The czar of local underground comedy explains why anyone—and lately, everyone—would do it
Obviously, to be a good stand-up comic, you have to be funny. But you also have to be a little crazy. In fact, local extreme surfer Stan Meurer, who routinely goes out to surf Mavericks, told me he could nev- er do what I do. This is a guy who faces death when he goes into the ocean, and he doesn’t think he has what it takes to tell jokes onstage with a microphone.
But then, I suppose most surfers don’t spend a lot of time questioning their mortal soul about why they have personally failed as a human being. Being a stand-up comic requires equal measures of not giving a flying
hoot what the audience thinks and caring 100 percent what the audience thinks. Jerry Sein- feld says, “Actors study other people. Comics study them- selves.” This is why so many people do stand-up comedy for a year or two and then bail. It’s ego-shattering. And it takes work to rebuild confidence.
Still, there have been enough comics in Santa Cruz crazy enough to shatter their egos—and enough people who want to witness them doing it—that this city has been a hub for stand-up comedy for more than three decades. And it’s flour- ishing here like never before. Santa Cruz is part of a new comedy boom, the likes of which haven’t been seen since the 1980s.
In any given week, there are several open-mics around town featuring local and Bay Area comics, and bigger names are beginning to stop off in Santa Cruz. In April, Bill Cosby appeared at the Civic Auditorium—his second time in Santa Cruz—and in May, Demetri Martin made his first appearance there. Just recently, the socially conscious truth teller Doug Stanhope performed a sold-out show at Don Quixote in Felton.
Amongst younger comics, there is an inside story everyone knows: from the 1980s through the early ’90s, any comic with a 15-minute act could tour the country and earn enough money to buy a house. Bay Area comedy legend Larry “Bubbles” Brown confirms, “I had been doing comedy for three years when I quit my day job. Everyone I started with began quitting their jobs and making money.” But the early ’90s found the comedy bubble bursting as clubs closed up and opportunities to perform became slim. In 2014, though, new comics are hitting the stage every night, throughout America.
I’m one of those comics who will drive hours to perform five minutes of comedy to a room full of strang- ers. But I also promote comedy shows. Thus, I was pleased when Good Times scribe Jacob Pierce gave me the moniker of “the czar of underground comedy in Santa Cruz.” Honestly, I was on the fence about the title; my people ran away from the czar—and I’m not about to unleash a pogrom on local comedi- ans—but I’ll take it.
Comedy runs through my genes, literally. My grandfather and his brothers ran the Hotel Ander- son in Monticello, New York, in the heart of the Borscht Belt during the 1950s. According to Sid Caesar’s 1982 autobiography, “Where Have I Been?” the Hotel Anderson was where the legendary pioneer of comedy got his first start. People always ask about my name. DNA is an acronym, but my given name was bequeathed upon me from my great-uncle Nachum, the booker of the Hotel Anderson.
True to my namesake, I’ve put on over 3,000 events in the last 20 years, throughout Northern California. Everything from strange, not-so-family-friendly circuses and late-night theatre productions to concerts, festivals, and yes, comedy. Over the years, I’ve learned a couple of basic formulas for putting on a solid show. One is that there needs to be an atmosphere of respect. Two is that beyond all the egos and mental illnesses that artists are known for, putting on a show is entertainment. The audience needs to sense, on a basic level, that everything is safe (or at least, controlled chaos) so they don’t feel compelled to flee. If all this is done right, they leave thinking, “That was great, I need to tell people about this and come back.”
Town of Mirth
As deeply involved as I am in the local scene, I’m not reinventing the comedy wheel—stand-up comedy has a long legacy in Santa Cruz. More than 30 years ago, promoter Jon Fox began booking Sunday night comedy at the defunct Alba- tross at Pleasure Point. When the Albatross went out of business 15 years later, he moved the Sunday night showcase of touring road comics to its current home, the Crow’s Nest—making it one of the longest-standing comedy rooms in all of California.
Fox’s reputation is steeped in legend for having started the Punch- line in 1978 San Francisco, one of America’s most famous comedy clubs. The silver-haired smooth talker has been providing a forum for stand-up comics ever since. He’s mentored people like Mitch Hedberg, and he’s produced the SF International Comedy Competition since its inception in 1976. He intro- duced the first unedited stand-up comedy to cable television when the fledgling Showtime network began broadcasting footage from the finals of the SFICC—a move that helped launch careers for people like Dana Carvey, Eddie Murphy, Robin Williams and Patton Oswalt.
