Features & Columns
Silicon Valley Comedy Scene Boosted by Open Mic Nights
Frankie Marcos' standup debut was a bomb not of his making. His co-worker, a chef, had told him it was open mic night at a bar in San Francisco. Marcos, like many beginners, decided to give it a shot because he had a rep as the funny guy at work. Why not try standup?
He arrived at the bar anxious and proceeded to get buzzed. Just before his set was scheduled to start, Marcos looked around and realized there wasn't much of an audience and not a microphone to be seen. He asked his co-worker what was going on.
"It's just you," the chef replied, turning to the entire bar to announce: "All right! It's time for some comedy!"
So, Marcos did what many people do their first time: he kinda sucked. He had seven minutes of material but got so nervous he could only remember four.
"It took me three months to recover from the shame," Marcos says.
His second time he did better. His third time, better than that. It's an easy lesson to tell, but hard to learn: Doing anything worthwhile often requires a little embarrassment—only up on stage, it actually feels like dying.
There are a few dozen psychological recipes for creating a standup comic. A fairly common one: a potent mixture of low self-esteem, neurosis and the debilitating need for attention. Call this the "Look at Me! Please God, Just Someone Look at Me" type. Many comedians will be the first to say this.
Then there's the misanthropic outsider. Someone who can't help but look upon others with disdain, yet still desperately needs human connection. Call this the "I'm an Asshole and Now You Have to Deal with Me" special.
And then there's a nicer recipe. The subtle, criminally unrecognized comedian who would normally never set foot on a stage. Call this the "No One Will Ever Understand My Secret" surprise.
I say this from a place of understanding. Having performed improv comedy for five years—including the last year at ComedySportz—I understand getting up on stage with no lines and no jokes requires neuroses, a gruesome masochistic streak and a low bar for what qualifies as "comedy." If the audience laughs, that's comedy. It's not necessarily sophisticated, or much less inherently righteous. Standups may pretend they're more highbrow than improvisers, but we all do our own silly bits. They just have more time to think about them.
Regardless of what side a person falls on in the "Improv vs. Standup: Who's More Insufferable" debate, there's a significant difference between "the funny person at work" and an actual comedian. First, there's the stage.
"Comedy is the only art form where you have to practice it live," says comedian David Nguyen, who—like Marcos—grew up in East San Jose. A musician can play in her bedroom; a painter can create a masterpiece whether anyone understands it or not. "You don't need that visceral feedback," Nguyen continues. "Comedy is the only art form where you require a specific response from the audience. If you don't get that response, it fails."
For a long time, the South Bay has drawn headliners, well-established comics used to having their names on the marquee. But a truly homegrown comedy scene has been harder to come by. Virtually every comedian starts out as some poor schmuck trying to get a laugh wherever they can. Developing local comedians—and by extension a strong comedy scene—requires patient venues with understanding audiences. And over the past several years, despite some institutional challenges, the South Bay has been building toward just that.
The South Bay has two premier comedy clubs: Rooster T. Feathers in Sunnyvale, which opened in 1984, and San Jose Improv, which opened in 2002 and is part of 20-club national franchise. The businesses are based around well-known touring comics with bankable names: For example, Bill Burr comes to the Improv in March and all shows are already sold out. Established Bay Area comics can get work as a host or opening act (possibly headlining, if they're big enough), but there's only so much stage time to go around, and the clubs' operators have developed insular reputations.
Multiple comics interviewed for this story noted that the Improv and Rooster T. Feathers could do a better job connecting to the South Bay comedy community. Roosters has a New Talent Night on Wednesdays, which operates essentially like an open mic, and both clubs hold comedy competitions, where amateur comics can compete to win paid work at the venue. But neither seems particularly interested in fostering the grass-roots scene outside their respective fiefdoms. Repeated attempts to interview Improv and Rooster's operators about the local comedy scene went ignored.
