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Laughing Matter 

Comedy open mics are proliferating all over the North Bay. What's so funny?

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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.

click to enlarge GOLDEN GIRL Helen Pachynski calls herself "the Betty White of Sonoma County."
  • GOLDEN GIRL Helen Pachynski calls herself "the Betty White of Sonoma County."

"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.

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