Big laughs at San Francisco Comedy Clubs

By Damon Lewis sanfranciscocomedyclubsDuring San Francisco’s birth at the time of the 1849 gold rush, the city was not always the funniest place to be in. Granted, a pocket full of gold nuggets promptly improved one’s sense of humor, but by and large situations were generally pretty dire. It was this precise environment that gave birth to the San Francisco comedy clubs that still harbor refuge for those in need of reprieve. The San Francisco comedy clubs of today differ greatly from those of times past, yet the message remains the same. Whether in good times or bad, there is not much that heals the soul more than a good time filled with vice. In the times of Jack London, San Francisco was known as the Barbary Coast and it’s sidewalks were filled with whores and shanghai crimps all looking to make a fortune off the miners unlucky enough to cross their paths. Yet the miners still made their ways through the infamous quarters that today make up the heart of the comedy club district in San Francisco. It is in this spirit of lawlessness and debauchery that San Francisco comedy clubs carry on to this day, with no sign of change in the near future. Many of the World’s greatest comedians either started here or performed here at some time in their careers, and many of today’s best can be found in any of the great San Francisco comedy clubs littered throughout the city. While there are many high-profile comedians performing in The City who charge top dollar to see their performances, in San Francisco discounts are seldom hard to come by and comedy routines are no exception. Many great comedians got their start in one of many San Francisco comedy clubs, and the up-starts performing every night across the City by the Bay do so at greatly reduced prices to what they will be charging in the years to come. Of the scores of San Francisco comedy clubs that have come and gone throughout the city’s storied past, there are three which stand out as the most influential in the realm of comedy legend. When North Beach was crawling with drunks like Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, there were two San Francisco comedy clubs that reigned supreme as the place for the beats to unwind and have a few laughs. Around the same time that the “beat generation” was unfolding in North Beach, comedians like Lenny Bruce and Woody Allen were making their bones in the two great San Francisco comedy clubs the hungry i and The Purple Onion. The hungry i was located at 599 Jackson Street in the heart of the North Beach district and was instrumental in the birth of many of comedy’s greatest performers. This great San Francisco comedy club helped launch the careers of comedians such as Bill Cosby, Billy Holiday, Richard Pryor and Ronnie Schell. The hungry i is also said to have been the place where an unknown, teenage Barbara Streisand got her start after begging then owner Enrico Banducci to let her perform. With the onset of the “hippie” movement in the late 1960’s, the “hip” part of San Francisco moved west to the Haight-Ashbury district and Banducci sold the name to a local strip-club that still operates under that name today. Around the same time, The Purple Onion continued to thrive despite the movement of the “beat” scene in the area. While acts such as Maya Angelou, Phillis Diller and The Smothers Brothers no longer packed in the crowds, at the time top acts such as Richard Pryor still paid homage to his roots and was a regular performer at The Purple Onion for many years. While many other San Francisco comedy clubs came and went throughout the city, it was one club located at 408 Clement Street in The Richmond District that kept the flame of great comedians burning after it was all but extinguished in North Beach. While there have certainly been larger and more elaborate San Francisco comedy clubs before and after the Holy City Zoo, not many can match its track record of great comedians who performed there. Produced by legendary comedy coach John Cantu, the Holy City Zoo was the favorite performing ground for such up and coming acts as Robin Williams, Paula Poundstone, Dana Carvey and a very young Rob Schneider. Unfortunately, like many other San Francisco comedy clubs before and since, the Holy City Zoo changed hands many, many times before finally closing down in the mid-1990’s. Of the three previously mentioned great San Francisco comedy clubs, only The Purple Onion remains in service due to the rapid decline of the comedy club scene at the end of the 1980’s largely blamed on the infiltration of cable television as the premier delivery service of comedy to the masses. Although no longer a major player in the San Francisco comedy club scene, The Purple Onion still hosts such comedy greats as Robin Williams and Jim Short, and certainly shows no sign of going the way of the others. While it is no secret that San Francisco comedy clubs have been influential in the realm of the developing comedic craft, many people are unaware that the scene is still alive and well here in The City. There are many great places to see established and developing stand-up comedians in San Francisco today, and while the establishments’ names have changed, their legacy of laughs has deviated very little. In the very center of what was once the infamous Barbary Coast is the largest of the San Francisco comedy clubs; the Punch Line Comedy Club. Located at 444 Battery Street near The Embarcadero Center, the Punch Line showcases some of today’s top comedy acts on a regular basis. The Punch Line is one of the few San Francisco comedy clubs that has a full bar and a full dinner menu, and the club is open for business seven days a week. Although owned by the same investment group, Cobb’s Comedy Club is the other venue of choice for comedians when performing in San Francisco. Cobb’s is located at 915 Columbus Avenue in North Beach and is a strictly 18 and older venue open Wednesday through Sunday. If these two San Francisco comedy clubs’ brand of stand-up comedy is not what you had in mind for the evening, the BATS Improv Theater located in the Fort Mason Center might fit the bill a little better for you. Operating since 1987, BATS (or Bay Area Theatersports) Improv Theater is a unique destination as an alternative to the sometimes repetitive shows performed at the many San Francisco comedy clubs across the city. Other Improv groups are Big City Improv at 533 Sutter Street and the San Francisco Improv Alliance at 621 Natoma Street. The best Bay Area discounts for these shows can readily be found at sometimes at half of the price paid when paying at the door. While we no longer have sharks like the infamous Shanghai Kelly lurking along the bay-shore searching for his next victim, the hilarious vice of the Barbary Coast is alive and well today in the many San Francisco comedy clubs scattered across the northern peninsula. And just as gone are the days of the beat poets and the great San Franciscan comedians, but their spirits live on inside the walls of the many great San Francisco comedy clubs still operating beneath the dense layers of fog shrouding the city.