San Francisco's comedy scene made headlines recently as Dave Chappelle landed at City Hall in a well-publicized attempt to save the Punch Line (more on this in a bit), and Comedy Central's Clusterfest has exploded here in recent years.
So what's the state of comedy here in the Bay Area? Well for starters, our tech industry, unique personas, and oh-so-easy-to-stereotype neighborhoods provide material for days. Learn more about our comic heritage, where to LOL, and meet a handful of local stand-up's rising stars.
San Francisco's Comedic Legacy
Robin Williams on the Punch Line SF stage in October 2012.
(Alex Stack, via Punch Line on Facebook)
While Chicago has The Second City and New York has Saturday Night Live, San Francisco has had the Punch Line for the past 40 years. Founded in 1978 and sold to legendary promoter Bill Graham in 1980, those walls that once housed the dressing room for the Battery Street music venue known as the Old Waldorf could talk of many a music legend—Elvis Costello, AC/DC, and Metallica have all stepped foot there. But in 1983, Graham closed the Waldorf and transitioned the venue into a comedy club that's now legendary; the Punch Line stage has hosted such high-caliber funny people as Robin Williams, Dave Chappelle, Rosie O'Donnell, Zach Galifianakis, Sarah Silverman, Chris Rock, Patton Oswalt, Drew Carey, Ellen DeGeneres, and Dana Carvey.
But like so many revered landmark businesses in SF, the club now faces closure due to rising rents in the city. This past spring, Chappelle even showed up to join SF City Supervisor Aaron Peskin, local comic star W. Kamau Bell (Private School Negro), and many others in a rally to #savethepunchline. "Any comedian will tell you the Punch Line is one of the premier comedy clubs in America," said Chappelle, who played four nights at the venue in May. "A comic will always come back to a good room. You guys have one of the best rooms in comedy. Let's protect it," he said.
Still, the Punch Line is set to close its doors this August, and the team is looking for a new SF home.
Of course, San Francisco has also turned out its share of comedy greats: Carvey, Ali Wong (Always Be My Maybe), Margaret Cho, and Greg Proops all got their start here—as did comedy's most beloved voice of all, Robin Williams, whose name now graces Marin's iconic rainbow tunnel and whose eyes watch over us from a striking mural on Market Street.
Where to See Stand-up Comedy in the Bay Area
There are plenty of opportunities to ROFL around the Bay Area. Have some laughs at local bars, comedy clubs, and festivals.
In the heart of North Beach, Cobb's Comedy Club ( 915 Columbus Ave., North Beach) has a two-drink minimum to see acts ranging from up-and-comers to heavy hitters each week—coming up, catch Michael Ian Black (June 14-15) and Anjelah Johnson (June 20-22). The large venue is a good for groups. // As of press time, you've still got a few weeks to catch a show at the Punch Line (44 Battery St., FiDi). Upcoming shows include Dan St. Germain (June 19-22) and Will Durst (June 26-29). // At Cheaper Than Therapy (533 Sutter St., TenderNob), the witty name says it all. LOL and let your stress melt away at this intimate club, produced by Scott Simpson and Jon Allen, where audience interaction is pretty much required. Brave enough to sit in the front row? // The Setup (Beer Basement, 222 Hyde St., Tenderloin) is a small basement venue with big talent. Run by a pair of comedians, it has that Seinfeld-esque brick backdrop, several awards and accolades, and plenty of excuses to check it out, including Craft Beer and Comedy Nights, all month long.
At All Out Comedy Theater (2525 Telegraph Ave, Suite B, Oakland), you'll get a taste of improv where audience suggestions are welcome—think Whose Line Is it Anyway? They also offer classes for budding comics. // Comedy Oakland (1628 Webster St., Oakland), inside the Spice Monkey restaurant, has cover charge, no drink minimum, free parking, and legit talent. // Roasts, Taco Tuesdays, and open mic nights are the fare at Tommy T's Comedy Club (5104 Hopyard Rd, Pleasanton), which also hosts its share of boldface names: See Adele Givens (June 21-23) andCedric the Entertainer (July 12-13) this summer.
Rooster T. Feathers (157 W El Camino Real, Sunnyvale) may cater to the Stanford crowd with Thursday College Nights, but the full-service bar and club also entertains with real stars, as seen on Comedy Central and beyond, on stage. Catch Jackie Kashian (June 13-June 16) and Hampton Yount (June 20-June 23). // San Jose Improv Comedy Club (62 S. Second St, San Jose) is a South Bay gem with a full menu of food and drink has attracted some big names over the years (think Richard Pryor and Lily Tomlin, to name but two). This summer you can catch Nikki Glaser (June 13-15) of MTV and Comedy Central fame; CNN late-night talk show host D.L Hughley (June 21-23); and "evidential medium" Cindy Kaza (June 27).
Festivals & Events
Newish comedy and music happening Clusterfest, put on by Comedy Central and Another Planet, blew up upon arrival. At this year's festival (June 21-23), Civic Center will quake with laughs as superstars Amy Poehler, John Mulaney, Patton Oswalt, Leslie Jones, and many more take the stage. // Don't forget Outside Lands (Aug. 9-11) also incorporates comic programming; keep an eye out for this year's lineup. // For a few weeks each winter, SF Sketchfest (Jan. 9-26, 2020) brings major wattage to various venues across the city—Carol Burnett, Neil Patrick Harris, and Margaret Cho were just a few of last year's headliners.
5 Bay Area Comedians on the Rise
With a less competitive field than New York, Chicago or Los Angeles, the SF Bay Area provides space for budding comedians to test material and build their stage presence. Plus, "the community is very tight knit and supportive," says local comic James Mwaura.
You know the big names already. Be on the lookout for these local up-and-comers.
Bay Area life is both the heart and the punchline of Bentley's comedy schtick: The local funny guy with big personality recently released a comedy album, Lakeview; named for his home 'hood in SF, the album pulls material locals will recognize, with bits on burritos in the Mission and scenes from the 5-Fulton bus, and tracks with names like "Bay Area Bullshit Life" and "The Blacks of Asians of San Francisco." For updates on shows, and more adventures, follow @kaseembentley.
Over the past handful of years, this Indian-American comic has won accolades from the SF Bay Guardian to Comedy Central Asia; she's played SF Sketchfest; and has opened for the likes of Janeane Garafalo and Greg Proops. Look for upcoming appearances at Oakland's New Parkway Theater (June 14), Betabrand (June 20), and with The Moth at SF Public Works (June 25).
Weerasekera is a seasoned comedienne who played SF Sketchfest this past year whose straightforward brand of humor has commanded the stages at Cobbs and Punch Line. Catch her every first and third Saturday at the Red Tomato Pizza House in Berkeley, and follow@sureni.
A Stanford grad and tech worker by day, Mwaura shares his relatable stories and hilarious observations around Bay Area comedy and open mic nights. Find him Tuesday nights at Hollow Cow in the Marina ("a very rough neighborhood"), Wednesdays at The Laundry gallery in the Mission, and the first Monday of every month at Holy Craft Brewery in North Beach. For more show dates, follow @realjamesmwaura.
With a solid stage presence and self-deprecating humor, Goodcase is a regular on the local scene. Also catch him in Redwood City on June 26th at Comedy Connoisseurs: Free and Fancy Stand Up Comedy. For more laughs and upcoming shows, follow @ryangoodcase.