After a decade in the comedy trenches, Mark Smalls knows where the real laughs come from

Walnut Creek comedian is surving pandemic on dark jokes and a podcast about golf

Like countless other aspiring comics, Mark Smalls has endured the grinding, humiliating process of the stand-up scene, gamely overcoming the empty sets, failed jokes and monotony of the local circuit in the hope of making a career out of comedy.

“Those first shows I would just completely bomb,” said Smalls, who was planning to take part in the 20th anniversary of SF Sketchfest, scheduled for Jan. 7–23, and then postponed due to rising omicron cases.

“I would get in the car afterward with my friends and I would just be bitching and yelling about everything being terrible, and they would all be losing it — just completely cracking up listening to me. They would all be like, ‘Dude, this is your show.’ I wasn’t trying to tell one-liners or do these supposedly funny stories. I was just being myself, yelling about things. It was in those car rides where I really found my voice.”

Smalls has managed to parlay that voice — an amalgam of stoned skater, outraged citizen and cerebral, therapy-dependent colleague — into a steady career on the local circuit, becoming a mainstay in clubs big and small throughout the Bay Area.

Growing up in Walnut Creek, he spent most of his adolescence skateboarding, trying and eventually failing to make it as a pro. Some of his skater friends started to try their hand at stand-up and dragged Smalls along. Those early experiences, plus a deep appreciation for comics like Dave Chappelle, helped inspire him to make a go of comedy.

“I distinctly remember watching Dave Chapelle’s special ‘Killin’ Them Softly’ and hearing him make jokes about the characters on ‘Sesame Street’ and being like: Hey! I know ‘Sesame Street,’’’ said Smalls. “And just thinking that was amazing — that I could make jokes about my own experiences.”

Over his career, Smalls has opened for comedians like Norm Macdonald and Bobby Lee. On Jan. 13, he was supposed to host the local troupe Killing My Lobster as part of SF Sketchfest. Smalls hosted a similar event for a past Sketchfest, where he said he relished bridging the divide between stand-up and sketch comedy.

“There is kind of this East Coast–West Coast beef thing going with improv and stand-up, but it’s always such a great time — the crowds are amazing and the people are a ton of fun,” said Smalls. “You know, as long as they don’t try to give me any advice on my premises and I don’t give them any bad suggestions for their improv, we should be able to keep it civil.”

Smalls has kept busy during the pandemic by hosting a podcast about golf and other assorted topics (“Country Club Adjacent”) and by livestreaming from his Twitch account. He said the pandemic has been good for comedy (though not for comedy clubs and festivals).

“It’s hard to make someone laugh when everyone’s in a good mood,” said Smalls. “That’s not where real comedy comes from. When there’s dread and sadness and tragedy, that’s where laughter is birthed — the real laughter — the laughter I like getting.”

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