In the world of comedy, there are local scenes that, in a particular era, bubble with inexplicable creative fertility. There are always Los Angeles and New York scenes. There have been Chicago, Austin and Boston scenes. Lately, Denver and Portland are especially hot.
People who don’t pay close attention think of the San Francisco scene as winding down by 1995. The Holy City Zoo closed in 1994, and a wave of killers moved away, like Jake Johannsen, Margaret Cho, Greg Proops, Patton Oswalt, Brian Posehn, Marc Maron and Greg Behrendt.
But this week, W. Kamau Bell won an Emmy for his CNN show “United Shades of America.” While living in Berkeley. Winning an Emmy while living anywhere other than New York or Los Angeles is possible, but startling. It’s the showbiz awards equivalent of doing it “backwards in high heels.”
The Bay Area has quietly maintained an output of comedy dynamos, fanned across the entertainment landscape. Here’s what recent generations of Bay Area comics are doing:
– Ali Wong’s Netflix special “Baby Cobra” made her an icon while she was writing for “Fresh Off the Boat” on ABC. Sheng Wang was also hired to write for “Fresh Off the Boat” after being a semifinalist on “Last Comic Standing.”
– Hasan Minhaj has been a “Daily Show” correspondent, released his Netflix special “Homecoming King” and hosted the White House Correspondent’s Dinner.
– Moshe Kasher turned his informative and entertaining podcast “The Hound Tall” into the Comedy Central series “Problematic” and hired Kaseem Bentley, Brendan Lynch and Jacob Sirof as writers. He also produces and acts on his wife Natasha Leggero’s show “Another Period.”
– Nico Santos stars on the NBC series “Superstore,” where he plays a gay undocumented immigrant.
– Guy Branum has been busy as a writer, most recently on “The Mindy Project,” but finally got his own overdue platform in “Talk Show The Game Show” on truTV.
– “The Dress Up Gang,” featuring Donny Divanian and Cory Loykasek, got a TV deal with TBS that also includes Frankie Quinones and Kevin Camia.
– Francesca Fiorentini as a host for AJ+, the digital video arm of Al Jazeera, and their comedy channel Newsbroke, has racked up millions of views for her funny shorts, produced in SoMa with Matt Lieb. Stroy Moyd produces packed #HellaFunny shows every night and turned his viral video “Rideshare the Love” into an MTV pilot deal.
– Emily Heller did a Comedy Central “The Half Hour” special and wrote for a bunch of different TV shows. Dave Thomason was a writer for “@midnight” when it was still on, and performed on Adam Devine’s “House Party” on Comedy Central. Marcella Arguello was a fan favorite regular on “@midnight.” Kate Willett told a story on Comedy Central’s “This Isn’t Happening.”
– Drennon Davis and David Gborie killed their “Conan” sets. Clare O’Kane wrote for “Spongebob Squarepants” and hosted “Flophouse” for the new Viceland network. Brent Weinbach, Mo Mandel and Laurie Kilmartin all released standup specials. Mandel created the show “Comedy Knockout” on truTV. Mike Drucker has been writing for “The Tonight Show,” “Bill Nye Saves the World” on Netflix, “Adam Ruins Everything” on truTV and now “The President Show” on Comedy Central. Kevin Avery went from winning an Emmy writing on “Last Week Tonight” with John Oliver to writing for the new Jim Jeffries show on Comedy Central.
And there are dozens of Bay Area comedian appearances all over the soon-to-be-defunct streaming service Seeso, Viceland and original comedy audio programming on Audible.
The San Francisco scene is characterized by comics who learn how to work well in both mainstream comedy clubs (that require broadly accessible punch lines) and alternative comedy spaces (sensitive and personal). Our scene is diverse and collaborative and nurtures with unique and complementary individual comic perspectives.
And it continues. As soon as one generation moves away and one set of edgy underground venues closes, new ones emerge. Don’t wait for the Emmys to see it yourself.
Nato Green is a San Francisco-based comedian and union organizer. Today is the 37th Annual Comedy Day, with five hours of free standup comedy in Golden Gate Park featuring the local comics past, present and future.