What’s So Funny?

1coverwebSearching for laughs in Santa Cruz—seriously

To Get to the Other Side

Readers’ Digest said it best, or at least most famously: Laughter is the Best Medicine. The adage is thought to come from the Bible, Proverb 17:22,  “A merry heart does good, like medicine, But a broken spirit dries the bones.” Similarly, the Koran supports the funny with, “He deserves Paradise who makes his companions laugh.” And who among us can argue with Siddhartha Gautama’s observation, “When you realize how perfect everything is you will tilt your head back and laugh at the sky.” Of course historically we laugh with equal gusto at all that is imperfect (see What’s Up With Airline Food?).


But beyond recommendations from religious texts, scientific data also supports the “the epiglottis constricting the larynx.” (Despite its violent anatomical description, it is comforting to note that Wikipedia declares, “It [laughter] is in most cases a very pleasant sensation.” Phew!)

Research presented at the American College of Sports Medicine’s 56th Annual Meeting was prefaced by lead researcher Jun Sugawara touting positive blood pressure results in a control group viewing a comedy film, “Laughing is likely not the complete solution to a healthy heart, but it appears to contribute to positive effects.” Further bolstering the ha-ha, “Watching a documentary about a depressing subject was actually harmful to the blood vessels,” said Takashi Tarumi, another lead researcher on the study. Goodbye Michael Moore, hello Will Farrell!

According to Mayo Clinic website, short-term benefits of laughter include stimulation of multiple organs, thanks to increased oxygen intake, and activation and release of the stress response, resulting in a relaxed feeling. Long-term effects include immune system improvement and even pain relief in many cases.

At the risk of becoming a life-threatening documentary, let’s get past the pesky facts and background information and on to the real meat of the subject (or tofu … or the funnier-named meat substitute, seitan):

Santa Cruz, if you’re not laughing, you should be.

Cantaloupe Tonight, I’m Washing my Hair

We have a little joke in our household. When one of the kids starts a story with, “Mom, you know what’s funny?”  I simply answer, “Yes. Yes I do.”  And we chuckle, because I, like almost everyone else around me, believe that my perspective on humor is the right one. I’ve never met anyone who readily admits, “I really don’t know what’s funny.”

cover_richardSo it was with unaccustomed humility that I started my quest for the funny in Santa Cruz. What’s funny here? Where does it live? Who are its participants, its spectators, its celebrants?  Does the intersection of environmentalism, political correctness, economic downturn and comedy exist for us? (Or has it been redeveloped into a roundabout, and we are left yielding unnecessarily, not quite sure when to proceed with the yucks?)

The short answer is yes, there’s plenty to laugh at and with in Santa Cruz. In fact, the comedy scene here has had a steady pulse for at least 30 years by most accounts, thanks to local patron saints of the funny bone John Cox (Crow’s Nest) and Cliff Henderson and Dixie Cox (Fun Institute). If your larynx isn’t getting constricted epiglottially enough at home or at your office Christmas party, there are other outlets. Never mind the formulaic comedy playing at a movie theater near you. In my humble opinion, the act of laughing out loud and the subsequent benefits from that act are compounded exponentially when the experience involves living breathing human beings, flying without a net, in a small room with other living human beings, all in search of relief from the world’s stresses and anxieties. Call me crazy. Luckily we have lots of options here, including open mic nights, stand-up comedy, improv, sketch comedy and theater. Call us all crazy.

Holy cow! A Talkin’ Dog!

“Think globally, laugh locally.” So says Richard Stockton, long-time comedy veteran and most well known to fellow Santa Cruzans as the driving force behind the successful Planet Cruz Comedy Hour, a variety style show performed at the Kuumbwa Jazz Center and re-broadcast on KUSP for four seasons. Sold out houses and standing room only were de rigueur through 2010, when Planet Cruz left our orbit for the galaxy of Hiatus.

