Comedy in San Francisco isn’t glamorous. There are institutions (Punch Line, Cobb’s), premier nightclubs (Purple Onion, Deluxe), and amazing atmospheres (Dark Room, Brainwash) but most comedy is crusty glitter-litter. Slow bar nights in notorious neighborhoods, anonymous audiences overrun with hopefuls. Precarious stageships with ominous backdrops of black drapes or tinsel that contrast with the fleshy struggle in the foreground. Jokes thrashed with silence for being too old or two new for a group of cynical, self-centered peers. Comedy in the City is akin to opening scenes in boxing films: smoky, loud, ill-illuminated clubhouses for many fighters but few champions. These rooms serve as training grounds, caverns to develop strength, conditioning, stamina and strategy.
One such establishment is the Deco Lounge at 510 Larkin St. A spectrum flag hangs over the doorway, bartenders serve drinks with optional nudity, promotional material features aggressive bears and drag queens, pool tables, condom buckets and narrow bathrooms with a million implied stories. Located firmly in the Tenderloin, Deco trades traditional drug addled weirdness with subdued sexual strangeness.
Every Monday the establishment hosts an open mic comedy night for free starting at 7:00 PM. Deco is a great kick-start to the rest of night and the rest of the week. Tony Koester serves as the resident host, approximately twenty comedians take the stage in two hours and the bar as always accommodating.
The Ballad of Gay Tony
It’s a quaint coincidence that San Francisco boasts two hosting Tony’s (Koester and Sparks). Both share an affinity towards fresh talent, stand in stout dimensions, graciously suffer threats and danger, and generate sexual innuendo in a fraction of a second. At the crossroad of Kindness and Creepiness, both more often stay on the former road. The two Tony’s diverge at the trajectory of their targeting systems: Sparks makes lewd compliments to the attractive female comedians and Koester sets sights on the handsome boys. Ivan Hernandez and Conrad Roth get the brunt of it but never fear, the gay-straight badinage is good natured, entertaining and fleeting.
Koester keeps things rocking and rolling; the night moves at a brisk pace. Comedians look at their notebooks and drink Pabst, lounging in a verbal Jacuzzi that is lukewarm at best. The atmosphere of the room removes the need for melodrama, selling or pandering. Stripped of the yuk-yuk bullshit, the comedians use the time to hone riffing and refine rough, slower paced, anecdotal material. The results are very real, very raw, and very hilarious revelations never uttered elsewhere.
Some nights are uncharacteristically electric. A fine mist of giddiness can make a hollow room full. Sometimes comedians stay well past their set and a contingent of appreciating audience applauds the comedians’ hard work. Sometimes festive patrons watch the comedy in anticipation of a subsequent drag show or dance party.
The grab bag of experiences makes Deco a positive, popular place to mentally work out. If you’ve yet to bound its boards or watch its shows, you’re missing out on something worthwhile.