You cannot sum up our town’s comedy history without a tip of the hat to Richard Stockton. In 2007, Stockton started the wildly successful Planet Cruz shows at the Kuumbwa Jazz Center, which featured amazing stand-up comics. While the show is on hiatus, Stockton is manifesting his dream of taking his one-man show on the road. The acclaimed Are We There Yet? is Stockton’s personal take on the dreams of the hippies and the materialism of the Boomers.
The Laughter Renaissance
Currently, there are seven venues providing stand-up comedy gigs in Santa Cruz, five nights a week. From anything-goes open-mics to crafted showcase performances, the opportunity for local comics to constantly work on their sets is expanding.
Santa Cruz comics like Tyler Hinz, Michael Montgomery, Chad Opitz, Trevor Rogers, Dave “Supe” Salisbury, Ben Switzer, Cassidy Wren-Munn, Vincent Chuang, George Kane, Big Bill, Elaine Sabatino, and others can be seen every week at various locations, refining their ma- terial and dealing with drunks. And every semester a new influx of UC Santa Cruz comics comes along— this year’s highlights being Hannah Marianetti and Jon Alcabes.
Over the last year, rooms hosting a comedy night have come and gone, as new promoters learn the ropes. Running a room, even for a night, is a challenging affair. Securing the venues and advertising is an arduous task. Booking the show—and, in the case of showcases, crafting a line-up and getting everyone there—can be stressful. Hosting the show, making sure it runs on time, and giving comics the “light” to let them know they are almost done is hectic. Then there is the task of coming up with new material each week as host—all for little money, or no money, or losing money. It is time-consuming and it takes mastery, or an OCD, to wear all the hats at the same time with- out freaking out.
A room takes at least a year to find its footing, establish a routine and find a groove. Often venues and locations don’t have the patience to wait it out, and promoters may not have the patience to grow a healthy room—which leads to rooms popping in and out like sub-atomic particles. Since it gets confusing to know where to go each night, I, along with Half Moon Bay comedian Phil Griffiths, developed a website that highlights all the comedy in Santa Cruz and the central coast: standupsantacruz.com.
Despite the challenges, Santa Cruz has been enjoying a fairly consistent lineup of new rooms with an open mic format. On Mondays, Stoney Godet hosts a show at Surf City Billiards, which allows everyone to get a chance at the mic. The Red Room has become a favorite place for stand-up on Tuesday nights, hosted by Ben Switzer. George Kane endures an open-mic format Wednesdays at The Mediterranean in Aptos, and also crafts a showcase twice a month at Iveta Café on the Westside. And on Sundays and Thursdays, locals are refining their acts at The Blue Lounge and Britannia Arms in Capitola, respectively—both hosted by Big Bill, Stoney Godet and a guy named Hamburger. Joe Hughes is on the trail to find a new venue to replace his successful shows at It’s Wine Tyme in Capitola, and other spots are becoming hip to the comedy wave as well, including The Tannery, where I host a monthly comedy show on the last Wednesday of every month.
Coming up in October, the first ever Santa Cruz Music and Comedy Festival will take place downtown, and I’m hoping to line up 10 comedy shows at 10 venues all in one night.
The Dark Underside
Cliques are not uncommon in comedy scenes. Comics of the same caliber tend to gravitate toward one another, pushing each other to be better. The fact is that the high majority of stand-up comics are slightly (some more than others) unhinged. We all have a perverse need to be heard on a microphone.
Sometimes after a show you will hear comics saying (or posting) that they “killed”—comedy parlance for “had an amazing set and everyone laughed until they fell on the floor in convulsions”—even if all anyone else witnessed was a stutter-stop diatribe where some people in the audience were vaguely not disinterested. There is no group of people in the world more delusional than stand-up comics.
But this delusion is actually a safeguard against the comic completely breaking down. Some- where in a comic’s mind there is this chatter: These jokes suck. Nobody cares. These people are looking at me like I’m insane. Maybe I am crazy. Why do I think that these people want to hear my thoughts when I don’t even want to hear them anymore? I have made a lot of horrible decisions in my life. This is the worst.
If doubt is the dragon, delusion is the sword that slays it. Years of continued hard work shift the elusive fantasy of “killing” to the reality of understanding the delicate craft of stand-up. Fact is, some people who have never done stand-up can get on stage and have excellent sets. There are so many variables in comedy. A joke might work one night with one crowd, but the same joke might bomb another night with a different crowd. The craft is to keep doing it, and the art is to be able to listen to your inner workings—to be able to change your wording at the last minute, based on cues from the audience, and to observe the universe at large and translate life experiences into something hilarious on stage. Night after night.
