Arts & Culture » Theater

A Funny Hustle for Sylvan Productions

The Bay Area's newest comedy moguls are young, enterprising, 24-hour party people.

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Rory Scovel's intro music — a rousing, high-volume recording of "Higher Love" by Steve Winwood — wasn't the only highlight of last Tuesday's special Sylvan Productions comedy night at Vitus. But it was certainly a high point. Particularly when Scovel, an absurdist funnyman from Los Angeles, led all of us in a ridiculously animated Winwood singalong. "Everybody!" he yelled, drill-coach style, as we obediently clapped our hands and banged our imaginary tambourines. Bring me a higher love! sang the hipsters in attendance, fumbling the major third harmonies and barely missing the high notes. Scovel stood before us like a counselor at church camp, feigning just enough enthusiasm not to get fired. As the music's last chorus evaporated, he changed tone. "Yeah, that's probably what Rick Perry usually comes out to," he said.

It was a rare treat to have Scovel, who is widely considered one of the fastest rising stars of the alt-comic world — alongside Moshe Kasher, Hannibal Buress, and Brent Weinbach — headline at a medium-size club in Oakland. And, with transgendered comic Natasha Muse, sometime Express sportswriter Sean Keane, surprise guest Chris Garcia, and host Amy Miller all booked as supporting acts, it seemed like a slam dunk. It was no surprise to see both the ground and mezzanine floors packed when the show started at 8:30 p.m. Oakland has long harbored a nascent comedy scene, but new showcases like this one indicate that it might finally be getting off the ground.

Sylvan Productions is helping that process along — rather improbably, since its members don't look at all like typical moguls or arts boosters. They're actually a loose collection of young, self-made event producers with Yahoo email accounts, whose operation is fueled by impetuosity and cheap beer. That said, they've managed to bring high-profile entertainment to the East Bay on a fairly consistent basis, with last week's Scovel show preceded by a special Hannibal Buress appearance in November. They've also booked Fillmore hip-hop artist Rappin' 4-Tay to headline on February 24. Their regular Thursday shows feature local lineups but sometimes include surprise guests, like Seattle-based quipster Barbara Holm, who slipped in unannounced after her Sketchfest showcase last week.

What's perhaps most interesting about Sylvan is that it appears to operate on chewing gum and wire. Figuratively speaking, sure, but that's actually not much of an overstatement. The eight or nine core producers all live in a giant house in San Francisco's Richmond District, where, according to company figurehead Justin Gomes, there's a low-level party happening at all times. The living room couches often get colonized by traveling comedians (or, most recently, a group of Hungarian tourists), and they've converted the ground level into a production studio with a green screen. Since the house is just spitting distance from Dirty Trix Saloon, a popular Clement Street nightclub where Sylvan hosts Wednesday and Saturday events, they usually have to accommodate the after-party crowd as well. Gomes said that when he woke up at 5 a.m. this morning to go to his restaurant job, famed stoner comic Andrew Holmgren was sauntering downstairs, beer in hand, with another bleary-eyed guest. They accosted Gomes for leaving so early on a Monday. "Hey man," Holmgren said, "The party's still going."

Gomes launched Sylvan as a sketch comedy and improv group with several friends who all attended Liberty High School in Brentwood. Their idea at the time was to serve as a substitute for other comparably exorbitant after-school theater programs. The company went on hiatus after everyone graduated, but a few of the old core members decided to revive it in 2009, once they'd all moved to San Francisco and begun doing comedy in earnest. Now they produce events almost every night of the week. Sylvan is top-heavy with personnel, and all of them have odd, cumbersome titles (OJ Patterson calls himself the "haphazard line producer" and refers to Amy Miller as the "Vitus major domo," though she often defers to "the man in charge" — presumably Gomes). But at the end of the day, they seem to be prospering. That's no small feat in an area long considered a comedy desert.

Gomes' advice for other fledgling producers? Start amassing capital, even if you're working on a shoestring budget. "We've pretty much spent the amount of money that we would have spent on a college education on Sylvan," he confessed. Also: Surround yourself with good people. Meaning people you'd trust to make business decisions, and people you wouldn't mind working with 24/7 in a job that bleeds into your social life — and, in this case, your living space. Miller added that the best way to build a fan base is to "book for funny."

And, when in doubt, remember the words of Steve Winwood.

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