After arriving in Santa Cruz in 1968, touring the nation’s comedy clubs intrepidly, and appearing on television (“that white guy on BET”), Stockton has concluded that Santa Cruz’s sense of community and insistence on authenticity make it the obvious nesting place for him. His routines hit home for local baby boomers, among others, and his tales of “ducking and covering” and other misguided travails throughout his storied life delight a broad audience. Perhaps his most valued gift to Santa Cruz is his ability to import nationally renowned acts to the intimate 200-seat Kuumbwa—Will Durst, Vanda Mikoloski and Dan St. Paul among them.

“They love Santa Cruz audiences,” Stockton says. “They all wanted to come back, whether I was paying them or not.”

What was it that they loved so much? “Santa Cruz audiences demand that you be authentic. They need a connection. And they’re very progressive.”  And the comedy no-fly list? “Santa Cruz is not interested in mean humor, name-calling humor, or indulgent profanity.” He does clarify, however, that appropriate profanity flies just fine.

In full agreement is Todd Phillips, longtime member of Um…Gee…Um, a locally grown improv group that also teaches the craft. “Our Santa Cruz audience is the best audience ever,” he says. “They love and support us, which allows us to take risks. It’s really a relationship.”

And the risks they take are guided by their audience, as per the nature of improvisation. “There is no fourth wall—they are a part of this.”

Like Stockton, the troupe welcomes visiting performers—improvisers and teachers who all love Santa Cruz because,  “…everyone’s not trying to be discovered. We have big, big love. And there’s no rivalry between improve troupes in town. This is how improv is supposed to be.”

When asked what succeeds or fails onstage in front of Santa Cruz audiences, Phillips reinforces the fundamentals of improv—don’t go for the laugh, and always focus on relationships. He doesn’t recognize any topic trends here, and emphasizes that the credo to “be real in imaginary circumstances” allows the audiences to see themselves in the unfolding scenes, regardless of subject matter, creating transformational theater. He doesn’t state it outright, but it’s often hilarious.

Um…Gee…Um is “like a family,” according to Phillips. They have not added new members in 14 years, which “creates the atmosphere of trust.” Phillips, Susan Boes, Chopsy Gutt and Suzanne Schrag are the trusters as well as the trustees. Their fans apparently trust them as well, and are repeat customers for the live shows. “We used to ask, ‘Who’s never been to an improv show before?’ But we stopped asking, because nobody was raising their hands!”  Friend them on Facebook. All the cool kids are doing it.

Arrgh, It’s Drivin’ Me Nuts

On the flipside, first-time comics as well as new audiences tend to flock to the weekly Comedy Night at the Blue Lagoon, now in its third year. DNA (his name—his whole name) took over the weekly event from Lindsay Blaz a year ago, and undertakes the rather large job of presenting a full roster of comedians every seven days—starting the night with a handful of beginners and up-and-comers and ending with regional and sometimes national acts.

“Santa Cruz is hilarious. I find this to be the funniest town I’ve ever lived in.” says DNA. That includes Chico, where, in 1990, he entered the Chico State Showtime College Comedy Laugh Off  to avoid paying the cover charge at the door. He won. He was ready and willing to add “comic” to his job descriptions (music promoter, theater and event producer). He claims the Blue Lagoon is a favorite among regional comics. Why? “They like Santa Cruz audiences. They’re warm and open—as long as they don’t insult their personal ethics.” Echoing other local experts, DNA says local progressiveness and liberal bent “challenges performers. Santa Cruz won’t stand for anything homophobic or racist.”

Are we too progressive and/or liberal? “Audiences are tough also because they’ll find empathy with inanimate objects, like What’s the deal with toasters? And people will be – hey, toasters have feelings, why are you making fun of toasters, they have a valuable place in our community.” We laugh. Because we know it’s true.

So what does fly in this hotbed of forward-thinking movers and shakers? I will paraphrase to maintain my journalistic integrity: Phallic humor, or, conversely, that related to the female reproductive genitalia. (Believe me, it’s funnier using the vernacular.)

“Seriously, it’s always funny, dating back to the Aristophenes’ ‘service my dongle’ quote in Clouds. It has historical context,” but he will pull comics aside after failing, and have them examine what they are trying to say and how they’re saying it. This supportive atmosphere at the Blue Lagoon makes it a favorite spot to try out new material.


I’ll Take the Soup!