I watch comics like some people watch racehorses or baseball players. I want to find new talent that I can use in bigger shows, and I want to give people opportunities. Santa Cruz is like a breeding ground, a place for comedians to refine their acts so that when they go to the Bay Area scene they at least fit in.
The Blue Lagoon show was originally started by Lindsay Blaz, and every Thursday night for the last six years I have tried to create a professional production, one that would be similar to something you would find in a major city. Why? I believe stand-up comedy might be the last vestige of pure information in America. As the information sourced through the Internet becomes more edited, redacted and censored as time goes on, live stand-up comedy shows are the litmus test for unbridled thought. Something powerful happens when an audience and comic are on the same page—when bubbling laughter erupts into uproarious hilarity.
Yes, stand-up can be as dangerous as surfing Mavericks, with comics routinely ending up in the bone yard, with a crushed soul. But in its highest form, it can challenge belief systems and change how we all relate to each other. Within those sacred moments, healing begins. DNA
THEY BRING THE LAUGHS
Brendan Lynch, Mike Montgomery and Chad Optiz are at the forefront of Santa Cruz’s new wave of comedy
Not every big event has a magical beginning. I don’t remember the first time I went to comedy night at the Blue Lagoon four or five years ago, probably because it wasn’t very memorable. Like so many other artistic projects, all the event needed was someone who refused to quit, someone like comedy promoter DNA.
Good results take patience. Take it from Malcolm Gladwell who wrote in his book “The Outliers” that it requires 10,000 hours—five years of full-time work—to become an expert at some- thing. Take it from any successful blog- ger or podcaster who spent months hustling and waiting for fans to catch on to their work. Or take it from DNA, who after more than a half decade of handing out fliers and telling everyone he meets to come out, has started to build something special.
Comics now drive from all over the Bay Area to do a five-minute set of stand-up, open-mic style, and try out new material at the Blue. People touring the country often stop in for a night as well. Someone headlining the
Blue Lagoon for five or ten minutes one Thursday might be opening for Robin Williams the following night.
More importantly, the Blue Lagoon gave comics a network to start opening up their own comedy rooms around the county. In addition to big-event show- cases like Richard Stockton’s Planet Cruz, comedy lovers can now see stand up in Santa Cruz six nights a week—ev- erywhere from Surf City Billiards to The Mediterranean in Aptos. Something big is brewing.
The consensus among Santa Cruz comedians and many art fans is that without DNA, who took over the Blue’s show six years ago, no other weekly comedy rooms would have opened up.
And without his persistence, the Blue’s room might not have survived either. “This is the one who started it all,” comedian Chad Opitz says. “Nobody would be getting any time initially if this one did not exist. And it was so good that it made people want to start their own rooms.”
Here are three local comics who are making names for themselves, leaving their marks on Santa Cruz and using open mics, like the one at the Blue Lagoon, as platforms for their next level.
Brendan Lynch: Santa Cruz’s Angriest Comic
Brendan Lynch looks clean-cut tonight at the Blue Lagoon in a plaid collared shirt and zip-up sweatshirt, his beard and curly black hair trimmed shorter than normal. He sets his iPhone to record as he yells at the audience.
“This is the most important set of my life!” Lynch says. A college-aged guy in the audience, one who’s prob- ably seen him before, squeals with laughter. This is what happens when fans see Lynch get onstage—they shriek in nervous anticipation of his angry, dry wit before the comic even starts. They think they have a connec- tion with him. They’re not always right. “That’s not a joke, you fucking idiot,” Lynch shoots back.
And for once, Lynch isn’t really joking. The comedian who grew up in Santa Cruz and now lives in San Francisco has been recording his own seven-minute sets around the Bay Area for weeks now. What the crowd doesn’t know is that Lynch is getting ready to do a segment for Comedy Central that will air this summer.
When he listens to the recording later, he’ll break it apart and try to learn something.
Lynch launches into a set about why he’s afraid of balloon animals, what’s wrong with goatees, and why one should never dine and dash from a Kenyan restaurant. But it’s Lynch’s intensity, and the way he talks to his audience, that sets him apart.
I remember once watching him stray from his prepared material to yell at a guy with a T-shirt for the ’90s band Soundgarden. The audience was howling. After a minute of unrelenting badgering the man for his questionable fashion and music sense, Lynch paused and asked, “Did your shirt come out of a ‘Black Hole Sun’?”—referencing the band’s 1994 hit. Silence. You can’t help feeling bad for a comedian in this moment, and wonder whether or not he’ll recover.
