For most of his life, Joe Sib has made his own way. The Santa Cruz native—who grew up in the Olive Springs Road outlands of Soquel before moving to San Jose in his teens—had a major-label contract with his pop-punk band Wax by his early 20s. In the mid-90s, he co-founded SideOneDummy Records, the indie label that launched the careers of bands as diverse as Flogging Molly, the Gaslight Anthem and Gogol Bordello. In 2009, he toured a one-man show called California Calling, based on his memories of the 1980s South Bay punk-skate scene that produced Steve Caballero, Corey O’Brien and many others. Not long after, he started touring as a stand-up comedian.
But for maybe his biggest break ever, he needed some help. From his dad.
“The whole reason I’m on tour with Metallica is because of my dad,” Sib admits on a phone call from the road, where he’s finishing up the last of 35 shows he will have done with the Bay Area metal legends by the end of the tour.
The story—and with Sib, there is always a story—goes like this: his extremely OCD nature inspired a habit of calling around to the camps of various big-name comedians when the L.A.-based Sib saw they were coming to Southern California, to ask if they needed an opener. Usually, they did not, but he developed some good relationships over time. One of those paid off in a big way when the publicist for Jim Breuer asked if he wanted to open a San Diego show for Breuer in 2017. He jumped at the chance, and gave his dad a call.
“My dad is retired, he lives in San Diego, and I said, ‘Hey dad, I got a show tonight in San Diego. I’ll swing by, let’s go. It’s with this guy Jim Breuer who used to be on Saturday Night Live, you’re gonna dig him,’” Sib remembers. “So I bring my dad to the show, we’re cruising around, it’s this big theater. And my dad being my dad, when he meets Jim in Jim’s dressing room, they’re immediately talking baseball, and I’m pretty sure my dad made a sandwich out of Jim Breuer’s food. They’re just hanging, dude.”
The show went well, and about a week later, Sib got a call from Breuer, asking if he wanted to open for him in Seattle. And then after that, Canada. That led to what Sib calls “a really great friendship,” and early last year, Breuer asked him to tour with him as his featured opening act. For Sib, it seemed like an important next step—a chance to hone his craft with regular touring, opening for a big-name comic—but the weird thing was, he didn’t even think Breuer had watched his set that first night in San Diego. So what had inspired Breuer to give him the second shot that set him on this path? Yup, his dad.
“That’s what started everything,” says Breuer. “He showed up with his dad. His dad walks in the room, and Joe’s like, ‘Dad, dad, don’t come in,’ and I said, ‘No, it’s all right, come on in. What do you want?’ ‘Well! I’ll have a banana!’ ‘OK, have a banana. You want some coffee?’ ‘Oh, I’d love coffee!’ And Joe’s like, ‘Dad, we’ve got our own room.’ I said, ‘No, he’s all right, it’s okay.’ I didn’t even watch Joe’s act. I could care less at that point. I just thought, ‘Wow, the guy brings his father. Of all the choices, he brings his father.’ He’s already ahead of the game for me. So I just listened to make sure they weren’t booing him or saying he was terrible. And he’s in. The dad got him in.”
“I always tell my dad, ‘Jim was more stoked on you than me,’” says Sib.
Things got a lot crazier later in 2018, when Metallica vocalist and guitarist James Hetfield told Breuer the band wanted to try something radically different for the opening act of their upcoming tour. Specifically, they wanted Breuer—a famously big fan and friend of the band featured in the VH1 documentary When Metallica Ruled the World and the MTV Icon special dedicated to Metallica—to put together a sort of opening show to entertain crowds before they hit the stage every night.
“I had a radio show where we did a game show with the band,” says Breuer. “That started, ‘Hey, you know that thing you did with us on the radio? Will you do that for our fans?’ Then they saw me a year or two ago at Rock on the Range, and I just remember James going, ‘God, man, you should be touring with us. Our fans would eat you up.’ And then out of nowhere about a year ago he texts, ‘Hey we’re thinking about doing something for the fans. We’re not sure what.’”
