How Bay Area Comics "Break In" at the Punch Line -- It's Not Easy
Comedians who have set out on the road will always remember their "home club" -- the place they first discovered what it means to be a comic. Here they learn their stage etiquette, how to host, and what a professional show looks like. Returning to the home club once your career takes you out on the road or moves you across the country is as bittersweet as returning to your college campus -- rife with memories of where you started, including some you want to forget.
For most Bay Area comedians, that is the Punch Line, a historic comedy club in San Francisco's Financial District. While aspiring comics have numerous opportunities to get on stage around the bay, it is the Punch Line's stage to which they clamor, gathering eagerly at the back of the room every Sunday night to wait their turn at the mike during the club's SF Comedy Showcase.
"A club is very different from an open mike. The way you do comedy is different," explains Conor Kellicut, a headliner who works in and around the Bay Area. "Anyone can get up at an open mike. So getting up at the Punch is a big deal, a milestone."
The weekly showcase, which takes place every Sunday at 8 p.m., offers a chance to perform at a real club, in front of a real audience and, often, for the eyes of a real booker. For many, the Punch Line is the gatekeeper to a successful comedy career. A good performance at the Sunday showcase has the potential to lead to paid work, the goal of comics who wallow away Sunday nights waiting for a turn on stage.
A comic typically has to "wallow" at the back of the room for about a year before getting stage time. That's months of coming to the Punch Line diligently knowing you're probably not going to perform. Even once a comic reaches that mark, a spot is not guaranteed. No one knows the night's lineup before they arrive each week; the coveted seven-minute spots are filled less than an hour before showtime.
Opinions vary greatly among Bay Area comedians about the usefulness and fairness of the showcase. The waiting game is hard for some to justify, while others see the merits and have benefited greatly by putting in their time at the club.
Seasoned performer Nato Green explains, "Even when the wait was frustrating to me and I found myself getting impatient, I could see that the system was fair and my time would come. ... If you don't have the patience and the stubborn focus and discipline to wait a few months to start performing at what is widely regarded as one of the best comedy clubs in the country, then what comes later in show business will destroy you."
Kellicut agrees, ceding that perhaps the system isn't "fair," but, "This is entertainment. Comedy is really hard, and it should be hard to get on at the Punch Line. So when you do, you make it count."
Many comics, on the other hand, believe the wait is not worth their time.
"Why do we have to sit up there Sunday after Sunday after Sunday?" asks one comic, who has never gone to the showcase. "Time is too precious."
Another, who has been going most Sundays for more than months without getting on stage, adds, "The situation is vague, which is uncomfortable."
Gary Anderson, a young East Bay comedian, can't justify the travel across the bridge for what he considers a small opportunity: "We're not in L.A. or New York where there's lots of opportunities to be 'discovered.' ... But Punch Line is a cute milestone for beginning comics."
Most comics forge their path through the industry as they best see fit. For some, that path will zig-zag among open mikes, showcases, and one-nighters across the country while for others, it will cling tightly along the back of the room at the San Francisco Punch Line.
Awkward Silence is a weekly column covering local stand-up comedy in San Francisco