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Broad Minds Encourage Broad Laughter

January 17, 2010

It’s often been said that stand-up comedy is the most subjective art form. What’s side-splitting to one person is seditious to the next. Yet while the evolving dynamics of the Bay Area entertainment scene have broadened traditional definitions of what constitutes comedy, some of the audience still takes a narrow view of what’s funny and what isn’t.

With its kaleidoscopic lineup, the SF Sketchfest comedy festival, which opened on Thursday, should help audiences understand that there are many paths to humor beyond the traditional setup-and-punch-line-centric patter. As in previous years, the program, which features some 200 artists of local, national and international prominence, stretches standard notions to their limits.

The festival includes the embattled talk show host Conan O’Brien (Sunday); impressionists, among them James Adomian (next Sunday); improv and sketch comedy troupes, like the San Francisco-based Kasper Hauser (Tuesday and Jan. 30); absurdist comedians like Animosity Pierre (Tuesday and Thursday); sitcom actors like Scott Adsit of “30 Rock” (Jan. 30); solo theater artists, including Sara Benincasa (Saturday); and even a comedic jazz outfit, the Be-Bop Heroin Hour (Jan. 29 and 30). The festival perhaps went a step too far by inviting the singer-songwriter Aimee Mann, a musician whose plaintive ballads aren’t generally known for their laughter-inducing qualities.

Cultivating broad-mindedness toward these many forms of comedy is important. If audiences were open to a wider range of humorous performance, the demand for live comedy might grow. This would in turn lead to the rejuvenation of the once-lauded but sadly long-dormant San Francisco comedy scene, an arena that helped forge the careers of Phyllis Diller, Whoopi Goldberg and Robin Williams.

If audiences were willing to expand their definitions of comedy, they might relax and enjoy themselves rather than fret about how what they’re seeing onstage doesn’t conform to their expectations. Their heightened pleasure would doubtless have an overall positive effect on the community. In these dark times we can use all the opportunities for laughter we can get.

Personal taste notwithstanding, the negative reaction to a recent show I attended suggests that some Bay Area audience members may not have caught up with the changes that have taken place on the local comedy scene over the past decade or so. Or perhaps they chose to ignore the words “unconventional” and “groundbreaking” on the flier advertising the “Not Your Normal New Year’s Eve” comedy night at the Herbst Theater.

“The worst comedy lineup ever, full of nonsensical stream-of-consciousness musings and pathetic revelations,” wrote one reviewer on the ticketing site Another wrote, “We only stayed because our car was not ready to pick us up.” Contrastingly, I was thoroughly entertained.

The comedy scene has transformed partly because of the shuttering of several Bay Area comedy clubs in the 1990s and early 2000s, which forced artists to develop their work in other settings, like theaters and the Internet. While many local stand-up acts once focused on observational or autobiographical material, these days the scene is much more fragmented.

But there are still plenty of observational comics around. Of those who performed on New Year’s Eve, many of whom are also on the SF Sketchfest roster, Brent Weinbach most closely reflects that tradition.

But the other acts demonstrated radically different approaches. Will Franken, named “Best Alternative to Psychedelic Drugs” by The San Francisco Bay Guardian, offers an erudite brand of stream-of-consciousness comedy that encompasses bits like a poetry slam match between George Milton reciting the opening of “Paradise Lost” and a poetically challenged modern teenager doing some rap.

Mary Van Note’s humor hinges on misplaced sexual advances; this comedian is best known for her 10-part online video series about trying to woo Mayor Gavin Newsom.

Meanwhile, the surreal theatrics of We Are Nudes balance the over-the-top physicality of a former Cirque du Soleil performer, John Gilkey, against the awkward introversion of his comedic sidekicks, Donny Divanian and Alec Jones-Trujillo. The group’s act reaches its zenith with a protracted tirade from a supposed audience member about the performers’ lack of comedic skill.

Of course, the many people in the Herbst audience who responded unfavorably to the entertainment may simply not share my sense of humor. It may be that people need to get out and see a diverse range of live comedy. But the incentive to do so lies partly elsewhere.

While the SF Sketchfest helps to expand an understanding of the art of comedy, local promoters and clubs need to play a role year-round too. Bay Area audiences are by and large enlightened. If they shy away from the stranger side of comedy, it may also be because of the local industry’s narrow approach to programming and reluctance to book any act that steps beyond conventional realms. The Bay Area’s eclectic landscape should operate along the same lines as many an effective comic act: with a good punch line set up to defy expectations.


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