Not long after, Metallica officially asked Breuer to open their tour. And when drummer Lars Ulrich asked him if he wanted to take anyone along, he mentioned Sib.
“So Lars immediately pops open the computer and says, ‘All right, let me check this out. Joe Sib… OK, SideOneDummy Records, fucking cool,’” says Sib, doing an eerily dead-on Ulrich impression. Luckily, whatever stand-up clip Ulrich saw, he liked. “Lars watches it, he laughs, and goes, ‘All right, I’m down. This guy’s cool with me, talk to James.’ And Jim was like, ‘James will be down.’”
Indeed, by July, everything was set for the September start of the tour. “Jim said, ‘Check it out, I spoke to the band, I spoke to everyone. You’re going,’” says Sib. “And I was like, ‘How does this even happen?’”
One person who is not surprised at all that this happened is Santa Cruz comedian DNA, who first met Sib six years ago at a comedy show where they both performed.
“He told me he was opening for Metallica with Jim Breuer, and I was like, ‘Of course you are,’” says DNA (who is also a GT contributor).
He’s been impressed not only with Sib’s material, but also his presence on stage. “He’s got this infectious energy,” says DNA. “You just feel yourself getting charged up when you’re around Joe Sib.”
That, combined with Sib’s roots in the area, is why DNA chose him to be the inaugural headliner at the opening of DNA’s Comedy Lab and Experimental Theatre on March 22. The first comedy theater to ever open in Santa Cruz, DNA’s Comedy Lab is opening in the space where the Riverfront Twin theater closed last June. For DNA and his three partners—his wife, Jessica Abramson, who’s also the events manager for UCSC’s Arts Division, plus Mike and Susan Pappas, who own True Olive Connection in downtown Santa Cruz—it’s been a 16-month process of screening possible venues around the city: the old Sentinel building, the former Radio Shack location on Soquel, and so on. But this was the only true theater that was available, which was really what they wanted.
“It was meant to be, I think,” says DNA. “If we’d gotten the Radio Shack, it would have to have been a club. That’s not me. I’m this. I’m a theater person.”
In the venue’s two spaces, a 340-seat “Comedy Lab” and a 164-seat “Experimental Theatre,” he wants to do a lot of things besides comedy shows—everything from theatrical productions to movie-riffing nights, improv sketch comedy to classes, live podcasts to puppet shows.
Of course, he has to get the space ready first, and when DNA opens the front door to let me take a look at the progress a week-and-a-half before opening, he’s a little bleary-eyed. He hasn’t been sleeping, and can’t exactly remember what kind of hours he’s been keeping.
“I live here, basically, at this point,” he says. “I’m like Jack Torrance in The Shining, I just kind of wander the halls. But it’s 15,000 square feet, so I’m getting in my steps. My Fitbit is blowing up.”
Mike Pappas, who’s been overseeing the construction aspect of the project, drops in with some supplies and updates. He was the one who originally approached DNA after one of DNA’s annual comedy festivals, asking him what he wanted to do next. When DNA told the Pappases about his dream of opening a comedy venue here, they said they wanted to be involved. They’ve seen DNA throw himself into building the comedy scene in Santa Cruz, from his years of hosting underground shows at the Blue Lagoon to the comedy festivals, and now this.
“This is a whole other level he’s bringing it to,” says Mike. “I’m excited that we stumbled across this space. This is a no-brainer. Very little upgrade—more clean-up than anything.”
That said, they had to build stages, and they’ve given the place quite a bit more polish than it had when it was the Regal theater chain’s dumping ground for B-to-Z grade movies. And there is still the green room to do …
“I woke up at 5 a.m. this morning because I was really freaked out about the green room,” says DNA. “How’s it going to get done in time?”
But he cycles back around to his trademark calm, which fits in much better with the Grateful Dead song floating through the background. “It’s coming together, man. Piece by piece.”
