No one who is paying any attention to the national political situation, or the gradual escalation of climate change, or the ever rising cost of housing in California is likely to believe that 2019 will somehow have more laughs than 2018.
But, at least in Santa Cruz, one guy believes it. In fact, he’s going to make it happen.
He’s the stand-up comic known as DNA, and for more than a decade he’s been doggedly working toward a goal that he hopes will finally come to fruition on New Year’s Eve: his own comedy club.
This weekend, Oct. 4-7, DNA will preside over the fifth annual Santa Cruz Comedy Festival, when once again almost every flat surface in downtown Santa Cruz will feature a comedian attempting to entertain a crowd. For those keeping score, that’s 60 comics at 11 venues, beginning Thursday, Oct. 4 with a kick-off party at the Blue Lagoon, and running through Sunday, Oct. 6 with a finale, also at the Blue Lagoon, featuring Comedy Central regular Kyle Kinane.
After that, DNA will turn his attention to the opening of DNA’s Comedy Lab and Experimental Theater in the space formerly occupied by the Regal Riverfront Twin theater in downtown Santa Cruz.
The Comedy Lab will not be a traditional comedy club, says its future impresario. “That’s not really who I am,” he says. “I’m not the owner of the Bada Bing. I’m not that comfortable in that environment.”
For months, DNA had been evaluating the retail property once occupied by Radio Shack on Soquel Avenue, a space that would have lent itself to a traditional comedy club. The former Riverfront Twin, by contrast, is an old movie house with one 400-seat theater and another 200-seater. DNA plans to use the larger space to host stand-up comics, locals and Bay Area comics as well as nationally recognized names. In the smaller room, he’ll bring in experimental and avant garde theater productions.
In past years at the Comedy Festival, DNA has staged the kind of offbeat theater/sketch comedy that he’s interested in bringing to the new venue. Last year, the festival included a staged representation of an old Twilight Zone episode, as well as DNA’s own original concept called The Last Late Night Show, in which a TV talk show grappled with impending planetary doom on the last night on Earth, “you know, just like the band playing on the deck of the Titanic as it sunk.”
As examples of the kinds of productions he would be interested in, DNA pointed to a play about the life of rock star Alice Cooper or an all-female adaptation of Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs. “We have a very strong theater community here,” he says, “but I don’t often see things to my taste, which runs toward a little more strange and weird.”
As far as the stand-up comedy element goes, the Comedy Lab will attempt to takes its place in the Northern California comedy circuit, which includes Cobb’s Comedy Club or the Punchline in San Francisco, or Rooster T. Feather’s in Sunnyvale. Many of the comics who have performed at the Comedy Festival in recent years are vets of the Bay Area comedy circuit.
“I think we can be a stop on that circuit,” says DNA. “When a big headliner comes to Cobb’s or the Punchline on a Thursday, Friday or Saturday night, we can probably get them to come down for a Sunday, Monday or Tuesday show. But every Thursday, Friday and Saturday, we’ll have shows.”
While including brand-name comics when it can get them, the new club will mostly feature working comics that operate below mainstream awareness. As an analogy, DNA points to beer. “People really enjoy their microbrews. Sure, there are the national brands out there, but these smaller, uncommon brewers, they have their fans too. That’s the kind of comedy I like, the smaller names, the ones you haven’t heard of yet,” he says. “I’ll be bringing in the people you’ll hear about tomorrow or five years from now. Isn’t that exciting, to see someone early on in their career?”
Additionally, the new club will give local would-be comedians a chance to showcase their material with occasional “Funniest Person in Santa Cruz” or “Funniest Person at UC Santa Cruz” evenings. “My motto,” says DNA, “is that I want to build community through laughter.”
Before coming to Santa Cruz in the early 2000s, DNA ran his own club in Chico, bringing live comedy and other programming to a turn-of-the-century vaudeville house. For more than a decade now, he’s been in Santa Cruz programming comedy in a number of venues including the Poet and the Patriot, Rosie McCann’s, the Kuumbwa Jazz Center and the Blue Lagoon. In its fifth year, the Comedy Festival has grown to accommodate more venues, including Pure Pleasure, Streetlight Records and, a first for this year, Bookshop Santa Cruz.
