It wasn’t during the Summer of Love, or one of San Francisco’s innumerable tech booms, but when comedian Bob Rubin moved here in 1982, he was in exactly the right place at the right time.
“The day I got there was the same day a comedy explosion had started,” says Rubin, who’s returning to The City to play the Punch Line Comedy Club on Wednesday. “Next thing you know, there were 10 full-time comedy clubs.”
It was fertile ground for Rubin’s distinctive comedy, which juggles unhinged non-sequiters (his manager is Fumbles the Toothless Junkie) with surreal absurdism (running puppet skins through a Jack LaLanne juicer for maximum vitality).
“I had been doing stand-up maybe a year, and then I’m onstage with Robin Williams,” Rubin says. “If that’s not a situation to get good, I don’t know what is. It’s not a fluke that moment in time produced so many great comedians.”
Williams, Patton Oswalt, Margaret Cho, Marc Maron, Bobcat Goldthwait, Larry “Bubbles” Brown and Will Durst all passed through San Francisco’s comedy scene and testified at its temple, the now-defunct Holy City Zoo in the Richmond.
“It just was such a hole-in-the-wall,” Rubin says. “There was a music club next door, the Last Day Saloon. Sitting in the Holy City Zoo, you might as well have been sitting in the Last Day Saloon, because that’s how loud the music was.”
“It seems like that would be one of the hardest places to learn how to be a comedian, but I think that’s what made it one of the greatest places. Everybody was relaxed. Nobody cared.”
Rubin continued to push his manic, larger-than-life stage persona further, which made his humor less marketable in an era that demanded quick one-liners. It did, however, get him a movie role when a writer-producer for the cult hit “Boondock Saints II” saw him perform in Los Angeles, where Rubin currently lives.
“This guy saw me one time and really liked it, and he came back eight straight Wednesdays,” Rubin says. “And later he told me, ‘I just wanted to see if you were crazy, or if you actually had a grip on what you were doing up there.’”
In an interview on Maron’s popular “WTF with Marc Maron” podcast, Rubin reflected on some of the costs of his iconoclastic life, including personal demons — alcohol, botched business dealings and writer’s block.
“Sometimes you go into a creative slump, and people think, ‘Oh, so for like three or four weeks you couldn’t write anything?’ And it’s like, no, for five years, I really couldn’t think of anything good.
“It’s, ‘Are you willing to go the distance?’ And I’ve always been willing to go the distance. I’ve had a lot of love from people and a lot of help from people,” Rubin says. “I feel good again. I’m laughing again. I find stuff amusing again.”
Rubin is now channeling his absurdist humor into the “Bananaland” podcast on his website, rubetime.com, and working on a book.
Rubin indulged the question of a San Francisco Examiner reporter who remains fixated on one enigmatic line he’d said during a show in the mid-aughts: “It’s easy to get onstage, and tell jokes, and be funny, but I’m trying to do something different.”
What was that, a riddle? A Zen koan? Leonard Cohen?
“Well, that sounds like something I would say,” Rubin says with a laugh, gamely trying to pick apart a decade-old comment.
“I’ve always wanted to give every crowd something memorable, something they’ll never, ever, ever forget,” Rubin says. “If I can generate some sort of a rhythm, some sort of a presentation, that goes beyond just telling some jokes — I’m not putting that down, that’s basically what we’re supposed to do, go up and tell jokes and make people laugh — but if I can put together something bigger, and more memorable than that, that’s what makes me happy.
“In all the thousands of shows I’ve done, I’ve reached that moment a few times. And that’s the moment that I constantly chase. That’s why I feel excited … like this is all brand new.”
Where: Punch Line Comedy Club
When: Wednesday, April 1