Out of all the terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad things that can happen to a person in this world, there are two of which I'm most afraid: death by fiery plane crash is the first, followed closely by performing standup comedy.
So how is it I've ended up on a brightly lit stage, microphone gripped in my sweaty palm, about to try and make a bunch of strangers laugh?
My journey to this particularly terrifying scenario started months ago, after a friend who was taking classes at the San Francisco Comedy College started doing standup in the North Bay. Rather than moving to San Francisco, more and more aspiring comics seemed to be sticking it out in Sonoma County, making something out of what was once nothing.
"How hard can standup comedy really be?" I thought. And with that, I started checking out the scene for myself.
My first stop is at a surprising venue: Guayakí Mate Bar in Sebastopol. Since 2010, after answering a Craigslist ad for a comedy show host, Heidi Bartlett has hosted the "Horsin' Around" open mic night at the organic tea bar. The first night Bartlett booked was less than stellar attendance-wise, with only Guayakí's David Turconi, his wife and son and two others in the audience. "I was like, how am I going to fill two hours?" says Bartlett.
She didn't have to worry for long, however, as Guayakí's monthly comedy night ended up taking off. Now audiences number in the high dozens, a mix of comedians and fans who come out to see about 15 comics perform along with a headliner. "I have to turn people away," says Bartlett. With sign-ups required, there's always a waiting list for that five minutes of fame.
What people do with that five minutes varies, and performers on this Wednesday night are hit-and-miss. There's a hilarious bit about the Petaluma corn maze from a middle-aged, self-proclaimed "Republican comic"; there's also a not-funny-in-the-least bit about how women get ugly and wrinkled as they get older from a red-faced, wrinkly fellow with a British accent. It's a reminder that making people laugh is probably one of the most difficult and subjective tasks around. What's acceptable to one person (Daniel Tosh's notorious gang-rape "joke," for example) might rightly send another into a frenzy.
Still, the diversity of comics at Guayakí, whether clever or offensive, is a sign of a scene that's in high gear. "Before our show took place, there weren't any [open mic nights]," Bartlett says. "Now there's more than one a week. The scene has exploded. Because the demand was so high for my show, a number of people created their own shows throughout the county."
Ricky Del Rosario, a Sonoma County–based comedian who once shared a manager with George Lopez, recently began hosting an open mic at Heritage Public House in Santa Rosa. After cultivating a thriving standup career beginning in 1994, the SSU graduate took a nine-year break to focus on his wife and children. He returned to the scene in 2009, and says there's been a zero-to-60 jump in venues.
"There was no comedy scene back when I started," he says. "At the time, I was going to San Francisco, L.A—but I had nowhere around here to really practice my new material. When I started up again, I started going to open mics, and after that they just started popping up everywhere. It's fantastic. I have a chance to practice all new material all the time."
The open mic at Doc Holliday's Saloon, where I eventually make my "debut," sprang up this past year. Hosted by local standup comedian (and, by day, Home Depot carpet guy) Marty Carrion, it's become one of the more popular "rooms."
On a recent night, Helen Pachynski, a retired financial adviser and former society matron who lives in Santa Rosa, takes the stage at Doc Holliday's. A pixyish woman with an Audrey Hepburn haircut, Pachynski is all style and grace, even while making jokes about vibrators and sex with the gardener. Her routine revolves around re-entering the dating scene after the death of her husband three years ago. Best joke? "At my age, men are like parking spaces. The good ones are all taken and the rest are handicapped."
Onstage, Pachynski's a firecracker, and she absolutely kills. She's got the audience eating out of her hand. I'll soon take this same stage, and I know I can learn something from her.
"I'm the Betty White of Sonoma County," Pachynski tells me with a laugh. "I'm always the oldest at any venue. I'm 67 years old, and I make no bones about it."
Pachynski's got a pro attitude, and she assures me that comedy is possible for almost everyone—with preparation. She's been at this comedy thing for two years, since debuting at the Guayakí Mate Bar. Now she performs in front of hundreds of people at a time, everywhere from San Francisco's Purple Onion to the Moose Lodge ("A lot of bluehairs there," she says).
"Most comedy is based on personal experience," she advises. "It's just relating these little ordinary things. They become funny in the way that you present them or talk about them." The most important thing is to prepare and practice ahead of time, she adds.
"It gives you confidence, and you know you have another line to back you up," says Pachynski. This is essential, because inevitably, as I'm soon to learn from first-hand experience, aspiring comics will end up at one time or another with a stone-faced audience that doesn't laugh at a punch line. And what are you going to do then? Cry?
After her first night at Guayakí, Pachynski kept returning to perform and perfect her material. It was there that she met Juan Carlos, another up-and-coming comedian. Juan Carlos is one-third of the crew behind Monkey Fight Productions, which hosts regular comedy showcase nights at the Sweet River Grill and Bar (where deadpan comedy master Mitch Hedberg once performed in the '90s), Christy's on the Square and Gaia's Garden.
With jokes that often revolve around being a chronically single Latino man and a Mexican immigrant who's been in the country illegally since he was nine and can't seem to catch a citizenship break from the U.S. government, Juan Carlos turns tragedy into comedy. "I come from a really poor family, so around the household we didn't have Disneyland or Great America; we didn't have the dream to go to those places, so we kept entertaining each other, doing jokes and stuff," he says.