Stand-up comedy is a relatively new art form that is experiencing a pivotal moment in its cultural history. The Lenny Bruce/George Carlin mode of speak-truth-to-power comedy has infiltrated the late-night platform popularized by Johnny Carson to create a chorus of late-night hosts with stand-up chops who have become central and influential voices in America’s ongoing political debates. At the highest levels, comics have attained nearly mythological rock-star status in American culture from the beloved (Robin Williams) to the reviled (Bill Cosby). At the same time, stand-up seems to be everywhere, particularly on the internet where YouTube catalogs the battalions of comics working the circuits and Netflix showcases comics who are working with innovative forms such as Bo Burnham and Hannah Gadsby.
This expanding cultural power of stand-up comedy means that maybe young people are climbing on open-mic stages with the same kind of frequency that they were forming bands a generation or two ago. DNA says that few art forms can provide the electrical charge of live comedy, and in an increasingly mediated world, audiences recognize that power.
“There is an uptick in live entertainment right now, because people are hungry for the truth,” he says. “They’re hungry for something that is not adulterated, pre-packaged, homogenized, masticated for your consumption. Live comedy is raw. What happens is real. A live audience is the living organism of what’s going on in the room at any show. And being a part of that live audience changes you, I think, on a molecular level. I think it rearranges your brain on how you relate being part of a society. It’s great to watch stuff on your phone and on Netflix and all of that. But you’re not part of anything. You’re just alone having light shot into your eyes.”
Top 5 for Comedy Fest
The Santa Cruz Comedy Festival has so much stuff in both volume and variety that it can be a bit intimidating to negotiate if you’ve never been before. But you don’t have to be a victim of what psychologists call “choice overload.” The culmination of the festival is Saturday night’s All-Star Showcase at the Kuumbwa Jazz Center. But there are a lot of other cool things, too. Here are five of the festival’s highlights. For more info, go to standupsantacruz.com.
Stand Up Santa Cruz: The Movie: The Comedy Festival and the Santa Cruz Film Festival collide in the form of this entertaining new documentary that offers a street-level view of the scruffy, bizarro world of Santa Cruz comedy and the misfits that populate it, written and narrated by Comedy Festival impresario DNA. “One thing you might notice,” DNA deadpans early on in the film, “is that cannabis is legal in Santa Cruz. Not only is it legal, it’s mandatory to get through the day.” If you’re curious about “barberoke,” or the corndog hustle in Santa Cruz, it’s a must-see. Friday, 9:15 p.m. Tannery Arts Center.
Vegan Comedy Showcase: To carnivorous snobs everywhere, vegans and comedy are two circles that never quite touch. But long-time vegan DNA ain’t havin’ it: “You know who can’t take a joke—it’s meat eaters,” he says. Testing that theory will be a number of meat-free comics including irascible New York Eddie “Bitter Buddha” Pepitone, who often makes Lewis Black look like a mellow hippie. Saturday, 8 p.m. Blue Lagoon. $25 advance; $30 at the door.
Four Authors, Four Comics, One Night: Bookshop Santa Cruz joins the list of venues for the Comedy Festival this year with this oh-so-literary evening featuring comics Alison Littman, Robert Berry, DNA and Keith Lowell Jensen, who will be discussing his new book Punching Nazis and Other Good Ideas, a collection of essays about his experience in the Sacramento punk-rock scene and his encounters with white supremacists and Nazis. Cue nervous laughter. Saturday, 5 p.m., Bookshop Santa Cruz, free.
Pure Pleasure Comedy: If you’re not familiar with the wares on sale at Pure Pleasure, think twice before inviting your grandmother along for a shopping excursion. The Santa Cruz sex toy shop will be the site for a comedy show featuring (mostly) female performers, including headliner Emily Van Dyke, who says she’s not always comfortable in sex shops. “Do you have any bondage gear that billows?” Saturday, 8 p.m., Pure Pleasure, Cooper Street, Santa Cruz. $25 advance; $30 at the door.
Comedy Brunch: Even though it’s universally popular (who doesn’t like brunch?) the Comedy Festival gives its audiences an incentive to eat great food on a sleepy weekend morning, this time breaking bread with comedians. Watch out for the spit takes. Saturday, 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., Food Lounge, Santa Cruz, $5.