Surprisingly, a younger crowd on the hill might not agree on content. “Crude, racial or sexually aggressive terminology in any context … will not get a laugh.” Words of wisdom (and caution) from Nathan Habib, who books Comedy Night at the Barn on the UC Santa Cruz campus. “The crowd appreciates smart humor, and acknowledgment that they are an intelligent group, self deprecation and commentary on social life work. Stoner jokes are not necessary.” Who is this discerning crowd? “Primarily students. Older people who show up are usually parents.” And these students fill the Barn for every comedy event.

cover_boratThe format Habib adheres to is similar to the Blue Lagoon—three or four student comics, who are chosen after being vetted by Paul Herzog, fellow booker. “We make sure they are out performing, doing open mic nights, working new material at the Blue,” followed by outside comedians with more experience under their belt.

The audiences are made primarily of stand-up and improv fans, and also the expected support groups for the evening’s performers, hence the parents.

“Stand-up is blowing up. Everyone’s a comedian these days. You just can’t escape that type of art form.”  And the consistently large and enthusiastic audiences? “There’s not many options on the hill, or if you’re under 21. We don’t advertise downtown – we don’t need to.” Habib takes his own advice and leaves the immediate area to fry bigger fish on a regular basis. He will be at the El Rio in San Francisco on Sept. 12, doing his own stand-up set and also scoping out new talent to bring to the Barn.

An area of agreement—Santa Cruz is not the place to be if you are waiting to be discovered. If you’re looking to get that Comedy Central Presents slot you’d be better off playing in larger, more citified climes. However, as my dad used to say of my rural hometown, “This is a great place to be from. You can get anywhere from here.” (Note: his intent and my translation were two entirely different points.)


Because 7 8 9

Sometimes “here” is just where you want to be. Such is the case for local sketch comedy troupe Dangerous Neighbors, according to Bill Burman, one of its founding fathers. Burman and fellow members Eric Conly, Suzanne Schrag, Mike Steitz and Bob Vickers (also co-founder Chris Palermo) have been providing Santa Cruz with well-written slices of life since the first show in 1993. It is perhaps Santa Cruz’ longest standing troupe (despite a 10-year nap that recently culminated in a successful run at the Broadway Playhouse, which just closed July 9).

The sure-fire and off-limit topics have remained steady. For instance, “Hank ‘n’ Sue’s Homosexual Rehabilitation Summer Bible Camp— people in Santa Cruz tend to be sympathetic to satire about people reforming gays … and another about gun culture (Earl’s 24 Hour Guns ‘n’ Grog) works well,” Burman says. “Culture issues … stay the same.”

Not such a sure bet was their sketch essentially based on over-the-top cruelty, involving a terminal cancer patient, a former convict and a woman drowning in bad choices. What’s not to laugh at, right?  “Friday night we had a very sensitive audience,” he says. “They were dead silent. But the next scene about pedophilia and the Catholic Church … we won them back. They loved the rest of the show.” Good thing there was no toaster-on-toaster violence!

cover_UMGEEUMWhile Santa Cruz prides itself on straying from the perceived norm, we apparently are part of a nationwide trend in the theater. “It’s amazing how people love 10-minute plays,” says Wilma Chandler, artistic director of 8 Tens at Eight, writer, director, former improv teacher, notes that every seat is filled for the annual short play festival. “And 75 percent of the offerings are comedies. This is a trend all over the country within the last 10 years—short one-acts with a comic bent.”

It’s old wisdom that comedies always fill the house. “People, especially when times are hard, want to go and have fun.”

And the shorter format that feeds our shorter attention span (bolstered at first by the music videos of the ’80s, and now by kitty cat clips on YouTube) are understandable. Says Chandler, “I love the sitcom format. It’s comforting, funny, and wraps up in 28 minutes. Everything gets healed.

“Anything politically incorrect, you run the risk of boos and hisses. Here, a lot is off limits, but it used to be worse. You couldn’t say anything about women or indigenous people.”

Her go-to list started simply and obviously enough – politically left-leaning humor, gay life, old hippies, and then with the encouragement of a certain freelance writer went all-out Santa Cruz Weird to culminate in what is destined to be the biggest sure-fire hit in the history of the county: A musical about yoga, organic gardening, Bali, composting, midwifery and Jack O’Neill.

