DeGeneres believes, as Carvey, in sophisticating the genre of stand-up by moving beyond tired topicality and bilious tawdriness. Her self-confidence is manifest in her refusal to let “fame” spoil her act or outlook; after a marathon taping in New York for Showtime and interviewing with national magazines, PM Magazine and Entertainment Tonight, she maintains a commitment to improving her material and working in more experimental skits.
Carvey and DeGeneres make the most of subtlety and winning personalities. At the other end of a spectrum falls Bob Goldthwait, currently the hottest act in the city. Goldthwait, brought West from Boston by Other Productions, explodes on stage in a caffeine-driven, sputtering, manic frenzy, proceeding to unravel in a brilliant, if jagged, thread of self-directed black humor. I recently caught Goldthwait’s astonishing performance at one of the most innovative clubs in San Francisco: Cobb’s Pub, at 2069 Chestnut Street (563-5157). Cobb’s has been supporting both new and established local talent as well as booking up-and-coming national acts. (This venue features comedy nightly, with an All-Pro Comedy Showcase on Mondays.) Goldthwait peeled off a series of one-liners and free-associative short skits that unremittingly challenged notions of comedic structures and limitations. Goldthwait toes the line between lovable child and grotesque social victim; his act is a moving transformation of the tragic into the comic.
In addition to The Other, Cobb’s Pub and the Punch Line, two other clubs offer regular programs of stand-up comedy: The Last Day Saloon (406 Clement Street at 5th Avenue, 387. 6343) and Valencia Rose (766 Valencia Street near 19th Street), reputedly the nation’s first gay comedy club. North Beach nightspot Wolfgang’s (901 Columbus Avenue, 441-4333) also hosts comedy bills. The diversity of talents and clubs and their tremendous support are what define San Francisco as a vital context for comedy—loose but demanding, raw but sophisticated, open-minded but not easily won over.
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First published in Key: This Week in San Francisco magazine (1984)