“The fact that that joke bombed proves how lame [that shirt] is,” Lynch said. The crowd roared with laughter all over again.
Although there’s something nerve-racking about sitting in Lynch’s audience when you see his act, it isn’t as menacing as it sounds. Still the abrasive approach is paying off for Lynch, who was named one of SF Weekly’s comics to watch last year and the runner-up in last fall’s San Francisco Comedy Competition.
Not that such information is readily available.
The notoriously aloof comedian has no website. It’s impossible to find a good recent photograph of him online, let alone a video. With a Comedy Central appearance around the corner, it would seem to be a good time to open up. Still he’s refusing to do interviews with any reporters, including myself. (My theory is he wants us to write things like “Lynch is the most mysterious comedian I’ve ever seen” and “Sources tell me he lives in a cave.”)
I have not been immune to Lynch’s antics myself. He’s hassled me from the stage with his intense, menacing gaze. But each time I chat with him after a set at the Blue, Lynch could not be any more polite.
As for who the real Brendan Lynch is, I’ll just have to guess and wonder, and, until he opens up, I guess the rest of the world will, too.
Mike Montgomery: Get Uncomfortable
The weather’s getting warmer, and Mike Montgomery can’t get enough of it. He loves warm weather, he tells an apprehensive crowd at The Tannery’s Art Bar, because that’s when girls start walking around in cut-off jeans shorts.
“I bet you know what I’m thinking when I say that: I miss my dad, “Montgomery explains as he opens his set. “My dad ruined that for me. He wore cut-off jeans shorts my whole life. We called them his Daddy Dukes.”
Montgomery’s opener, which develops into increasingly funny stories about his father, illustrates a line that he walks throughout his act: creating an awkward moment by acting like he’s launching into an egotistical diatribe— as if he were a red-headed, more sexist Dane Cook. Then Montgomery relieves that tension with a funny surprising turn that makes fun of himself more than anyone else.
“There’s a lot of misdirection involved,” he explains after his set. “And if you can build people up, it’s like you build up all the air in the balloon. And then you relieve the pressure, and they get to laugh. Comedy a lot of times is a weird balance between tension and release. You can build them up because they get that a lot in normal life, but what they don’t get is the release. They get to laugh about it.”
Montgomery, a U.S. Navy veteran, is currently a communications student at Cal State East Bay, keeping his nights open for comedy.
He keeps his act loose, drafting up a rough outline before each set, but he only follows it about half the time, he says. He likes being onstage because it’s one of the only times the racing thoughts in his brain slow down for a couple of minutes. That’s his meditation.
“If people are laughing, and it’s a good show,” he says. “I don’t really think. Sometimes I don’t even think about what I’m going to say next.”
Chad Opitz: Absurd Bearded Wonder
Chad Opitz first began his performing life as a musician, a keyboardist playing originals like “I Married a Necro” with electronic drumbeats.
But he had a hard time getting music gigs, and decided to try stand-up comedy one night at the Blue Lagoon. The whole comedy thing quickly proved more complex and interesting to him because it always poses new challenges.
“You constantly have to learn new things and do things in a different way with different audiences, and I really like how the response is immediate,” Opitz says. “If something doesn’t work, you know right away. That’s very different than music. With music you don’t really know if you’re doing great. People are just sitting there watching. Then they clap at the end and watch the next song—clap. It’s a much different performance.”
And growing as a comedian, Opitz says, often boils down to breaking down variables for what’s working and what isn’t: did people not laugh at something because it clashed with an earlier joke, or because I screwed up the delivery?
Is the crowd uptight, or is the joke just not funny?
“It’s a lot of times it’s pretty con- fusing,” Opitz admits.
In his routine, Opitz, who has a bushy brown beard, has many jokes that start with an amusing premise that builds on itself—soon getting taken to absurd extremes. His humorous observations about how cool electronic cigarettes look, for example, segues into visions of robots smoking them in bed after having robot sex. For good measure, he explains what robot sex smells like, for those who don’t already know: “Have you ever held onto a bunch of pennies for a while?”
That’s a line that always gets laughs. “I think people have done that and know that smell maybe. They’ll react to it,” he says.
Opitz does stand-up two to five times a week these days after first trying his hand at it two and a half years ago when the only spot in town to try out new jokes was the Blue.
“Now there’s just so many more opportunities to get time,” Opitz says. “In the past year, I feel I’ve grown way more than in the first year, because there were just not many other places to go.” Jacob Pierce