Before things all got quite so crazy, DNA and Abramson did have time to go see Breuer and Sib at the Sacramento stop of Metallica’s tour. He came back impressed.
“They do this whole show for 20,000 people,” says DNA. “It’s incredible.”
LIGHT ME ON FIRE
However incredible the show may be now, Sib is brutally honest about the fact that it started out as a work in progress. There was really no way for him and Breuer to practice what they had planned for the shows, and the first gig didn’t go too well.
“After the first night in Madison, Wisconsin, there were people straight-up telling me on Instagram, ‘If you ever come back to Madison, I will light you on fire,’” he says. “People were not stoked.”
But the next morning, he was at Breuer’s room at 7 a.m. with a bunch of new ideas.
“Honestly, he could have been like, ‘No offense, but they hired me,’” says Sib. “Instead, he just starts laughing and was like, ‘Let’s do this. Let’s build this thing together.’ He was so open to ideas, and he came with so many ideas. We sat down and took our pieces of paper out, and wrote down the things that worked and wrote down the things we didn’t want to do, and there was just no ego involved. It was such a collaboration. That’s when I knew we were going to be friends for life.”
The duo managed to turn things completely around by the next show, and that’s when they figured out what has become their template. It’s certainly not like any opening act Metallica—or anybody else—has ever seen. And they’re playing to much larger crowds than they expected.
“Lars told us, ‘Do whatever you guys want to do, but don’t be bummed, because there will probably only be five people in the arena when you’re there.’ So I was like, ‘OK, that’s not a lot of pressure.’ But I go on at 7, and Jim comes on at 7:30, and every night when I come on it’s already half-full, and by the time Jim hits the stage, it’s at capacity,” says Sib. “The show that we do is literally a two-hour show. It reminds me of being a kid when I was living in San Jose, and my dad would go away for the weekend, and I would throw a rager at my house. You get a keg, you’re playing music, and after you get done playing music, a band would play. Except in this case, it’s Metallica.”
Sib opens by going out with a laptop and pumping up the crowd, telling them he’s going to be their DJ, and inviting them to make requests as his Instagram pops up on the screen behind him. Generally it’s a barrage of Slayer, Anthrax, Motorhead, etc., and Sib plays the metal hits until it’s time to introduce Breuer.
“I say, ‘Here’s your host, your emcee and die-hard Metallica fan, Jim Breuer.’ Jim drops into a combination of storytelling-slash-crowdwork-slash-emcee-slash-Metallica-fan for like 40 minutes. He’s telling stories about when he met Ozzy Osbourne. He’s telling stories about when he went to James’ house for the first time for dinner with his wife, and his wife tells James that her favorite band she ever saw was Bon Jovi. Like that. Good stories, and he’s also interacting with the crowd.”
After that, it’s a mix of music and crowd work, but Sib does have a special bit he does toward the end of their show.
“I tell a story about seeing the … And Justice For All tour at the Cow Palace, and how I had to sit up in the nosebleeds, and I was bummed because I saw everyone on the floor. I told that story to Lars, and he said, ‘Well, why don’t you go up there and bring some people down, then? You can do whatever you want.’ So every night I go to some section and bring down like 10 people onto the floor,” he says. “And dude, people get emotional.”
As the tour nears an end, Sib can’t believe the response they’ve gotten. “You can genuinely feel the energy from the audience,” he says. “Metallica’s smart, they’re friends with Jim, they knew Jim would bring the right show. He didn’t have to bring me, but he did, and I’m so proud of the show we put on. It’s been such a game-changer for me.”
“Joe is a huge motivator,” says Breuer of why he chose Sib. “He’s funny. If I bring up a premise or joke, he knows how to help me elaborate on it, and I do the same with him. He just had a great energy, and it was a perfect storm when Lars asked me, ‘Is there someone you want to bring along?’ I went, ‘Well, Joe’s a big music guy, we need a DJ. I think I got a guy.’”
