April 1, 2019 would have been the 20th anniversary of the Brainwash’s Thursday night open mic. It was a mainstay in Bay Area Comedy until the Cafe, Laundromat and performance space closed for good. In my upcoming book Stutterer Interrupted: The Comedian Who Almost Didn’t Happen I have a whole chapter dedicated to the Brainwash and what it meant to me. This blog is dedicated to the Brainwash and an excerpt from that chapter.
The Brainwash Years (A Lot of Love)
Comparing the Brainwash Café and Laundromat open mic to a church might sound like a bit of a leap, but it’s a short leap. Both serve as communal spaces. Actually, the Brainwash served as three communal spaces: laundromat, café, and open mic. The holy trinity! You had washing machines in one room and a café/performance space in the other. You could get a beer and watch stand-up while waiting for your clothes to dry. A genius business model if there ever was one. Throughout the day the drifters/yuppies/techies/druggies/hippies/rockers/skaters would come to eat, read, work on their laptops, hog the single-stall bathrooms, loiter, drink the free water, and do a million other things I probably don’t want to know about. In a city increasingly shaped by economic barriers, the Brainwash offered the rarest example of a complete cross-section. You could sit at a table with techies pitching start-ups to your left and skater bros scoring drugs to your right. Around three o’clock, the early-bird comedians would start rolling in. You could tell them apart from the ordinary patrons (civilians) if you knew what clues to look for. They carried notebooks. They rarely bought anything. They always crowded around the same two tables outside, passing around a joint and running jokes by each other. Between five and six, they would start lining up at the back door to get a good spot on the sign-up sheet.
The Brainwash had a mic going two or three nights a week, but Thursday was the big one—the Sunday service, if you will. Thursday nights were hosted by Tony Sparks, AKA the Godfather of San Francisco Comedy. He was the pastor of this degenerate church, leading the crowd through another evening mass. I had seen Tony on a show in Oakland fifteen years before I ever called myself a comedian, so I knew his legend long before I signed up for my first set at the Brainwash.
If it was your first time signing up, Tony would tell you to put a star next to your name. When it was your turn to perform, Tony would scream at the top of his lungs:
Hey good humans! Your next comedian is new to the room, so what do we give them?!
A lot of love!
Say it louder!
A LOT OF LOVE!!!
That’s right! Everyone, I want you to lose your fucking minds for [insert frightened newcomer’s name here]!!!
On that cue, the gathered assortment of comedians, Google worker bees, and confused laundry patrons would erupt into applause—the loudest your average open mic performer would probably ever hear. The crowd’s enthusiasm would then gently diminish as they watched the first-time performer fumble through their badly-written material and realize that wow, this is actually hard! After five underwhelming minutes, Tony would get back on stage and act like he had just seen the greatest talent in the history of stand-up (then forget about them two seconds later and bring up the next act). Just like that, another congregant had been baptized into the church of SF comedy by Tony Sparks.
Just like church, the Brainwash had its own set of rituals and practices, which went something like this:
- Don’t run the light
- Bring your own pen when you sign up
- Women sign up first
- If you are not a woman, get there early
- Don’t run the light
- Expect a contact buzz when entering on the café side
- Don’t come in late and expect Tony to put you up, unless you’ve been on TV
- Expect comedians who have been on TV to show up late and jump ahead of you on the list
- If you’re running the light, get the fuck off stage!
These were the customs we all observed. No matter how important you thought you were. No matter what was going on in your life. No matter your education or status. None of that mattered at the Brainwash. All that mattered was being funny and not running the light.
The majority of my comedian friends are people I met at the Brainwash: my friend Heather, who first caught my attention with her bit about feeling guilty for going on a luxury cruise; my friend O.J., who documented the San Francisco comedy scene on his blog, Courting Comedy; my friend Jesse, who impressed everyone with his unusual brain; and, of course, Mean Dave.
The Brainwash was a place where you discovered friends. It was also a place where you discovered who wasn’t your friend. Unlike church, stand-up allows people with beef to openly rip on each other, on and off the stage. Sometimes a little teasing would dispel the tension. Other times it poured gas on the fire.
As I became more comfortable and established at the Brainwash, I no longer felt compelled to explain my stuttering at the beginning of every set. People knew who I was; I could jump right into my observations about something unrelated to disability and not worry about them fixating on my speech. I came to realize that open mics are for the comedians and not the audience. It’s our time to experiment, workshop ideas, and socialize. Sometimes we only have three minutes to try out all our new material—you think I’m going to waste two of those minutes on a generic disclaimer? It eventually got to the point where new comedians would come up to me and ask, “Have you ever thought about mentioning stuttering in your act?” Nope . . . never thought of that. Thanks for the tip!
… (something about how I first met my husband at the Brainwash)…
On November 5th, 2016, Ethan and I were married at the Madonna Inn. My bridesmaids were my closest friends: Gina, Heather, Jody, and Mean Dave. Even though they are all talented writers, they elected Dave to give the bridesmaid speech.
“I hate weddings,” he began, raising his glass to toast. “If you told me when I started stand-up comedy at the Brainwash that in six years I’d be a bridesmaid in a wedding, saying the wedding toast to two aspiring comedians from that very same open mic… I would have quit comedy right then and there.”
The Brainwash wove our lives together in ways none of us could have predicted.
You might have noticed that I keep referring to the Brainwash in the past tense. Sadly, it was forced to shut down in December, 2017—another casualty of the changing culture and economics of San Francisco. The end came suddenly and without warning. One day some comedians showed up for the open mic and found locked doors instead. There was a letter from the owner taped to the window, listing the reasons that are always listed when another San Francisco landmark vanishes overnight. Bay Area comedians collectively lost their shit. Their brain pathways were wired to go to the Brainwash on Thursdays! Like Skinner rats pushing the disconnected food button they sulked in front of the empty building out of pure habit and faith. Others ranted and raged through social media, which is kind of ironic, seeing how the Brainwash was killed by dot-com-fueled development. The rest of us grieved quietly.
The Brainwash was our church. It was our community and home. The building might be demolished or converted into an upscale condo, but the things that happened there can never unhappen. Memories were made and lives were changed. Countless friendships exist because of the Brainwash. The careers of famous and unfamous comedians exist because of the Brainwash. This book exists because of the Brainwash.
Not bad for an open mic in a laundromat.