The Man Who Came to Dinner

Will Durst

As he returned with a plate full of salad, I asked Will about Livelyhood. "It's mainly about how work is changing these days," he explained. "I travel around and talk to people about how they make their living. About six years ago someone asked me what I'd like to be doing in five years, and I said, 'Well, you know, I'd kind of like to be a cross between Hunter Thompson and Charles Kuralt.' And that's kind of what this is."

"But you don't get to carry guns, or bags full of drugs," Debbie lamented.

"Well, I have to go through a lot of airports," explained Will.

"Hunter wouldn't care," she teased.

"Oh," I said, "I thought you were talking about Kuralt."

Just then, three plates of meat arrived (two bunned) and I dug into one serious bacon cheeseburger. Will and Debbie talked about some of the choices they've made, like staying in the Bay Area in favor of a quality of life as opposed to running off to L.A. like almost every other comic they've known. "It's the same thing in L.A.," Will explained. "They always seem miserable. Because they have to go on the road to survive. Which is fine, because you learn a lot on the road. Of course sometimes you can learn the wrong things too. Say you work a cheap-ass room, where all they need is dick jokes. Well, if you do dick jokes, you're gonna make 'em laugh -- but you're not learning anything."

"No," interjected Debbie. "You're doing your job, and surviving, and hopefully you're not getting stabbed on the way out."

"I did a week in Tennessee. A month ago," recalled Will. "And they're not dumb. They're not any dumber than anywhere else. But their focus is family and church. They don't care about The New York Times. They don't think it affects them. And they may be right, I don't know. But I'm doing political stuff. And they just hate it. So the last night of the gig I thought I would insult them. I went onstage and I said, 'Nashville, Tennessee. You guys love Jesus, and you love Nascar. And if Jesus drove Nascar and was sponsored by Hooters you'd never leave the fuckin' house.' Huge roar. They loved me. They didn't care, they knew it was true, they knew I was making fun of them. They caught it on both levels of the thing. But I finally reached them, you know?"

Still, being a national comedian based in San Francisco, it seems, brings its own set of challenges. "There was a time when there were over 12 comedy clubs in the Bay Area," said Will. "And you could actually stay home, most of the year at least, and work all the clubs and just be able to drive home at night."

"And look at the history of comedy in this town," added Debbie, "with the hungry i and the Purple Onion and Lenny Bruce and Woody Allen. And people now are like, 'Yeah? So? And?'"

"We used to have a club called the Holy City Zoo," remembered Will.

"It was on Clement Street which is now, you know, like Hong Kong West," said Debbie. "And we wanted to save it because that's where Robin Williams started, Ellen DeGeneres, Paula Poundstone, Bobcat. Everybody who was anybody. But it was like throwing money into a big hole in the ground."

Still, with the approach of the new millennium comes a slight ray of hope for the local comedy prognosis. With Will and Debbie's support, the San Francisco tradition is returning to North Beach with a weekly night of comedy at the Lost and Found Saloon. And if you remembered to bring your pens to the polls this week, we just might have a stand-up comedian sitting behind the mayor's desk next term.

Oh, sorry. I mean a real one.

Want to host The Man Who Came to Dinner? E-mail SFDinner@aol.com and tell us what's cookin'.

See Barry Levine on Nash Bridges
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