Neophytes need open mics, where they can work on their bits and stage persona five minutes at a time. The audience—whoever else shows up—gets a free night of jokes in exchange for being patient with clunky jokes-in-development. Open mics are the fertilizer of the comedy scene, in every connotation. This isn't to suggest open mics are necessarily low quality. Some nights are more misses than hits. Other nights, the new material is cracking and the audience is ready for anything. It's loose, fast and casual. Even a joke that bombs can end in laughter as everyone realizes its imperfection.
"Mighty" Mike McGee runs the The Go! Go! Gong Show at Cafe Stritch, which is essentially a mixed open mic (comedy, music, poetry, etc.) with three judges. If, at any point during each performance, a judge decides they don't like a person's act, they smash the gong.
"It's ruthless," Marcos says, smiling.
McGee is a local veteran of the national slam poetry scene who's now focusing on his comedy. He had to move the Gong Show from downtown San Jose's Cafe Frascati across the street to Cafe Stritch after the audience grew too large. McGee's optimistic about the South Bay comedy's future.
"I very well believe that our greatest exports could easily be tech; grafitti, there's a lot of really good graffiti here; burritos, we nail it on burritos; and comedy," he says.
There are at least five weekly comedy-only mics around San Jose nowadays, not to mention the mixed performance mics such as the Gong Show. Comics usually prefer comedy-only nights, because it's hard to maintain the energy of a room swinging between heartfelt poetry and dick jokes.
After working the open mics circuit, a new comic should be able to build up the material and connections to get featured in a showcase, a more formal show that's a step up in quality and audience. They might even get paid.
But comedy in the South Bay has historically suffered from the same problem as its other scenes, like live music: artists migrate to San Francisco and Oakland, and the audiences follow in a vicious cycle. It also doesn't help that Silicon Valley has a humorless reputation.
"When I first started there was hardly nothing here," Pete Munoz tells me one afternoon in Woodham's Lounge, where he runs an open mic every Monday night. Back then, more than 10 years ago, there was a Friday night open mic at Ron's Farmhouse in Mountain View, and little else. Munoz could hit maybe two or three mics a week in South Bay, tops. "Now if I only do two or three mics a week, they think I'm dead," he says.
Munoz got tired of driving all over the region for a measly five minutes, so he started opening his own rooms. The first, Seniore's Pizza in Santa Clara, paid him in pizza and beer (usually the open mic organizer gets a percentage of the bar sales), but he learned his craft.
"I learned all my heckling, all my riffing, all my improv—just how to control a rowdy room," Munoz says.
It's difficult for open mics to triangulate a consistent audience, quality comedy and a supportive venue for more than a couple years, if that. A patient venue is the real linchpin, as owners tend to side with customers over comics. Irate Yelp reviews can still be found about the open mic at Ron's Farmhouse, which closed in 2007.
The South Bay's two most consistent, longest-running open mics are Woodham's Lounge in Santa Clara, and the Caravan Lounge in downtown San Jose. Woodham's, which takes place Mondays, has been running for four years this April; the Caravan celebrates its three-year anniversary on Feb. 22.
Ato Walker, a longtime San Jose comedian who runs the Caravan, is optimistic about the city's comedy scene.
"It's bubbling, it's boiling, and people are waiting for the top to pop off," he says. "And it's been that way for the past five, six years."
But still, Walker says, there aren't enough people producing local shows. "There are a lot of lazy-ass people and when they do produce shows, they don't do enough marketing." San Jose isn't San Francisco, where people regularly walk into shows off the street. Walker says South Bay comedians and producers need to leverage their connections and do the legwork.
"Why would they care?" he asks. "You have to make 'em care. Just like if you're on stage: you have to make the audience give a shit about you."
Walker cites Marcos as an example. Four years after recovering from his first surprise set, Marcos now runs a semi-monthly Saturday showcase at MACLA (Movimiento de Arte y Cultura Latino Americana), which he says has sold out three of the last four nights.
