Three weeks into my tenure at Sony and already the job was causing complications. At the Alternates meeting the group made plans to take BART to the Brainwash Café in San Francisco. I couldn’t attend the journey; I’d have to meet them there.
Room Review : Thursday Brainwash (7th and Folsom)
Everyone knows the Brainwash; it’s the place of modern legend. Part café, part Laundromat, part Internet terminal and for the last eleven years it has been a comedy venue. It is the premier Thursday destination of first-timers, open microphoners, showcased talents, headliners, middlers, openers, out-of-towners, local legends, dream chasers and doomed hopefuls. It’s one of the biggest comedy landmarks in the city and stands as a uniquely vibrant experience.
On the average Thursday night, you will see a lot of failure but you will also see something special. Special happens often at the Brainwash and being apart of something special makes somebody special. Special times of microphone feedback, dancing Native American prostitutes, boom boxes, interventions, farewells, sugarboos, delights, and Sweet Gale.
Brainwash is one of the few venues for younger performers to get their reps in sans hassle. Most open-mics happen at bars, which serve alcohol, which many governments deem to be so magnetic a person under 21 cannot be allowed near for fear of massive alcohol poisoning and corruption. At the Brainwash though, a 16-year-old can sit next to a pitcher of beer and nobody bats an eye. I wouldn’t recommend bringing your baby to the Brainwash though; the combination of amplified voices, chatty comics in the back, smokers near the door, Laundromat rumbling and food ordering could potentially rupture a child’s ear drum. Also, there are black people at the Brainwash. Some of them smoke crack.
The venue is a hotbox of energy; when DJ Will is spinning, the microphone is clear, and certain choice laughers are sprinkled into the audience; the Brainwash becomes a comedy colossus. To put simply: the room is made of a lot of love to which credit goes completely to the Godfather of San Francisco, Tony Sparks.
Comedian Highlight: Tony Sparks (The Godfather)
Tony should have a statue or a hospital named after him because the man is a saint. Never have I seen somebody so committed to a craft and a community than I’ve seen with Tony. There would be no San Francisco comedy scene without Tony Sparks and if in an alternate reality Tony Sparks didn’t exist, San Francisco would be covered in tar and eerily quiet meth-addicted orphans would drink tomato Slurpies through crazy straws.
Tony functions primarily as a host, as the conductor and buffer between the audience and nervous comedic pieces of meat. It’s a hard job because the host has to be enduring and funny to keep the crowd warm but punctual and aloof to not supersede the would-be talent. Some times this involves bumping those with patience for those with prevalence, or riling up a dead room, or negotiating with the manager for a little more time, or breaking up a fight, or flat out lying against personal opinion and experience.
“Alright good people your next comic, uh not you playboy, that guy right behind you, your next comic is extremely clever and hilarious so on the count of three I want you to go fucking nuts. And the girl in the front row, please don’t heckle alright because if these comedians are really messed up and it’s hard up here. Alright sugarnasty? Okay sweetness? Thank you. On the count of 3! 1…2…3.” (Note: a fictional introduction for a well-tenured comedian from Los Angeles by way of Boston whom Tony has never met)
Hosting does have its benefits. It’s a way to gain extended sets, an opportunity to riff and a quick way to become good at crowd work. It’s a gift and a talent to be a good host, and Tony is the best I’ve seen.
Tony is also a great stand-alone stand-up. Tony’s humor comes from truth and justice. Every comedian desires justice. The justice to make light of and amends to life’s injustices against them; the injustice of their weight or their race or their love lives is vindicated with the audience’s approval and laughter. The truth comes from stone cold experience; the things seen, read, or done. Tony has a lot of truth and justice and thusly a charming wisdom that’s highly relatable. He makes me laugh, he makes my twenty year old friends laugh, he makes my mother laugh. Everybody loves Tony (which may not be true due to the jade nature of comedy but I’ve never heard a word against Mr. Sparks nor would I tolerate anybody speaking negatively about him).
Tony always threatens to use his experience and expertise to barrel through the halls of Hollywood. I could definitely see Tony getting on the road; he definitely has an audience and he’d be a fresh face to the world but a veteran on stage. I could even imagine a campaign to develop a cult following, some memes or perhaps “The SugaNasty Tour”. I’d attend for the merchandise alone. Yet in all the stories of deserved success, Tony’s would be the most bittersweet. If Tony left, the scene would lose its biggest supporter of new talent. Tony is willing to talk to amateurs, give critiques, suggestions and even joke ideas all in an assuring manner. Tony’s spirit is best epitomized by the following paraphrased speech given as an introduction for first-time performers at the Brainwash.
“Alright good people we have a special introduction for new comics here at the Brainwash. If you don’t know it watch and do what we do. So, your next comic is new to the room so I want you to give them… (Crowd: A lot of love!) Louder! (Crowd: A LOT OF LOVE!) Give it up for…
I went on late. The Brainwash closes at elevenish and I climbed the stage in the final hour. I had spent the majority of the time hanging out with studious Rich and Maig in the back, or with Stuart in the wings of the stage, or dodging claims of being Kaseem Bentley.
Comedian Highlight: Kaseem Bentley (You Should Kill Yourself)
Photo By. Takeo Hope
The first thing Kaseem said in addressing me was “My mom had three abortions and I think one crawled out of the dumpster. This is Kaseem: raw, quick witted, brutal but oddly charming. Everybody knows Kaseem and they all have something to say about him good, bad, or otherwise. Polarizing, magnetic, opinionated and understated, Kaseem is considered to be one of the best comedians in the Bay Area and sadly one of the most underappreciated as well. Every set I’ve seen of Kaseem he’s killed. Every friend I’ve introduced to Kaseem they’ve co-signed. Every virgin teenager I’ve left at his house… you get the picture. Kaseem is a class-A comedy nerd, a broker of culture and has a million molecules of experience and yet he chooses to slum it with the open mic kids to his utter frustration and dismay. I think he has a problem.
Kaseem’s comedy comes from the gift of gab and the truth of bullshit. He speaks with so much clarity and conviction that you have to believe him even if you disagree with his views. I’ve seen Kaseem convince people out of their ethnicity. People hold on to their insults from him like precious metals. He does an infamous blog with Emily Heller entitled Sex Talk With Kaseem. It is my unwavering campaign to get him to do a podcast. He’s also thinking about moving to Israel to open up a Volkswagon dealership.
Kaseem and I (and others with eyes) joke about how similar we look yet how inverse our personalities are. Kaseem is characterized by bitter frustration, as I am lovingly optimistic. Yet, this is not entirely true because Kaseem has shown his true colors of compassion. Case in point: 2/11/2010 at the Brainwash.
There is no cure for the first time. Hands shake, knees lock, voices faint, and ears are overly sensitive to any laughter. Some carry paper to augment their nervous shivers, some memorize their set to the last syllable, some tell one joke and crumble. I told a joke about my love for girls in boots which concluded in a C.S. Lewis reference. I told a joke about the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I told a long-winded meandering joke that started with Lady Gaga and ended with the astrological sign for “cancer”. I received the light and walked off the stage to sparse applause. Tony complimented my ability to read and Kaseem took the stage to roast me in the kindest way possible (i.e. saying I was aborted). Just as Stuart, Rich and Maig were starting to leave Tony and Kaseem pulled me to the side. Tony complimented me on my cleverness and stated my potential. Kaseem gave me his number (message me for that information) and then suggested a few places for me to perform (800 Larkin & the Impala Lounge). In one brief conversation, two might figures mentored my pursuit of comedy, and set expectations for me to meet. My homework was to make Tony and Kaseem laugh.
I remember walking to the BART alone; my Berkeley compadres had to leave with much haste. I remember being filled with a myriad of emotions: fear, anxiety, hopefulness, and elation among other things. I remember writing this message to my good friend Mr. Maxwell Tweets: “Comedy, one of the few places I feel like I belong. Thank you Brainwash open mic.”
And Thank You For Reading