The founding publisher of the San Francisco Chronicle, Charles de Young, shot mayoral candidate Isaac Kalloch in 1879. Kalloch survived, won election, and then the mayor’s son murdered de Young. I repeat: San Francisco has a MUSEUM named after a guy who shot the mayor. I’m not advocating violence, but the notion of the Chronicle drinking pisco while holding a hostile editorial stance toward the mayor I find thrilling. With some notable exceptions, most Chronicle news coverage offers all the context and analysis of a Bazooka Joe gum wrapper.
Let Noam Chomsky explain how media fails when it comes to smoky backroom deals and corporate malfeasance. But media mucks up writing about comedy too. That’s why I am hereby in a public and probably one-sided feud with Peter Hartlaub, who is a chump, and the Chronicle for how badly they cover comedy.
Hartlaub recently ran a piece in the Chronicle called “Comedy Rises in SF, Without Compromise,” accompanied online by a slideshow of photos of local comedy legends like Mort Sahl, Robin Williams, Phyllis Diller and Bobcat Goldthwait. As Debi Durst says, San Francisco is the “cradle of civilization” of comedy. Perhaps not the capitol of comedy world empires, but where comedy learned to use its opposable thumbs and scrawl cave paintings of dicks on the walls. We’re still doing that last bit actually. From the 1950s to today, San Francisco has been a laboratory of innovation for generations of comedians.
That legacy runs from the 1950s TO TODAY, yet Hartlaub and the Chronicle simultaneously ignore local comedy while waxing nostalgic about the glory days. Hartlaub quoted four Chronicle critics of yesteryear who attended shows they wrote about, and covered comedians who were not already famous. Yes, of course, none of us are Williamsian geniuses, but if you have the nerve to write about live entertainment, you could be expected to witness it firsthand more than once every 30 years.
When reporters write about comedy as one more local novelty, their ignorance shows. “You might think all comedians are jerks, but this one is nice.” There used to be two reporters who went to enough comedy shows to have informed opinions: Rachel Swan when she was at the East Bay Express and Hiya Swanhuyser when she was at the SF Weekly. Same with Hiya and Rachel. Rachel now covers the Oakland beat at the Chronicle. Hiya was laid off in 2011, and now blogs for KQED and tells me what to do. Now there are none.
I have done thousands of local shows yet never seen a Chronicle reporter at one. I’ve invited my nemesis Peter Hartlaub.
Comedians love coming to San Francisco. New York and L.A. are where comedians go to make it. San Francisco is one of a short list of places with enough of a scene to support comics to get good before they make it. (See also: Portland, Denver and Chicago.) We are in a golden age of live comedy. If you don’t go see for yourself, you will be the guy who didn’t go to Woodstock because he couldn’t deal with mud.
Here’s how you do it: go see a show at Cobbs or the Punchline or Doc’s Lab or Lost Weekend. You won’t like everyone but DON’T PANIC. You’ll like something. Google the comics in advance — they all have clips and podcasts and Twitter handles to help you find the one who’s most your speed. Make a note of who you like and follow them on social media. Go to their shows and be exposed to other things you like. Just like how watching Wings of Desire taught me how much I wanted to listen to Nick Cave and watch “Columbo.”
All I ask is for local media to cover this nationally significant local arts scene, and not make us feel bad every time they do.