Room Review: Tin Reverbating Comedy (McGrath’s Pub)

Alameda (“Didn’t they shoot episodes of Scooby Doo here?” – Roman Leo)

Alameda has an interesting place in the Bay Area balance. Not quite Oakland, not quite Berkeley, not quite Orinda, not quite Richmond, it’s a rustic island of wood, steel, glass and street lights. With its well kept patios and eclectic collection of white people (and minorities who keep it real), Alameda is deceptive. What could this ghost-naval-island-town offer to the world at large besides a franchise of La Pinata, a community college, two adjacent dance studios, and creepy dilapidated buildings? Well, on Wednesday nights at McGrath’s Pub, the East Bay middle child offers comedy.


Internally, McGrath’s is the equivalent of a 1970’s play den. It’s the culmination of tastes from a man born in the 20s, who fought in the 40s, made the right business moves in the 60s and turned his basement into a tomb to hold his interests. The roof sheeted with flags of fathers, uncles, and fist-swingers. Models of yesterday’s air fighters fly still, swinging on metal wires aside (war) pigs. Blatant propaganda for Guinness and Jameson. A back row of books stacked with the greats of modern literature like Tom Clancy and James Patterson. A bulliten board thickly padded with Bluegrass posters; men with proud moustaches and sturdy banjos. Dart boards hung holy with spent championships. Tributes to Anglo officers of the law. Bottles shining neatly behind the bar like an illuminated apartment Jacuzzi; a diorama of decadence. Bartender Rick: Richard Greer with a goatee and an iPod filled with Beck and Beastie Boys. Deb: sultry-proud Italian with wet eyes, a beauty mark, and a penchant for sweaters. Mick: mulletted Aussie seacaptain on shore leave mumbling garbled English through a surly beard. A rotating cast of drinkers, gamblers, and troublemakers of many ways/ages/colors/creeds/origins sitting together on a Wednesday night. A barrel-bodied, baby faced, MattDamonesque, pretty boy bestowed with a backwards hat baseball hat over slick, brown hair. He has an ace literally up his sleeve, a rum and coke in his hand and steely business-minded blue eyes gazing into the distance.

Comedian Highlight – Justin “Is Funny” Harrison

Justin Harrison is conflict composed of complimenting chemical compounds. He’s a Mexo-Irish post-modern hip-hop infused go-getter from Alameda, CA. The man is so Alameda he ran for city council. Influences, experiences, and knowledge stacked on the college-educated educator until he toppled into comedy. With one year into his comedy tenure and the swagger of a five-year veteran, Justin wants to make it big. Most importantly, he wants to make it big now.

He currently runs two rooms out of Alameda: the aforementioned McGrath’s and Churchward Pub. He’s promoted major showcases featuring the likes of Jabari Davis, Mike Betancourt, and John Hoogasian. Justin holds the prestige of performing at the Purple Onion, the Comedy Store, and (soon) the Punchline. He takes pride in his accomplishments; he’s successful in promoting the brand “Justin ‘Is Funny’ Harrison”. He’s also successful in his infamy; at times his actions create corrosion. Both of these accomplishments can be attributed to this: Justin Harrison is a businessman comedian.

The businessman comedian (bizcomic) is an interesting breed. They have to be the player/coaches of the game with an eye on the franchise salary cap. They book shows at fantastic venues, sold out to capacity, featuring well-threaded up and coming comedians. They are the grinders, hustlers, twitter wielders, cultivators, curators, demonstrators, politicians, and comics with a solid set in their back pocket that rests against their flyers and business cards. That being said they aren’t the nicest people; they are not running charities. They can’t shake every hand, acknowledge every open-micer, put up every comic, know everybody, or enjoy everybody; they can’t and they won’t. Every time you see a bizcomic outside of a show smoking, you’re seeing a stressed out manager on “break” while still crunching numbers. It’s unexplainable how much stress is involved with promoting, running and performing a room. Without aides it’s nearly impossible to manage. And with that burden the bizcomic can’t be the grassroots, mind expanding, non-profit, challenging scene dynamos. That task is reserved for the artists, the alt comies, and the people too small to fail. With this group community is keen, friendship is the lifeblood, and the common bond of struggle keeps hope alive. Money keeps bizcomics alive so they keep their circles closed, their prices high and their cards to their vests. One thing can be said to the humanity of bizcomics: they respect grinders. If you hustle and can draw people, they’ll welcome you in (to a certain extent). Otherwise… tough luck.

