By Joshua Rotter
Special to The Examiner
San Francisco may not be the nation’s comedy capital — like New York or LA — but its hilarious history is no joke.
To give the region’s legendary laugh factories and joke tellers their due credit, Bay Area comics Nina G and OJ Patterson have published “Bay Area Stand-Up Comedy: A Humorous History.”
“It was annoying that there hasn’t been a collection of San Francisco Bay Area comedy history until now,” said Patterson.
“OJ and I both felt there needed to be one,” said G.
“Bay Area Stand-Up Comedy” makes a case for how S.F. shows — from local luminaries such as Lenny Bruce, Phyllis Diller, Robin Williams, W. Kamau Bell, Ali Wong and Moshe Kasher — changed the art form forever.
After the Gold Rush established San Francisco as an “anything goes” city and Prohibition developed a lively underworld, an opening appeared for bars and nightclubs where off-beat, fringe and gay comedy flourished for decades.
The authors devote ample space to the venues that gave local comedians their earliest opportunities to develop voices and hone stand-up skills before breaking through nationally — and sometimes internationally.
For example, Mort Sahl cultivated a new style of social satire at North Beach’s hungry i. Don Novello first appeared live on stage as Father Guido Sarducci at North Beach’s Intersection Coffee House. And Robin Williams was discovered performing at the Richmond’s Holy City Zoo, eventually coming up with lines like, “If women ran the world we wouldn’t have wars, just intense negotiations every 28 days.”
The historical tour of Bay Area comedy includes the people, places and programs that inspired and emboldened G (who grew up in Alameda and San Leandro in the ’80s and ’90s) and Patterson (a native of Hayward who grew up in Pittsburg and now lives in LA) to try stand-up.
For G, it was KQED’s “Comedy Tonight” and KMEL’s “The Alex Bennett Show,” in addition to live performances at the Other Cafe and Holy City Zoo. For Patterson, a local stand-up comedy presentation at the Dark Room served as inspiration.
The two met at local open mics and eventually became pals in 2010. They quickly realized they also shared an interest in the history of stand-up. With downtime brought on by the pandemic, the pair teamed up to celebrate both their love of stand-up comedy and Bay Area pride.
Much of the groundwork for the book already had been laid out. Patterson had been interviewing local comedians about their experiences in The City’s comedy scene for his “Courting Comedy” blog and G had done the same for her “Comedy Time Capsule” interview series.
After talking to Marga Gomez about her history performing at the Valencia Rose, where Tom Ammiano, the “mother of gay comedy,” as well as many other LGBTQ+ comics got their bearings, G contacted Patterson about doing a deeper dive into the people and clubs that shaped the careers of the comedians that they admired.
“It felt important to honor what I witnessed,” says Patterson. “I wish I had our book growing up. If I knew about the expansive comedy history and the scene that was a BART ride away, I probably would have started stand-up sooner — or at least would have gone to a show.”
In researching the book, the pair culled photos and flyers from photographers, comedians and club owners, who shared their personal collections; scoured newspaper archives; and got oral histories from joke tellers like Don Novello, Larry “Bubbles” Brown, Donald Lacy, Carrie Snow, Debi Durst, Tony Sparks, Ritch Shydner and Lisa Geduldig.
They also saw to it that lesser-known comedians made it into the book, such as Gomez, Karinda Dobbins, Mary Van Note, Mean Dave and Sparks (who hosted Thursdays at the Brainwash and mentored so many comics, including Ali Wong).
Patterson blames The City’s high venue turnover rate, as well as the generations of comedians who moved to other comedy scenes, as the reason S.F. hasn’t gotten its rightful recognition as a comedy capital.
G and Patterson hope their book will make others appreciate and even honor the region’s comedy history. But the former says the recognition has to start at home.
“This isn’t even from the New York and LA perspectives,” says G. “It is from within our own city that S.F. comedy is underappreciated. There is no plaque or mural honoring the Purple Onion and the impact of comedians like Phyllis Diller and the Smothers Brothers who came from there. There’s nothing in front of the building where the hungry i once was, where Mort Sahl changed stand-up forever. We do have Robin Williams Meadow where Comedy Day is every September, but I want to see more of our comedy history represented in S.F. and surrounding cities.”