Breuer says he was never nervous about how the tour would go, but he’s enjoyed learning what works and what doesn’t, gradually perfecting it. “No one’s done this,” he says. “I think we definitely pulled it off. I think the fans really liked it for the most part. The band loves it. It’s been nothing but an extremely positive experience. If we do it again, I’ll be ready to make it even bigger and better.”
Hell, even that first night of the tour isn’t looking so bad, in retrospect. “Jim Breuer and I hold the record for the longest opening act on stage ever for Metallica,” says Sib. “That night in Madison, we were on stage for two hours and 40 minutes. And we survived, dude. Two guys, two microphones, one laptop, and we survived.”
Back at the Comedy Lab, Abramson and Susan Pappas have come to check in before they go get a couch for the green room, hopefully easing DNA’s future early mornings.
“Everybody has 100 things to do. And if everybody is doing their 100 things, we’ll be great,” says Susan cheerily.
“We’ve got so many checklists,” says Abramson. In charge of HR and the process-related side of the project, she’s trying to get up to speed quickly on things like employment law. But she’s always been at home in theaters. In fact, she and DNA met on stage, playing a married couple in a production at the Blue Room Theater in Chico 17 years ago.
“The joke was that we were such bad actors that we actually fell in love,” she says.
DNA says their skill sets have always complemented each other well. Right now he’s on a learning curve too, as he navigates the business of comedy on a larger level.
“I’ve grown up with the guerilla, anti-corporate model, and I need to expand,” he says. Like dealing with more agencies for comedy’s big names, for instance. “I’ve spent the last 12 years making personal relationships with the comedians, so I go straight to the comedians.”
He wants to do it all without losing the essential Santa Cruz-ness of the project. “Our motto is ‘building community through laughter,’” he says. “I think it’s the antidote to the malaise and social isolation that people are facing right now.”
Beyond just the comedy aspect, debuting with someone like Sib is part of that. “Joe walks the walk,” says DNA. “He treats people like human beings. He’s a good soul.”
The feeling is mutual. “I couldn’t be happier for DNA,” says Sib. “DNA does the work of 30 people. Santa Cruz has such a jewel in DNA. This guy loves the comedy scene, he is a comic, he knows talent, he works with young comedians. What I love about him is that he’s not only an entrepreneur—he also cares so much about the comedians. He cares about everybody from the kid that just got up on the mic for the first time ever to the international comic that’s done every festival.”
For Sib, being invited to perform on the opening night of the first comedy club in his hometown takes him back to where his love of comedy came from in the first place. “When I think of stand-up comedy, I think of living with my parents out on Olive Springs Road, out in the middle of nowhere. I think about growing up on that ranch, listening to Richard Pryor and George Carlin, and having my dad keep me up late to watch Saturday Night Live,” he says. “To be the guy from Santa Cruz who gets to kind of light the torch—like, ‘OK, this is happening, there’s a comedy club in Santa Cruz’—I know it might sound cheesy to say I feel honored, but I do. I just feel super, super honored that he would ask me.”
UPCOMING EVENTS AT DNA’S COMEDY LAB AND EXPERIMENTAL THEATRE
March 22 – Joe Sib, 8 p.m.
March 23 – Matt Lieb (UCSC alum), 7:30 and 10 p.m.
March 29 – CSI: Santa Cruz (Comedy, Sketch and Improv), 7:30
‘Movie Riffing Night: Night of the Living Dead’ with comics from Comedy Central, 10 p.m.
March 30 — Caitlin Gill, 7:30 and 10 p.m.
April 6th — Laurie Kilmartin, 7:30 and 10pm
April 11 — Amy Miller (Last Comic Standing) and Kellen Erskine (Netflix), 8 p.m.
April 20 — Myq Kaplan (recording his album), 7:30 p.m. and 10 p.m.
April 27 — Shane Mauss, 7:30 p.m. and 10 p.m.
More info: dnascomedylab.com.