This is a guest post from Connected Comedian Matt Gubser, who has lived in San Francisco for the past 14 years and performed comedy there for the past six. If you’d like to write a guest post with an overview of your local comedy scene for Connected Comedy, please email me.
1. San Francisco Audiences Are Diverse
San Francisco is one of the most diverse cities in the country. About one third of San Francisco residents were born outside the U.S., it’s one of the most educated cities in the country, has the largest gay population in the country, and registered Democrats here outnumber registered Republicans by a 6-to-1 margin.
As a result, San Francisco audiences tend to be young, smart, liberal, and skeptical. There’s a lot going on in “The City.” They want you to prove to them that you’re worth their time.
While well-worn rehashing of racial stereotypes, homophobia, and misogyny are not absent from the scene, they’re a good way to make many audiences uncomfortable.
That being said, it’s a big city. You may end up in front of rooms full of Midwestern tourists on Fisherman’s Wharf, international travelers near the hostels in the Tenderloin, or basements full of hipsters in the Mission.
2. You Probably Can’t Afford to Live In San Francisco
Rents in San Francisco are triple the national average. They’ve risen as much as 10% per month recently. So you’re going to have roommates. You’re going to have lots of roommates.
In the last year especially, rent prices have forced many San Francisco comedians out of the city to cheaper housing across the Bay. While it hasn’t happened much yet, we may see a shift in the center of the independent comedy scene from San Francisco to Oakland in the near future. Oakland may not sound quite as romantic as San Francisco, but there’s nothing sexy about paying $500/month to literally sleep in a closet.
3. Getting Around the City
Since you’ve already spent all your money on rent, the good news is you can get probably get by without a car. BART is the hub of San Francisco’s public transportation system. Its 100+ miles of track connect San Francisco to the Peninsula and East Bay, and by 2016 will extend south to downtown San Jose.
Much of the comedy happening in San Francisco (and Oakland, for that matter) takes place in the BART-accessible neighborhoods of SoMa, the Tenderloin, and the Mission. The rest are a (usually) quick bus-ride away.
4. You’re Going to Spend Some Time at the Laundromat
On most nights, there are three to five open mics within San Francisco (Friday and Saturday being the exceptions) with at least that many also happening in nearby cities. If you’re willing to put in the effort, you can get up 15+ times a week.
The keystone of the open mic scene is the Brainwash Laundromat & Cafe’s Thursday night open mic, run for the last 15 years by Tony Sparks, the “Godfather” of San Francisco Comedy. The Brainwash currently hosts mics and showcases four nights per week, as well as a monthly Saturday show.
5. There Are Two Main Comedy Clubs
There are two comedy clubs in San Francisco, the Punch Line and Cobb’s. Both are owned by Live Nation.
The audition process starts with the Sunday Showcase at the Punch Line. You purchase a punch card, show up for a year, and then get your chance to do five minutes. If that goes well, you get back up in three to six months, eventually graduating to off-night Cobb’s showcases and an audition if all goes according to plan. If you pass your audition, you’re added to the rotation of openers, which currently numbers around 70.
Even if you’re not one of the dozen or so comics performing, Sunday nights at the Punch Line offer some of the best opportunities to meet other locals, as there are generally 50+ comics in attendance every week.
6. There’s A Lot More Independent Rooms
Live Nation may have a chokehold on the clubs, but there are up to a dozen additional shows going on any given night in bars, black boxes, and basements across the city. It takes time and effort to get a new show going. The Business, one of the most successful independent shows in San Francisco (and now with offshoots in New York & Los Angeles) took several years to hit its stride, but now consistently sells out.
Even in a city with as much going on as San Francisco, the audiences are there if you’re willing to put in the work. Current New York comic Jabari Davis’ shows at the late Purple Onion and Stroy Moyd’s ongoing shows at the 500-seat Great Star Theatre are notable examples of recent independent success.
7. You Are Not Alone
San Francisco proper has about 750,000 residents, but the Greater Bay Area contains 10 times that many, as well as four additional comedy clubs. The two East Bay clubs, E One Entertainment & Tommy T’s, as well as the San Jose Improv an hour to the south, pull their hosts from the stables of local comics that produce off-night (usually Wednesday) showcases at each respective club.
Rooster T. Feather’s, also in the San Jose area, books hosts from their weekly Wednesday “New Talent Night” and annual comedy competition. Santa Cruz has at least one show every night of the week. The North Bay has several monthly shows. Sacramento and its four additional comedy clubs is just 90 miles up Interstate 80.
8. You May Hit Your Head
San Francisco is a great place to develop, but there’s no industry here. You still need to move to New York or Los Angeles. Great comics come out of San Francisco all the time (Al Madrigal, W. Kamau Bell, Ali Wong, Moshe Kasher, Emily Heller, Alex Koll, Greg Edwards, and Chris Garcia all within the last couple years for example), but the key is in the leaving.
Once you’re featuring regularly at Cobb’s and the Punchline, there’s nowhere else to go. San Francisco has a low ceiling. Fortunately it’s just a 5-hour drive to Los Angeles, giving Bay Area comics ample opportunity to get comfortable with the LA scene before making the move.
9. It’s Not Quite What It Used to Be
But really, what is? San Francisco has been a hotbed of stand-up since the early 70’s, peaking at 14 full-time comedy clubs during the comedy boom. It now has two. While the annual Comedy Day still draws a few thousand people to Golden Gate Park every fall, it’s well down from the 20,000 that attended at its peak.
The San Francisco Comedy Competition still attracts solid talent locally and from around the country, but in the age of YouTube, is no longer the career-maker it once was. A glance at the list of past finalists reveals some pretty impressive names.
There is new blood however! Now in its 13th year, SF Sketchfest has expanded from its humble 2002 beginnings of six sketch groups in one theater to become a nearly three-week-long festival embracing all things comedy in venues across the city. At least three other local stand-up festivals and celebrations are also planning to debut over the next year.
10. Get To Know BACN
The best way to stay up to date on the happenings of the San Francisco stand up scene is the Bay Area Comedy Network Facebook group. It can be difficult to stay on top of everything within a community the size of San Francisco’s, especially given the fluid nature of comedy rooms. A list of all the shows, open mics, and community news in the Greater Bay Area is posted to the group each day.
Matt Gubser is a San Francisco Bay Area comedian who compiles The Rundown, a daily list of Bay Area stand-up shows and open mics. Follow him on Twitter.
2 thoughts on “10 Things You Should Know About The San Francisco Comedy Scene”
Thanks for the Comedy Day mention. Quick correction: Comedy Day, the original, longest-running free outdoor comedy festival in the world, peaked in attendance in 1988 and 1989 when it drew more than 60,000 comedy fans to the Polo Field in Golden Gate Park. It tappered off to an average of about 25,000 fans through most of the 1990s. Audiences now average in the 5,000 range for the five-hour free funniest.
I use to live in SF and performed for ten years before getting married and having kids. It was a great comedy scene in the 90’s and easy to get on stage five nights a week. I made some good friends, Rob Schneider, Margaret Cho and Bob Rubin. The only advice I have is if you want to be good at performing you need alot of stage time