When local comedians Moshe Kasher and Brent Weinbach launched their "Smug Shift" comedy showcase at the Stork Club, back in 2004, they tried to pitch it as a way for every Oaklander to "diversify her hipster portfolio." Five years ago, that idea might have been premature. Today, it's actually true.
More and more people are trying to launch comedy careers in the Bay Area. Scads of local comedians descend on San Francisco's Punchline club every Sunday for what's become an institution. Some people call it "comedy church." Nightclubs are incorporating comedy nights in their weekly programming. San Francisco media start-up Rooftop formed with the idea of creating a huge broadcast network for comedy.
That could actually be lucrative. Increasingly, stand-up comics have a new kind of sex appeal. They're putting out albums, getting signed to labels like Sub Pop, and building a cult of adoration. And musicians, such as singer Nick Flanagan of the Toronto band Brutal Knights, are venturing into comedy, too. Joe Sib of Sideonedummy Records has a one-man show about punk rock. Young adults are choosing comedy shows as a way of fraternizing. Cities across the country are getting awash in comedy infrastructure. These days, a person might have no idea who the lead singer of Arcade Fire is, but he'll certainly know Dave Chappelle and Jon Stewart. And when was the last time an alternative rock band graced Fresh Air with Terry Gross?
You could hazard several guesses as to why comedians would thrive in a society that has all but forgotten its rock stars. For one thing, it's a confessional medium. And honesty is making a comeback. We're barely out of the memoir era. We love psychoanalysis. We have a thousand new ways to blog, tweet, and otherwise dish out our personal information. We're a society of TMI. Our favorite new album is My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy by Kanye West. Earlier this year, comedian W. Kamau Bell wrote a Facebook status update about a dilemma: He had something to say that was too personal to post on Facebook or Twitter. "Where do you put that?" he asked. "A diary?"
Add to that the fact that comedy is a great attention-getting tool, and it offers instant gratification. Still, it's not as easy as being a musician, according to local comedian Chris Garcia, who started his performing-arts career as a rock star and science educator (he led workshops at elementary schools). The rock band was a baby step. "You have a band to support you," Garcia explained. "And people automatically clap when you're done." George Chen agreed. He's another musician who's beginning to consolidate his career in stand-up comedy.
"I'd been threatening to do stand-up for years," Chen wrote in an e-mail. "But honestly the format scared me. I had no idea how to write a joke." He eventually surmounted that fear. "I think seeing how you could do something without artifice or character or needing to have pure laugh quantity let me ease into doing it. And I also started in completely low stakes environments, like the backyard of Mama Buzz."
Comedy is also getting a lot of refugees from other parts of the oral tradition, like spoken word. Local poet-turned-comedian Bucky Sinister is a prime example. In spoken word, he said, people speak in a weird, contrived rhythm and make odd vocabulary choices. "I'd go to a slam, and 99 people in the audience would see what was going on onstage, and like it," he said. "And I'm the one asshole in back saying it's not good."
Some comics start out in theater, but quickly realize that stand-up offers a quicker, better payoff. Others start as writers, but that, too, is a slower, more isolating, less sexy career path. "I've known for a while that I wanted to be a writer of some sort," said local comedian Emily Heller. "But I don't have the discipline for writing a book — where you have to sit at home all day. I like the constant feedback loop of stand-up, where you write short, and get immediate feedback from the audience."
Then, of course, there's the Internet. It's logical that a new comedy renaissance would coincide with the age of the app. The Internet is making us a faster, sharper, wittier society. And the newer social-networking sites are set up to encourage quick, abbreviated dialogue, usually in the form of quips and rejoinders. Whereas MySpace was set up around band profiles, Facebook is more conducive to comedy. The new metric of success isn't how many friends you have — it's how much you're "liked."
Most comics use the web to fuel their careers in one way or another. Many have rendered themselves into Internet performance artists. Patton Oswalt tests jokes out on Twitter. W. Kamau Bell does online stunts, like live-tweeting an episode of The Glenn Beck Program. Drennon Davis produces short, episodic web shows, such as Drennon's Deviant Sexual Acts. Will Franken records an absurdist podcast called Things We Did Before Reality. Heller launched the blog Sex Talk with Kaseem after live-tweeting several conversations with comedian Kaseem Bentley — the blog's title started as a hash tag. Garcia, Alex Koll, Louis Katz, and Sean Keane use Facebook to promote their web series, Elevator to Space.
The best thing about the digital age, of course, is easy access, baby. Garcia likes to tell a story about comic Garry Shandling, who drove two hours just to buttonhole George Carlin at a gig, and show him some jokes. "He came back the next day and George Carlin had, like, total notes for him," Garcia said. Today, you could do the same thing instantaneously, on Facebook.
Or you could head over to the comedy church.
George Chen trying comedy at the Ivy Room: