Room Review: Portal’s Tavern

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It’s an open mic. An open mic is an open mic: it’s the karaoke of musings; it’s the intellectual cover band, it’s the Tito Jackson of artistic endeavors (maybe even Marlon). Sure, Portal’s Tavern open mic, located in the gallbladder of San Francisco, is well operated, well staffed, well attended and well received, but it’s still an open mic.

Mondays are notoriously adverse to comedy, especially of the unpolished variety. Stand-up is small potatoes, and on a slow night it can potentially poison the well for sports – Go Niners! Go Giants! – and good ole fashion alcoholism. And for additional subtraction, whether by frugality or poverty, comics are notorious tightwads. Since the great Purge of 2011 (Kimo’s; 50 Mason; 800 Larkin, again), and finales of other castoffs (farewell Deco Lounge), the bow of the week has been adrift. Thankfully, Portal’s Tavern floated along and jokers clambered aboard like ill-fated lovers on a freezing door.

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Room Review: So You’ve Been Invited to the Purple Onion

You shift uncomfortably from foot to foot, queued on the sidewalk adjacent to a steamy Italian cafe. Quickly losing patience, which you’ve arguably never had, you’re inundated with idle conversations in a quagmire of unified strangers. Ostensibly waiting for comedy, truthfully you’re here for a single comedian, whom, is actually your charismatic co-worker, or your drug dealer, or your unhinged grandmother with a new lease on life. The Purple Onion straddles the coasts of the jostling Chinatown and North Beach’s unchecked vitality. Slinky couples clutch and shuffle through the habitat of urban smear mired in San Francisco’s classic, cellophane gray. As the proxy collective pulses forward, around and down a cumbersome staircase (very safe), and each individual is tolled by the ticket taker, the night’s makeup couldn’t be more smeared.

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Room Review: The Deco Lounge

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. 

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.

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Room Review: Life and Times of 800 Larkin

800 Larkin is a bar located on 800 Larkin. Up there the ghosts of blowjobs whisper through in the air disguised as fog. It is located in the Tenderloin, crossed with O’Farrell, neighbored by crackheads, pizza parlors, playgrounds, and strip clubs. Moving pass the curtain that took away Sirius Black, the club opens to a romantic, mahogany Hamburg log cabin. It is furnished by well-worn love seats, arm chairs and stained, wooden drink tables. Alma, a low-lid, long raven-haired bartender serves dim drinks in the low lights as a DJ burrows in and out of the cramped booth in the corner. The lounge gives way to the pool table, which gives way to a smoking room of various aromas and flavors. Overlooking the sultry affair are bare breasted beauties, sitting suggestively behind glass; they were captured in a flash a long time ago. For a time this perverted Elks Lounge hosted an open microphone and while laughs have subsided in the Playboy bomb shelter, the ghosts of blowjobs still linger.

Tall, Black, Crackabetic

Travis Curry organized open-mics at 800 Larkin. Travis is a bit of an enigma on the scene. He’s a standard ‘set-up-punch’ comedian who speaks about crack cocaine and misconceived linguistic practices (Black eyes aren’t black: they’re yellow, they’re purple, but never black”) all in a voice tinged with heavy, sarcastic, reverse racism. Currently Travis runs two rooms, and is very self-reliant. He believes that comedians are born and exudes a class clown mentality.

The Proceedings

-At an undisclosed hour, persons of authority would bring up the two platforms that made the stage, up a rickety set of (people under the) stairs from the stage’s initial home: a condemned wine cellar.

-6:30to7:00 : The list would drop. Ravenous, hungry, Romeroesque comedians would scramble to scrawl the thin outline of their name. Crows fly out of the ensuing mosh pit.

- 7:30 : Newcomers enter a ghost town to find a long list of names all ready signed up. (SFStandup.com listed sign ups at 7:30). Stragglers either place a star next to their name to express a desire to go up early despite arrive late or decide to skip the whole ordeal all together.

- 7:45 : Travis flies into the building on his bike to do sound check and lighting.

- 7:55 : The Godfather of Bay Area Comedy, Tony Sparks, strolls in to help prep and gets ready to host.

- 8:00to8:12 : Show starts as comedians start to trickle back in.

- First Hour: Middlers and sporadically paid comedians work it out. Response is apathetic or mildly amused. Talent and potential are grand. Drinking begins.

-Second Hour: Up-and-Comers, hobbyist, bumpers, well-traveled open microphoners, and sideshows. Either eerily quiet or distractingly drunk. Earlier comics hang out where they can smoke or make motions toward home.

- Third/Final Hour:  Masochistically patient open mic green horns and passing through established workers. Energy near nil. People talking. Stretching out the night on hopes and dreams and hops and barley.

Inner Workings (Dynamics)

The paradox of each 800 Larkin opening came from an empty room with a list of people committed to perform. The source of this paradox was the Deco Lounge on Larkin Street, three blocks down from 800. At the time both 800 and Deco had open-door policies, the shows running concurrently with an hour difference. In theory and practice this allowed comics to parasitically touch two mics in a three-block distance. Twas a priceless scenario for many comedians (especially the cheap ones, you know who you are).

800 Larkin lacked a permanent disc-jockey, meaning Travis Curry had to run the sound boards. This gave Mr. Curry a microphone in concurrence with Super Host Tony Sparks. The result was some of the most hilariously antagonizing banter I’ve ever heard. The experience is akin to taking the old man Muppets (Statler and Waldorf), turning them African-American and making them fight. Audience members slumped in seats as “milk dud” and “pregnant” jokes flew overhead. “Ima kick yo ass” was delivered with such lovingly bitter repetition. Two aging brothers slap fighting each other between acts. The most common source of discontent came from Trevor.

Trevor is a puppeteer with frightening sensibilities. His act consisted of grotesque, malformed, (usually black) puppets dancing in a deviant scene, performing lewd sexual acts while old jazz songs play in the nether recess of a boombox. The whole production seeped weirdness, bordered on disturbing, and with enough squinting could only be considered ironically entertaining. (As entertaining as Tommy Wiseau’s The Room). It also took more than 5 minutes to complete due to its set up time, it took energy away from the crowd, and sometimes would occur more than once a show.

Trevor was Travis’ friend, Travis liked it, Tony tolerated it but eventually the matter of sideshow distractions and stand up status quo came to blows. These blows manifested in verbal jousting and everything: the insults, the weary well drinks, the giggling on couches and the disturbia all collaborated to the uniqueness of 800 Larkin.

The room was my first taste of real late night open-mic shows. Tony always encourages the comedians at the Brainwash to go to other open-mics: “Because not every place is like this… most places don’t give a shit about you jack!” The 800 atmosphere was very junkyard Neil Perth: There’s a pulse but a general sense of apathy. It was the medium room between the Brainwash and showcases at Bruno’s or Medrone. The time spent at open-mics like 800 are priceless, much like bench-pressing over your max. It feels impossible but it’s building through destruction. The crushing nature of the typical open-mic can be seen in lines: lines on paper, lines on faces, lines on mirrors, lines through jokes, lines, lines, lines.

It was also my introduction to the deep talent pool in SF Comedy. 800 didn’t even have all the headliners or East Bay residents stopping through but regardless, the talent on any given night was immense: Greg Edwards, Conrad Roth, Donny Divanian, Cameron Edmonson, Nicole Calasich, Colleen Watson, David Wiswell, Will Hatcher, Mimi Vilmenay, Melanie O’Brien and others. Legitimately funny people who daily hone their craft in front of dead or invisible crowds. Very deserving talent without a shred of appreciation.

Well I say fuck that! I’m going to laugh!

I have a reputation for having too much energy and over-laughing at comedy shows. Questions arise frequently about the legitimacy of my fan faire. I’ve been to shut up due to laughing too hard. I’ve been accused of using laughter enhancement drugs. It has severely ruined my reputation as a sourkraut.

To set the record straight: I love comedy. I listen intently to every performer and respond to what I hear according to my sense of humor, psychology, and experience. If I get a reference, have had a similar experience, or see the cleverness, I will laugh. My aural appreciation has a gauge based on freshness, threads of intelligence, design, delivery, and variance. I will snicker to be involuntarily polite, chuckle if I like the idea, louder if I love the punchline, spit-take laugh if the joke sideswipes with an unexpected conclusion, belly laugh is the joke is golden and tear-up/asphyxiate if the joke speaks to me intimately.

Trainwrecks are enjoyable as well. 800 Larkin had a few of those. The carnage was quaint.

800 Larkin also started the tradition of “comedy pals”; individuals with the same amount of experience that felt the need to band together. Josh Orr, Steven Lebeau, David Cairns, Andrew Moore and Roman Leo all stood out as the time as individuals with tons of potential but still developing their voice and technique. We were all trying to find how to fit in the paradigm of comedy, struggling to get validation of progress from nearly empty rooms in the 3rd hour. Those were fun times to watch and to experience first hand.

Then there were others who blew smoke in the face of comic convention, and were lovely in their disregard. Two usual suspects in this regard: Sammy Franco and Darien Black. Sammy is guttural, intellectual ejaculate and Darien is sloshed cunning. Both represent a segment of scratching, spitting, sexual, snarling, raw, ugly, beautiful comedy. Take the anime film, Akira and fry it on the brain of a performance artist covered in glitter and you might get what these guys are saying. They’re demolition comedians, in the same vein of Chris Schiappacasse and Ricky Luna. A deadly, deadly brand

This triangle of performers created the eye of a hurricane as the winds of chaos whipped around 800 Larkin. Crackheads literally reeking havoc. Fights breaking out on a regular basis. A Jeffrey Dahmer look-alike attempting to attack Anton Inara over a sheep joke only to be dragged out by Travis while confusedly saying “Where are you taking me?” Sex on the brain, and on the fingers, friends, free drinks, crew work and suganasties.

Nobody was there that final night, just a few hap(less)hazard comedians and a slew of new staff inside the bar. A whispering voice beckons me outside: it’s Travis Curry. He informs me that there had been a coup detat. The manager of the bar canned Travis and hi-jacked the show. She brought in a new M.C. and DJ on the still rotting corpse of Travis’ baby. Mr. Curry asked me to not perform and I complied on ethical grounds. Open microphones in the city are as much about supporting as performing. 800 Larkin had a special blend of personalities that enriched the scene. It had soul and you can’t get rid of the heart and expect the body to survive. And that was the night that comedy died at that establishment’ the scene moved on and new rooms emerged. On my way to such other venues (like Nick’s Crispy Taco/Rouge, Mondays @ 9 PM) I see the shell of 800 Larkin and feel a little wistful as the ghosts of blowjobs pass by.

Thank you for reading

-OJ

First Brainwash (Journal+Review+Highlights)

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

-O.J.