The Color of Comedy
Comedy once was king in San Francisco: Jonathan Winters recorded live albums here, as did Lenny Bruce, Tom Lehrer, Phyllis Diller, and Steve Martin. The rim-shot '50s burlesque houses gave way to the political satire of '60s theaters, until the comedy boom eventually crashed at glitzy '80s franchise clubs like Catch a Rising Star and the Improvisation, where every cocaine reference from the stage was greeted with cocaine laughter from the crowd.
Then one day, all comedians decided that their life purpose was to be on a sitcom. They pushed up the sleeves of their sport coats, taped their "tight five" minutes for a gazillion TV spots, and were promptly irradiated into another overexposed hack in front of a brick wall -- an easily muted goofball of half-baked insights and pop-culture trivia.
The war is over, and mediocrity has won. Two full-time comedy clubs are left in the city -- the Punch Line and Cobb's. The annual Comedy Day in the Park is a joke in itself. The verb "riff" is now used as a reference in New Yorker cartoons.
But another renaissance rumbles: women's comedy at Cat's in SOMA, gay and lesbian comedy at Josie's in the Castro -- and black comedy over in Oakland, from open-mike shows to big events at the Paramount Theatre.
The End Zone sports bar is where San Francisco comic Tom Rhodes agreed to perform tonight. He doesn't need the money. He recently hosted a half-hour pilot that aired on Comedy Central called Viva Vietnam, a funny yet poignant "white-trash adventure" that was nominated for three ACE awards. This summer, he goes on a concert tour with the Black Crowes. But he said yes.
Will Rhodes be the only white guy in the house? Doesn't matter. He's done shows at gay clubs, Air Force bases, and blues joints. Like a musician, a comedian has to keep performing to stay fresh. We talk as Rhodes' 1978 Cadillac Sedan De Ville glides across the Bay Bridge.
Why did he move here from Florida?
"It's the Jerusalem of comedy, man. I always thought that a higher intelligence of comedy always came out of San Francisco. The first comedian was Mark Twain. He played theaters in San Francisco, and they were humorous, and political, and very topical."
Is it still the holy land?
"No," he says after a pause. "There's no one here. It's a fucking ghost town. It's pathetic. It seems that you gotta move away, become independently wealthy, and move back, and not ever leave your mansion, and do uppers and downers until you die naked on the bathroom tile."
Or do gigs across the bay.
The triple-white De Ville eases into a strip-mall parking lot off High Street. There's Clem Daniels' End Zone, across the street from a chicken joint and next-door to a Lucky supermarket. Give the place an A for atmosphere: swirling lights from a mirrored ball, slow grooves from the DJ booth, red tablecloths, and a small stage with one of those curtains made of shiny strips of red material. Framed Raiders photos line the walls, and a display case preserves a deflated football and other sports memorabilia. Manager and ex-K.C. Chiefs lineman Marvin Upshaw stands in the back puffing an absurdly small cigar, his 300-plus-pound frame nearly blocking a sign saying "Dress to Impress." A flier advertises Sunday's house band: "Serious Licks, featuring Ron Matthews. Serious Music for Serious People."
By the time producer Rick Sullivan introduces tonight's entertainment as "the longest-running black comedy show in Northern California," every table is full, about 70-80 people. Besides Tom and myself, and two biker guys, we are alone in the whitey department. After a couple of amateurs do their routines and eat it royally, a woman in sunglasses named Tess opens it up with, "I just got out of recovery. WBM. Women who Beat their Men. Oh, I'm not proud of it. ..." Huge laughs. Another comic does dead-on imitations of '70s Soul Train dancers. A guy named Rip believes the death penalty isn't good enough for the guy who killed Polly Klaas: "They should get five crackheads, give them each a free one, give the guy the bag of dope, and put 'em all in a room together. They'd beg him to death: 'Hey man, you got one for me?' " The capacity crowd roars. If you're in Oakland, you gotta laugh about crack.
One of the bikers is slipped into the lineup, a little guy named the Oakland Outlaw, wearing shades and a ZZ Top beard, who scores big with the reason there are no black ghosts, especially female ones. He imitates a perturbed black woman: "Ex-cuse me? I said boo!" The place loves it.
Black audiences seem much more loose and expressive than white folks if they appreciate a comedian. They cheer, jeer, hoot, and really enjoy themselves.
After another black comic, Rhodes takes the stage in long, frizzy hair and cowboy boots. He does his usual material, but for some reason it seems tailor-made for the crowd: "In Canada last year, there were five deaths by handguns. In England, there were 13. In America, there were 20,863. Apparently, we tolerate just a little less bullshit." The crowd digs him immediately.