Bay Area Stand-Up Comedy: A Humorous History

Cover of upcoming book
Back cover of book

Thrilled to share the cover and my introduction of our upcoming book Bay Area Stand-Up Comedy: A Humorous History! The book comes out February 14, 2022 and available on pre-order at (as well can be ordered from your local independent book store):

Introduction by Nina G…

My family introduced me to stand-up comedy when I was about four years old. It was the height of Steve Martin’s fame as a stand-up comedian. I’m almost positive there is a picture of me as a small child with an arrow through my head out there somewhere. My parents did not censor what I watched or enforce much of a bedtime. As a result, I would stay up watching classic Saturday Night Live episodes that led to me naming a favorite stuffed animal “Gilda” as well as a sock puppet in second grade that I named “Edith Ann” after Lily Tomlin’s character. Even though I learned that Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny were a farce when I was seven years old, I didn’t learn that Father Guido Sarducci was not an ordained priest until I was at least ten.

   Cable TV helped feed my early love of comedy. There I was, exposed to stand-up as well as multiple runs of movies like The Jerk and Caddyshack. After school, I would take an afternoon nap just so I could stay up to watch The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and, more importantly, Late Night with David Letterman. In third grade, I was identified as having a learning disability. This was about the same time I started to stutter, and I despised almost every aspect of school (Catholic school in the 1980s!). Knowing this, my mom let me play hooky at least once a month for us to go to the movies. This is where I saw films like Richard Pryor Live at the Sunset Strip when I was nine.  

   Throughout my childhood, I found solace in stand-up. Part of that was finding a feeling of superiority over my peers for not knowing the comedians who appeared on Letterman the night before. As I approached middle school, they started to identify with musicians, hanging pictures of their favorite bands in their lockers or in their bedrooms. Comedians were my rock stars. While other thirteen-year-old girls were writing fan letters to music groups like New Edition, I wrote fan letters to comedians like Emo Philips, who responded back with an autographed picture that still hangs in my kitchen. 

   I am lucky to be a fifth-generation San Francisco Bay Area native. I was raised in Alameda and San Leandro and was exposed to the San Francisco comedy scene early on. As I approached adolescence, the stand-up comedy boom was exploding, and I was on the sidelines watching it. After church on Sundays, my family would sit for hours at Ole’s Waffle Shop in Alameda with my aunt and uncle. I was so bored! To occupy myself, I would study the San Francisco Datebook section of the San Francisco Chronicle, examining the comedians and clubs that I hoped to attend one day. As we lived half a mile away from Tommy T’s Comedy Club in San Leandro, my comedy fantasies had a focal point. I so wanted to attend shows and then go hang out with the comics afterward at the Lyon’s in the same strip mall. I couldn’t wait until I turned eighteen years old so I’d be able to go to Tommy T’s, followed by turning twenty-one and attending shows at the legendary Holy City Zoo. Sadly, the Zoo literally closed on my twentieth birthday. I saw names of comedians performing at the Zoo who I saw on Comedy Tonight and later heard on the radio on The Alex Bennett Show. Larry “Bubbles” Brown, Will Durst, Warren Thomas, Paula Poundstone, Steven Pearl, Dan St. Paul, Ellen DeGeneres, Tom Ammiano, Marga Gomez, Whoopi Goldberg, Bobby Slayton and Al Clethen were all names and faces in the milieu of San Francisco comedy in the 1980s and I dreamed of the time that I could see them in person. However, as I got older, my comedy nerd tendencies morphed and mutated into career ambitions. 

   There were two distinct windows of entry I had into the Bay Area comedy scene. The first was a joke contest I won when I was eleven years old on a KGO radio show hosted by a woman who also played Ms. Nancy on Romper Room. I told a joke that I stole from a recent appearance of Pee Wee Herman on Late Night with David Letterman. The special guest judging the jokes was Will Durst. The prize was free tickets to the Other Cafe to see him. Durst awarded me first place, and I was so excited to go to my first comedy club experience! That night, my parents, as they often did, ran late. When we got to the club, parking was scarce. We could see the opening act performing in the window on the corner of Carl and Cole. My parents said we were not going to go in because they didn’t want to be made fun of for coming in late. As we drove down Haight Street, I was in tears because I would not be able to see the show. I would not get to the Other Cafe until I was fifteen—after I confessed my crush to Barry Sobel during his appearance on the Alex Bennett Show that same week. Previously, I had seen Sobel on Rodney Dangerfield’s Young Comedians Special. Finally, I had someone I could focus my emerging hormones on. I happened to be sick that day from school and spent the day at my grandparents. Using their rotary phone, I eventually got through to the Alex Bennett Show. I admitted on air that I would write Sobel’s name on my notebooks and binders. I still have his autograph from that night—it reads, “Keep writing my name on your notebooks.”  

   My second entry came when I was around sixteen. As I entered my teen years, I started to write jokes and had a handwritten database of open mics that accepted minors. I would call venues and see if they allowed minors, which was immediately tracked in my notes. One night, I called Dorsey’s Locker in Oakland, which would eventually and famously become comedian Luenell’s Blue Candle Tuesdays. I asked if minors were allowed at their open mic, which I had seen listed in the San Francisco Guardian. The bartender yelled to the rest of the bar, cackling, “This bitch wants to be Eddie Murphy!” I hung up, scared! I was exposed. This bitch really did want to be Eddie Murphy!

   Eventually, my dream to become a comedian died when I was seventeen years old. Being a person who stutters, I thought being a stand-up comedian was not in the cards for me. I went on to college, writing papers about comedy every chance I got but besides going to an occasional show, my passions were only academic. In 2010, after a number of life-altering experiences, I returned to my dream and stepped on the stage for the first time. I had the choice of countless open mics across the Bay I could go to. I ventured to places like the Brainwash Cafe, where I was baptized into San Francisco comedy by Tony Sparks. I would find myself performing at the clubs I read about in the Datebook back at Ole’s. I also had the honor of performing alongside many of the comedians I grew up watching. Stepping onto the same comedic scene that produced Mort Sahl, Phyllis Diller and Robin Williams felt like sacred ground. 

   After eleven years in comedy, the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent quarantine of 2020 hit. Comedians were forced to retreat to Zoom shows if they wanted to perform. We also had a lot of free time on our hands. Where once we would be grinding it out at open mics and showcases, we had to find things to do with our time and creative energy. That is when I started a short-lived YouTube video program titled the Comedy Time Capsule, where I interviewed comedians about their experiences and predictions of comedy during the pandemic. It was after hearing Marga Gomez’s experiences about the queer comedy scene at the Valencia Rose that an idea sparked. 

   Comedians don’t always know their history, nor are they great about honoring it. I called my old comedy friend and fellow comedy nerd OJ Patterson, and the spark of an idea took flame. We would write a book that broadly explores Bay Area comedy in words and pictures. Luckily, those late nights talking and doing comedy at McGrath’s open mic in Alameda, followed by tea sessions at my Oakland apartment on nights that OJ couldn’t BART back to the city, paid off. 

   I personally hope that this book reminds comedians of the Bay Area where they come from and the backs of the people they stand on while also celebrating our comedy history. I can already hear the critiques of comedians and comedy fans alike! “You didn’t talk about (this person) or (that place).” Yep! You are right. There is a lot left out, which is probably why there has not been a comprehensive book written about Bay Area comedy. Each of these chapters could and should be a four-hundred-page book. I hope that subsequent books will come, but in the meantime, I hope you enjoy this edition about the history of San Francisco Bay Area comedy.