Justin Harrison is one of the more generous bizcomics. He’s been known to buy drinks, buy food, offer beds, invite up newcomers, and sacrifice a hell of a lot financially with his support. He missed his era by 80 years: the Cotton Club big band days when smoking was allowed indoors and prestige coincided along rubbing elbows with celebrities whilst wearing a tuxedo. Ties to the mob, broken bottle loyalty, overt racism: Justin would have fit better there. He tries to recreate that feeling at McGrath’s yet the world has moved on. What’s left is Justin telling rude, blue stories for twenty minutes to five regulars and three friends, sipping a brown bit of alcohol at 12 in the morning.

It’s sad because Justin could go from a good local comedian to a great local comedian on a creative level. Justin is good at what he does: he’s a salesman and a gabber. His hamartia is his strength: alarming charm. Sometimes he’s not charming. Sometimes he goes for the easy joke, or goes for the Attellesque shock punchline on false pretences. Sometimes his joke has a long set up, sometimes he doesn’t believe in his material or his energy level is down. Sometimes he’s just angry. Other times he says something inspired, incredibly clever, extremely topical or challenging. These times are exciting to watch because it shows flair for risk and an evolution of voice. It gives indication of Justin being closer to the seasoned vet he projects rather than the amateur he loathingly is.

For me, McGrath’s was an oasis of freedom. The openness of the space and the lack of patrons created a do or die situation. I had more time, more stage, and more demand to drive me. You can do the same act at the Brainwash for two months before it gets stale. You can do the same act at McGrath’s for two weeks before killing jokes fall flat. It was at McGrath’s I learned to write 10 minutes on the regular, learned how to host, learned how to riff for a really long time, learned how to dance in my own skin. I learned how to do it because there were no other options.

Forlorn nights of seamen shots, beer pong (actually Beirut), and smoke breaks. Rapid fire comedy slowing and growing the night. Trips home on bus and BART insuring hangovers of exhaustion. Keon and Joey developing voices and garnering support between hits outside and hits on stage. Another round of Ozzy Osbourne…

McGrath’s can be an obstacle course of hazards and booby traps for comedians. The chief culprit is Mick, a salty sea dog with a habit for heckling loudly and incoherently. Special thing about McGrath’s is he’s allowed to do so. Mick is never belligerent and is friends with the bartenders so he’s not contractually obligated to shut up. He’s also funny so he might get one over on you. It’s up to the comedians to figure out how to address the disarming target. Some lose to his incoherence, some mock, some roll, some incorporate, some ignore. If the shaggy patron doesn’t distract the comedian then perhaps the shaggy best friends of patrons will. McGrath’s has an unspoken open dog policy. It’s charming if the dog is cute, depressing if the dog is ugly, and alarming if the dog is the size of a horse. Ever walked off stage and into a pile of shit? Oh, that’s another thing, McGrath’s has no stage. The separation between audience and performer is the three-centimeter rise of carpet. So it’s potentially bothersome when people cross into your performance space to go smoke weed without so much as a “Lo Siento” or “Excuse meow”. No microphone stand? Standard. Broken microphone cord? That’s my fault. At times comedy at McGrath’s is a Michel Gondry cardboard shantytown. It adds to the mystic of the amber hued room.

It was the tender middle of Bay border cool summer when Justin asked me to host McGrath’s in his absence. I was elated; finally my own space to do what I wanted both creatively and administratively. I was determined to create a “Comedy Carnivale”.

I went to Target and bought a slew of balloons, streamers, candles, candy, and plastic Mardi Gras beads. I put the word out about how wild and open I wanted the night to be and headed out to Alameda. I got there, blew up all the balloons, handed out the candy, brought out a pair of congas from the back and performed in front of six audience members, four comedians and the bartender. Marco Alveraz, Keon, a scary racist man named Jack Ash and myself set out to make a Wednesday very special. I talked for 40 minutes with the audience, Marco did a set, Keon did a set, Jack got himself “86ed” all with a loose reign on time and content. It was special night indeed and the start of exciting times at McGrath’s. Every time I’m set to host, I follow the same decorative routine and in doing so create a comfortable/special environment for comedians and audience. Overtime popularity began to pick up. I’m extremely proud of the talent that has come through and the overall enjoyment of the room.

As it stands now, McGrath’s is one of the better-attended and communally popular open-mics in the Bay Area. The combined efforts of Justin and I have created something unique. Yet in the same breath, McGrath’s makes me dream of greater things, of my own space with grander creative edge. Currently I’m only a host with a boss and expectations. In the future, the spirit of Comedy Carnivale would reach a zenith, with a budget to host a whimsical-quimsical experience and the time to promote exhaustedly. That day is far away but until then I have McGrath’s.

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