Comedy in San Francisco: A Laughing Matter
San Francisco’s diversity makes for a seriously funny stand-up scene.
EVERY SUNDAY AT the Punch Line, there is a showcase. “It’s where all of comedy in San Francisco comes together,” says Red Scott, a jovial, rotund comedian of artistic persuasion and disarming demeanor. He’s leaning against a wall outside the green room after the show. Other comics who also performed in the string of five-minute sets wander by, banter, stare into their phones, act like everyone else in San Francisco. That’s the heart of it all: comedy in San Francisco looks much like the rest of San Francisco, which means it doesn’t look much like anywhere else.
The showcase lasted two hours. In those extremely brief comedy sets, a woman sang in Hebrew while wading into the audience, a man talked of bus advertisements aimed at people who didn’t take buses, a former teacher applied algebra to discern the correct markup for purchasing street drugs, a first-generation Indian man demonstrated the absurdity of the Kama Sutra, a woman in her 70s lobbed jokes analogizing sex to shopping.
Clearly, this wasn’t Milwaukee. Granted, San Francisco has changed, and those changes have altered the comedic fodder. It used to be the Grateful Dead and taxis, now it’s gentrification and tech bros. But the type of comedians writing the jokes has remained remarkably varied. The Bay Area prides itself on its inclusiveness and diversity. Which means comics who in other locales may not feel comfortable presenting self-exposing material, or performing in public at all, do so freely here.
Hayley Beacon, with long reddish-brown hair and green eyes, does not look like the typical “funny” person. Then again, that sort of stereotype has been dissolving. You no longer need to be slightly pudgy, wear flannel and have a scraggly beard to fit the part. “There’s a place for that,” Beacon says, sitting in a Greek restaurant off Market Street; “it’s just getting tired.” Her favorite local comic? A black transgender woman.
Indeed, the tropes that long hindered minorities in stand-up — from women to African Americans to South Asians — do not apply in San Francisco. Natasha Muse is another transgender Bay Area comedian of significant acclaim; she talks of absurd things like… being a mom. It’s relatable material from someone you’re not used to relating to.
In another town, someone with an unconventional history may not have the confidence to do something as emotionally naked as telling jokes to strangers. But in San Francisco, people listen. That is both the good and difficult thing about performing here. Everyone will listen, but maybe not with the same ears. Here, one type of humor may not work from one neighborhood to the next or even from one table to the next.
And that presents a challenge. But it also might explain why San Francisco comedy often seems bulletproof, much like stand-up in demographically diverse comedy meccas like Chicago or Los Angeles or New York.
The Punch Line’s five-minute sets are a format that elsewhere might typically attract amateurs. But no one in this showcase has uncalibrated material. No shaky deliveries, no flat jokes. These comics from radically different backgrounds perform with such skill, you end up relating to gags you would not expect to “get.”
But you do relate; the comedians have made sure of it. They need to make you laugh, and to do that, without denying who they are, they must form a bond with you. Which requires tying in parts of their lives with yours. With each successful joke, Beacon says, “you’re connecting with people you don’t even know, by only being yourself.”
CLUBS TO VISIT
One of the two main clubs in San Francisco. The most well-known comedians perform at this North Beach club. Shows Thursday– Sunday.
The other main club in San Francisco. It attracts some of the biggest names to its Financial District venue. Shows Thursday–Sunday.
Slightly dicey area but gorgeous space in the back of Ales Unlimited in the Tenderloin. Real brick wall. Tons of outof- town talent. Run by Richard Sarvate and Abhay Nadkarni. Shows Thursday–Saturday.
A black box theater with no microphone located near Union Square. Unique and intimate space. Run by Jon Allen, Eloisa Bravo and Scott Simpson. Shows Thursday–Sunday.
Seats 40 in a small back room at Murphy’s Pub in the Financial District. Great lineups with fewer comedians, which allows longer sets. Run by Red Scott, Natasha Muse and Joseph Nguyen. Shows on Saturday night.
COMICS TO WATCH