Comedians don’t go into standup for the money. Late-night shows in small basement clubs don’t often result in rags-to-riches stories. So it’s apropos that San Francisco’s biggest comedy event, the 31st annual Comedy Day on Sunday in Golden Gate Park, is free.
“It’s a labor of love,” says Debi Durst, president and executive director of Comedy Day. “No one is getting paid, and we’re a volunteer-operated nonprofit, but all the comedians love doing it.”
Comedy Day is a rollicking five hours of laughs with about 40 comedians, each doing a standup routine that must be less than five minutes.
“It’s a challenge for the comedians,” says Durst. “They only get five minutes, and we ask that they try to keep it clean, since families come.” The Comedy Day website lists the event as rated PG-13, and attendance has at times been more than 60,000 people.
This year’s roster is impressive as always, including popular humorists Will Franken, Diane Amos, Kevin Meaney and Durst’s husband, political satirist Will Durst, among the dozens of performers.
But Comedy Day always keeps something up its sleeve, and the traditional surprise guests have yet to be revealed.
“We call them ‘mystery guests,’” says Durst. “We try to find notable comedians who are in town at the same time as the event.”
Robin Williams, Dave Chappelle, Whoopi Goldberg, Ellen DeGeneres, Eddie Izzard, Margaret Cho, Garry Shandling and Paula Poundstone are among the many celebrated comedians who have performed at Comedy Day, several of them on more than one occasion.
Durst adds, “I think San Francisco is the cradle of civilization for comedy, going way back to the days of the Purple Onion, Lenny Bruce, Woody Allen, Phyllis Diller and The Smothers Brothers. They were all here.”
For many performers, the event is novel because it’s outside and during the day — the humor, audience and surroundings being so different from a small, dank nightclub.
“We’re normally vampires,” Durst says. “But here you’re on stage in front of thousands of people in broad daylight! It’s an electric atmosphere.”
Donations to Comedy Day do more than help with producing the main event. Throughout the year, the nonprofit works with outreach programs in schools, using comedy as a conflict resolution tool, and presents free shows in nursing homes, hospitals and hospices.
IF YOU GO
Where: Sharon Meadow, Golden Gate Park, 320 Bowling Green Drive, San Francisco
When: Noon to 5 p.m. Sunday
Contact: (415) 820-1570, www.comedyday.com