Last Wednesday, Bucky Sinister treated an audience of about half a dozen strangers to a moment of candor. "So I'm 41, and starting to date again," said the growly voiced comedian, before launching into a story about his latest paramour — a boxer with a strong left hooks, clean blocks, and a mercurial personality. "She asked, 'Hey, you want to come watch me kick this other chick's ass?'" He was enthralled, especially when the match ended, and he escorted her to Fenton's Creamery. She had two black eyes. It took Bucky a while to realize why everyone was staring at them.
"Women," said Bucky, shifting his weight and peering down at the audience through square, tinted glasses. "Here's a good idea for a first date: Ask a guy out to a shooting range. Say, 'Hey, I wanna test out my new Desert Eagle.'"
It was hard to tell where the punch line was, or if it qualified as a joke at all. Sinister ventured to comedy from the spoken-word scene, so he's not known for setups and punch lines. Rather, he structures bits as funny stories that usually veer from the particular to the general. Sometimes they end in teachable moments. Other times there's no clear resolution, as he merely dodders from one topic to the next. His bits are larded with long asides and by-the-ways. He'll start dispensing advice mid-stream. He recounts stories with a lot of ummming and head-scratching. The humor lies in his delivery.
Such was the format on Wednesday, when he took the stage at San Francisco's Dark Room Theater, a tiny Mission district hole-in-the-wall. Sinister runs a weekly comedy showcase there called The Business, with three co-producers: Sean Keane, Alex Koll, and Chris Garcia. The Businessmen specialize in long-form humor, which makes their showcase seem more like a series of monologues than classic standup. Not that narrative comedy is all that new. Bill Hicks did it. George Carlin did it. Chris Rock does it. So does Eddie Izzard — albeit in an absurdist form. The difference, in Sinister's case, is that his bits seldom sound pre-planned. He came to the stage, Mead notebook in hand, sweatshirt rolled up to show his sleeve tattoos. He had a bullet-point list of talking points. It began with the dating story, and ended with his least favorite idiomatic expressions (e.g., "Tarjay" for Target, "va-jay-jay" for "vagina," and "Wassup, my cracker?"). Sinister would sometimes consult his notebook mid-joke.
Such informalities are par for the course at this showcase. Conceived last year as a launch pad for fledgling comedians, it's also an opportunity for more established folks to test out new material. Hence the loose format. Koll was on tour last week, so Keane, Sinister, and Garcia held down the show, with the help of visiting comics Ivan Hernandez and Julien Rodriguez. Since Garcia, Rodriguez, and Hernandez are all Cuban, they decided to theme it "Cuban Comic Night," and included a segment called "Ask a Cuban" (definitely the highlight of the evening).
As usual, the theme got a lot of latitude. Sinister preferred to talk about his quotidian affairs. Keane did his recurring bit being a baby-faced man (preferable to "a man-faced baby," he assures), which he'd also tried at a recent Layover Bar showcase in a slightly different context. Garcia confided to the audience about his day job. Castro-bashing didn't begin until the very last set. Garcia nodded to the theme only a couple times, when he characterized his dad as "the Cuban Archie Bunker," then described himself as the perfect Mission District ambassador between Latin and hipster cultures — given that Garcia is Latin and a hipster. When Hernandez sauntered backstage toward the end of Garcia's set, Garcia buttonholed him: "Hey — are you exiling yourself right now?"
The haphazard, improvised quality of this showcase can sometimes put the Businessmen in a perilous situation. They often use notebooks, which would look sloppy in a higher-end venue. They treat the Dark Room as a testing ground for jokes that aren't entirely polished. They sometimes wing it: Political yuckster Nato Green was supposed to moderate "Ask a Cuban" on Wednesday, but apparently he couldn't find childcare. Keane contributed a couple of backup questions. The whole thing devolved when Garcia launched into a rambling (but extremely funny) shaggy dog tail, meant to illustrate his dad's Archie Bunker-style racism.
Given that lack of organization, it's a wonder that The Business enjoys such continued success. The secret lies in the Businessmen themselves. They're all terrific writers, in addition to being good humorists. Sinister began his career as a poet; Keane and Garcia were humanities majors at UC Berkeley (English and creative writing). You get the sense that a lot of their tales would be equally funny — if not funnier — written down. And they can quip off-the-cuff. The highlight of Garcia's set occurred when he broke down the third wall — which wasn't part of the set, he claimed. "I'm just telling you about work now," he told the audience members. "The jokes come later."