The jukebox fires up at Patty's Inn, so Iris Benson and I retreat to the quieter smoking patio. I'd heard praise for Benson's dark, deadpan comedy style from other South Bay comics, and for her mentorship.
"It's not really appealing to gatekeepers as much as people think it is," she says, when asked her advice for younger comics. The gist: do your own thing; produce your own shows; don't wait for someone else to validate you.
One of the benefits of a small scene is comedians have incentive to cooperate with one another and create more opportunities, rather than compete in a saturated market. In Los Angeles, open mic sets usually run three brief minutes due to the intense competition for stage time. A few comics I interviewed estimate that there's about 10,000 comedians in LA, compared to the 100-150 working consistently in the South Bay. Strength, it seems, can be found in lesser numbers.
"[Iris] introduced me to a lot of people when I was still brand new," says Shannon Murphy, a comic from East San Jose who placed second in last year's Rooster T. Feathers comedy competition and is getting closer to booking steady club gigs. "She's one of the women that took me under her wing."
There's a definite camaraderie among comedians here, a bunch as motley as the South Bay. When I first called Daymon Ferguson, he was on the road with Benson heading to Humboldt County for a show. He works—reluctantly—as a lawyer, and has been doing comedy for 10 years.
"I thought I'd be saving the world and getting rich, but you can't do both. You can do one or the other," Ferguson says. "I'm not good enough to save the world and I'm not dedicated enough to get rich. So here I am, talking about my weiner."
Then there's Mekkin Roff, who got into standup after dropping out of UC Santa Cruz and running away to her birthplace, Reykjavik, Iceland.
"I was working at a bar [in Reykjavik] and I knew the guy who was hosting this open mic there," she tells me before her set at the Art Boutiki open mic. "I thought, 'Oh that's terrifying. I should probably try that.'"
Mekkin went on to perform a ukulele-accompanied comedy song at Art Boutiki, in anticipation of Gong Show at Cafe Stritch, where the judges seem to be more lenient on musicians than comics.
Over at the Caravan, I caught five minutes from Oakland comedian Alexandria Love, who cut her teeth in the South Bay and had the entire bar wrapped around her finger. Then came Ben Jaramillo, who killed as well.
Earlier, I'd met with comedian Chris Naasko at Cafe Frascati, and he talked about how standup can sensitize you to other people's boundaries. But it's the geographical boundaries that still hang up some of the most ambitious local comedians.
Anyone hoping to make it big can't stay in San Jose permanently, much less the Bay Area. New York and Los Angeles remain the comedy industry meccas of their respective coasts. David Nguyen, six years into his career, plans to move to New York at the end of the year. He's looking forward to a more competitive scene.
"If you surround yourself with the best," he says, "it raises your abilities."
But not every comic has aspirations for stardom, or plans to leave. Benson is open to moving, but she likes her job and San Jose. "I definitely enjoy my life doing comedy whether I make it or not," she says. "And also, I just turned 40 and I'm starting to realize that I have maybe 10 years before I'm gonna be like, 'Fuck this, I just wanna live in Florida.'"
Others, like Munoz and Walker, are committed to cultivating San Jose's scene. They've been kicking around the idea of organizing a San Jose comedy festival within the next few years.
"Everyone's like, 'When are you gonna move to LA?'" Munoz says. "I don't want to move to LA. You don't need to move to LA. Have the scene come to you."
It's a particularly quiet Monday night at the Woodham's open mic. It will get lively when more comedians drift in from their other sets, but for now it's just a handful of comics and the drinkers slouched at the well-worn bar. The dollar bills pinned to the ceiling are barely visible in the dim ambient light, but there's a bright spotlight on the mic.
A few sets into the show and so far it's going well. The best indication of this is that the drinkers have turned around in their seats to watch the stage.
A large man—I didn't catch his name—steps up to the open microphone.
"This joke never works," he says. "But I'm going to do it anyway."
That's the spirit.