Contributing his brand of lovable curmudgeon insight, local writer, emcee, Backstage Lounge proprietor, and all around funny guy Sven Davis chimes in on the topic. “Comedy fails in Santa Cruz because it’s too nice here. Comedy comes from pain and adversity. The best this town has ever produced is a few gags about poison oak.” And in an almost supportive tone, he adds, “That doesn’t keep people from trying, though.”

Anywhere he Wants

In search of a broader perspective against which to hold our funny little town, I contacted Mike Sacks, writer, Vanity Fair editor, father, and also editor of possibly the greatest collection of interviews with top humor writers of the 20th century, And Here’s the Kicker (Writer’s Digest Books). His non-fiction appears regularly in magazines and newspapers of note, and his most recent book of essays and one-liners, “Your Wildest Dreams, Within Reason” (Tin House Books) is available now. In short, he knows his stuff.

Sacks lives in New York, but is read internationally. The only regional differences he sees in his feedback seem to be urban vs. rural, and he attributes this to a younger demographic in urban areas. Trying to apply this logic to Santa Cruz has its obstacles; we are neo-urban in practice, but rural in legal distinction, not to mention peopled with students, retirees, and everything in between.

The margin of error exists in live performance as well as written practice. Does he recognize any off-limits or sure-fire topics? He answers, quite eloquently, what I heard from DNA and others, “There are no off-limit topics, per se, but for certain topics, the margin of error is very, very small,” Sacks says. “If you make a joke about the Holocaust, it better be damn good. Sex is a sure-fire topic, unless you’re telling jokes while you’re having it. If you were to do that, the margin of error would again be very, very small.”

And what about that pesky inter-web-net? Is it improving or killing comedy?  “Definitely improving it. There’s a ton of great writers who wouldn’t be published in more traditional outlets, and there are a lot of performers whose work would never be seen if there was no internet. With that said, there’s also a ton of crap. And sometimes it’s hard to make your way through the garbage to find the gems. Isn’t that an old hippie saying?” (I foresee more regional feedback for Sacks.)

Speaking with these gems of the Santa Cruz comedy scene gave me hope, both for myself and for my fellow humor-seeking humans. When people say “Santa Cruz” we often picture the great outdoors and all it has to offer. Isn’t it nice to know we can now also add the dark indoors and budding local talent? Put your shoes on, open your mind and constrict your larynx with some friends!

Get Up! Stand Up!

Check out these and other events in and around Santa Cruz:
-Find out about events, improv classes by following Um…Gee…Um at Um…Gee…Um… Improvisation on Facebook.
-True Fiction Radio, presented by Richard Stockton and Wallace Baine, KUSP 88.9 FM Sundays at 8 p.m.
-Comedy Night at the Blue Lagoon, presented by DNA, Thursdays at 8:30 p.m. Free.
-Comedy Showcase at Vino Prima, presented by DNA, last Wednesday of the month at 7 p.m. Free.
-Comedy at the Barn, UCSC, presented by Nathan Habib, Oct. 8 and Dec. 31 at 10 p.m. Free and open to the public (even old people).
-Nathan Habib at the El Rio in San Francisco on Sept. 12.  Sliding scale door.
-Sven Davis is exploring comedy and storytelling at The Backstage Lounge, Santa Cruz.
-Don Quixote’s International Music Hall, July 17 at 7 p.m., Will Durst, Johnny Steele, Deb and Mike Comedy Madness!!!  $15.
-Crow’s Nest, Sundays at 9 p.m., three comics $7.
-SubRosa Anarchist Café, open mic Thursdays 8-10 p.m. $5.
-Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, Freedom, open mic second Wednesday of each month 7-9 p.m. Donations accepted.
-The Ugly Mug, Soquel, open mic Mondays at 6 p.m. Free.

Kim Luke is a a sporadically funny writer living in Santa Cruz, and has the following to say about this story: “Larynx is NOT pronounced lar-nix, and mic is the correct abbreviation of microphone, unless it is made by the Michael Corporation.” [email protected]
Richard Stockton
Um Gee Um

To Top