The 33-year-old Santa Rosa resident says that when he first started doing comedy four years ago, he had to travel as far as Dublin for comedy open mics. "Now these people are really spoiled," he says. "When I first started, I traveled three hours to this tiny Chinese restaurant where they had an open mic and there were three people there. I went up for a minute and a half, and for the first minute, the host talked over my set!"
But the invitations started coming in, from places like the Punchline and the Purple Onion in San Francisco, and soon, Juan Carlos was asked to perform at Mark Pitta and Friends, a weekly showcase at 142 Throckmorton Theatre in Mill Valley. Pitta is renowned for giving new comics a chance, and even more so, for attracting spontaneous appearances by famous friends like Dana Carvey and Robin Williams.
Juan Carlos says he wanted to bring what he'd learned from experiences in the bigger rooms of the Bay Area back to his hometown. He started Monkey Fight Productions in 2011 with Marco Alvarez and Mike Olsen, as a way to expand on the open mic concept. They bring in a different headliner each month and ask local comics to "open" with five- to seven-minute bits.
"I go to a lot of open mics to try my own material, and I'll see who's putting an effort into it, who's becoming more polished in their act, and invite them to a show," Juan Carlos says.
Recently, he asked "Uncle" Charlie Adams (whose "claim to semi-fame" is rapping, including the "Angry Old Guy Rap") to perform in one of the showcases after seeing him perform.
"You see a change in people, even down to their posture," says Juan Carlos. "They do their showcase, and do well, and you can tell they're different people, they're better people. It's like a miracle."
He says the growth in the Sonoma County comedy scene is like a "one-eighty," where an aspiring comic might have an opportunity to check out an open mic or a comedy showcase three times a week. Marco Alvarez, his partner in Monkey Fight, agrees.
"It's blowing up," Alvarez says. "It's cool because we don't have to take the drive to the city, but it does get you comfortable, and you don't want to get too comfortable in the scene."
Alvarez began pursuing standup after taking a comedy class with Santa Rosa Junior College communications professor Nick Hoffman. A thin, wiry man with rockabilly style, Alvarez tosses around the word "fuck" and references to cocaine liberally during his act. This isn't clean comedy, by any means. I ask Alvarez for advice about how to make an audience laugh, and he says it's all about delivery. "Funny is relative to your audience," he explains. "You can be a jerk about it or you can be the guy that people want to hang out with."
I take this as a sign that I need to work on my stage persona, especially since my humor tends towards sarcasm, a trait that's gotten me into trouble more times than I can count.
And so I reach out to Tony Sparks, whose name has come up in my conversations with many comics. I'm hoping Sparks, nicknamed the "godfather" of the comedy scene and host of the long-running Brainwash comedy open mic in San Francisco, can teach me how not to bomb.
Sparks lives between Santa Rosa and San Francisco, and he's been at this comedy thing for a long time. The Brainwash open mic just celebrated its 14-year anniversary. He's also heavily on the scene in Sonoma County, hosting Monkey Fight shows at Sweet River and Christy's on the Square, and checking out open mics at Jasper O' Farrell's and Spancky's on a regular basis.
Sonoma County audiences are hungry to see new talent and new comedy, Sparks explains. Whereas in the city, people don't tend to be impressed by much, here it's a "brand-new frontier."
"You have a phenomenal group of people, and they understand the business of comedy as a whole," says Sparks. "They understand that we all need one another in the community to make it grow, and they work together."
People should do comedy because they really want to, not because they think they'll make money, says Sparks. Also, study what it takes to write a good joke. And don't get drunk. "It's like playing the piano. If you don't learn the basics, you can't compose your own aria. And by no means, no matter what happens—you lose an eye, an arm, a testicle—don't give up," he says.
A couple of days later, after Sparks introduces me to Doc Holliday's audience, telling them that it's my first time onstage, my hands are shaking, and though I'm not drunk and haven't lost any testicles, I feel slightly woozy. My routine ends up being spotty, with inklings of some bright moments; a joke about how dogs are allowed to copyedit the Bohemian gets some laughs, but another about cat-fur-loving aunts falls flatter than a pancake in a mosh pit—the tomatoes are going to start flying at any moment.
I soldier on, mic in hand. Luckily, a joke about Paula Abdul gets the audience on my side again. Before I know it, my time is up and I've survived without crashing and burning. With such a thriving comedy scene, if I so choose, I could do it again the next day, and again and again until my act maybe gets some finesse to it. It's a scene that's moving "forward," not backward, says Ricky Del Rosario.
And who knows? Maybe one of these intrepid amateurs will become the next Robin Williams. With so many options for honing comedy and creating community in Sonoma County, it's not such a laughable proposition.
Make 'Em Laugh
Comedy open mics in Sonoma County
• Doc Holliday's Saloon, Tuesdays, 8:30pm. 138 Calistoga Road, Santa Rosa. 707.539.4811.
• "Horsin' Around" at Guayakí Yerba Mate Bar, first Wednesday, 7pm. 6782 Sebastopol Ave., Sebastopol. Sign up ahead of time at email@example.com.
• "Short Bus Wednesdays" at Spancky's, second and fourth Wednesdays. 8201 Old Redwood Hwy, Cotati. 707.664.0169. Signups at 8pm, show at 9pm.
• Gaia's Garden, third Wednesday, 9pm.1899 Mendocino Ave., Santa Rosa. 707.544.2491. Sign up ahead of time at firstname.lastname@example.org.
• "Pro/Am Open Mic" at Heritage Public House, first and third Thursdays, 8pm. 1305-A Cleveland Ave., Santa Rosa. 707.540.0395.