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SF Comedy Is Alive And Well

January 5, 2010

People commonly lament the downturn in the Bay Area comedy scene, saying that today it’s just not what it was in the glory days of the mid 20th century when the likes of Whoopi Goldberg, Robin Williams and Phyllis Diller would make appearances at The Purple Onion and the Hungry I. San Francisco basically became too expensive for comedians in the 1990s and started to take itself a little too seriously as a town. Since then, there hasn’t been much in way of local talent to get excited about.

But I am pleased to report that the scene may be coming back to life. I’ve been getting inklings of this rebirth every now and again of late. But on new year’s eve, thanks to a lineup of comedians arranged by impresario Jill Bourque (pictured), I finally came to the conclusion that the comedy scene is really taking off again in this part of the world.

Bourque’s “Not Your Normal NYE” event at The Herbst Theatre (a venue usually reserved for chamber music concerts and lecture series) featured a wonderful line up of genuinely off-beat comedic talent. I was familiar with some of the artists on the roster – such as Will Franken, Brent Weinbach and the We Are Nudes ensemble. I’ve been following Franken’s career with interest for a while now and I’ve caught the Nudes a couple of times in recent months at the Climate Theater. Others on the roster, such as Loren Kraut, Mary Van Note, and Moshe Kasher, were new to me.

All of the acts were different and ranged from chortle-inducing to roll-in-the-aisles funny. I loved Moshe Kasher’s acidic delivery, Brent Weinbach’s slam-dunk punchlines, Mary Van Note’s ditzy and misplaced sexuality and Loren Kraut’s delicious nerdiness. We are Nudes play better in a more intimate space, but their act – which consists in part of an absurd, theatrical commentary on each others' personalities and comedic chops -- was still hilarious. Franken, a fervent experimenter, attempted too much audience participation shtick for my liking at Herbst. The audience wasn’t quite ready to go there with him. Plus, the lack of a follow-spot didn’t help Franken's cause when he decided to descend from the stage to talk to a man sitting in the front row of the audience. But as a walking embodiment of multiple personality disorder in today’s comedy landscape, the comedian still remains unparalleled.

The great thing about Bourque’s curatorial effort on new year’s eve was the combination of great diversity between the performers’ approaches and yet a strong unifying principle which may come to define the San Francisco comedy scene as we enter the second decade of the 21st century. This unifying principle is unconventionality. Not one of the performers simply stood on stage and told jokes. But all of them possessed a madcap absurdity touched with a dash of theatricality.

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