Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: Five vegan comedians walk into a jazz club. The punchline, though, is that this is no joke. The Kuumbwa Jazz Center will host the Vegan Comedy Showcase on Sunday, July 31, featuring five hilarious—and animal-product-free—comedians. DNA, a 10-year veteran Santa Cruz comic, organized the show after reading about the United Kingdom’s first-ever Vegan Comedy Festival, held earlier in March of this year.
“Vegans do not always have the reputation of being funny,” says Virginia Jones, a comic who became vegetarian 27 years ago because of the Smiths’ song “Meat is Murder.” “So I’m excited about this.”
Vegan comedy has begun to develop a niche, as healthy eaters try to turn the joke around after years of being the punchline, as they were stereotyped as “sensitive” or “weak.” There was even a Los Angeles Vegan Comedy Festival in May, headlined by Eddie Pepitone.
Jones’ inventive and provocatively dark humor draws on her left-leaning politics, being a female in a male-dominated profession, and, of course, veganism. She has a history with Santa Cruz and has performed a number of times at the Crow’s Nest, which she says she enjoys because it fills up with eager comedy fans. “Santa Cruz represents,” says Jones, who loves to stop in at Cafe Gratitude whenever she’s in Santa Cruz.
The traveling vegan comedy squad consists of Jones, Myq Kaplan, Matt Gubser and local comedian Laurie Powell—or as DNA puts it, “the intellectual vegan, the militant vegan, the handsome vegan, the singer/songwriter vegan.”
“And I’m the struggling vegan,” says DNA, who adds that, when flyering for the show, some people have told him they “hate vegans.” He has no idea why, but he doesn’t feel discouraged.
“If you have beef with vegans, bring it!” he says.
Santa Cruzans are no strangers to a meat-free diet, though. Vegetarian and vegan spots like Saturn Cafe and Dharma’s Restaurant have been in town for decades—from 1979 and 1981, respectively. And Santa Cruz’s roots in the lifestyle stretch back so far that a 2013 sfgate.com article recognized the city as “pioneering” the movement as early as the 1960s.
These days, pretty much all restaurants—from five-star destinations to fast food—have at least one meatless option. Meat and dairy-free meals line the grocery aisles in every form, from soy cheese to vegan orange “chicken.” Several surveys on vegetarian and vegan population numbers in the U.S. have been conducted by the Vegetarian Resource Group and Vegetarian Times. Statistics on vegetarians vary, but a 2012 Gallup poll indicated that 5 percent of people identify as vegetarian, and fewer than half of those are vegan. Celebrities like Joaquin Phoenix, Miley Cyrus and Woody Harrelson are all vegans, as well as many politicians like former President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore. Even mega-bodybuilder and former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger promotes a meatless diet.
But even as the lifestyle spreads to a wider array of folks, people are still making broad generalizations about vegans. “One misconception, I would say, is that people think vegans are a monolith,” comic Kaplan tells GT via email, “all thinking and acting and coming from the same place of motivation and goals.”
For his first show in 2002, Kaplan, who was a finalist on Last Comic Standing, shared the stage with Louis C.K., who was then relatively unknown. Two years ago, he released the live DVD Small, Dork and Handsome, a hilarious hour into the mind of the philosophy and linguistics major that is currently available to stream on Netflix. Kaplan, the showcase’s headliner, will record his new album at a different vegan comedy show on July 27 in San Francisco.
Matt Gubser, or, as DNA calls him, the “handsome vegan,” was born in Salinas and went to high school at Monte Vista Christian School in Watsonville. Gubser has been a practicing vegan for 14 years, the same amount of time as both Kaplan and Jones. They’ve all experienced the same questions, they say, that every other vegan and vegetarian does: What do you eat, and how do you get enough protein?
“I’m 6-foot-4 and 250 pounds, so when I tell people I’m vegan, they think I’m joking,” says Gubser, who is careful to eat a balanced diet. “But it’s not complicated.”
While plant-based diets have become more common and even fads—see Portlandia—vegetarianism dates back to the ancient Greeks, according to some historians. First-millennial mathematician Pythagoras—often called the first pure mathematician, and the father of the Pythagorean theorem—favored an all-plant diet, and for centuries after, vegetarianism was called the “Pythagorean Diet.”
In 1683, Englishman Thomas Tryon published The Way to Health and Long Life, promoting a plant-based diet and stirring a new generation of people to question what they eat. Inspired by Tryon, a 16-year-old Benjamin Franklin cut out meat from his meals, later writing in his autobiography that it left him with “greater clearness of head and quicker apprehension.” Though his dedication lasted only a few years, he admitted to “returning occasionally to a vegetable diet” throughout his life.
In 1902, Upton Sinclair’s detailed book on the conditions of American slaughterhouses, The Jungle, spawned a new generation of Americans ditching flesh, along with the creation of the Food and Drug Administration and the Pure Food and Drug Act.
The modern vegan movement dates back to the 1940s. These days, scientific studies have shown that eating no—or at least fewer—animal products is beneficial not only to human health, but also to the planet, because vegetarianism has a smaller carbon footprint. Six years ago, the United Nations urged humans to consume less meat in order to help battle climate change.
“It’s one of the most personal choices people have. We control what we put in our mouths, but most people don’t think about it at all,” says DNA, who now owns the domain vegancomedy.com. “I think it’s important to question where your nutrition comes from.”
The Vegan Comedy Showcase starts at 7:30 p.m. on Sunday, July 31 at Kuumbwa Jazz. Tickets are $20 in advance and $25 at the door.