The Man Who Came to Dinner

Will Durst

Sometimes, one of the more challenging aspects of being The Man Who Came to Dinner is actually getting yourself in -- to dinner.

Believe it or not, not every local celebrity is anxious to have yours truly belly up to his or her breakfast nook. Politicians in particular -- like young Supervisor Newsom, and our own write-in wonder boy Tom Ammiano (that's an upcoming installment) -- are especially cautious about revealing the whereabouts of their dining rooms. After all, no one needs the Biotic Bakers making a home delivery.

Apparently, however, this executive privilege also extends to political comedians. That's why Will Durst, San Francisco's second most famous resident stand-up, diverted our dining engagement to one of his favorite local dives. (On that same note, Mr. Williams has yet to invite me over to his place for his renowned Harris' "taxi-out.")

Durst has developed a reputation as a sort of archetypal everyman, making the Bullshead restaurant (conveniently located between the West Portal BART station on one side and the Philosopher's Club bar on the other) as good a setting as any for our meal. I saw Will and his wife sauntering up the street as I gazed through Bullshead's window, drooling at the array of steaks being grilled on the other side.

Yummy.

Hands were shaken: "I'm Will. This is my wife Debbie. And this is Barry Levine."

"OK. Whatever," said Debbie. "He just walks up to people on the streets and starts talking to them. It's part of the fun."

Will was indeed the everyman, dressed in jeans, a button-down shirt, and a vest. Debbie, by contrast, was wearing a wide array of colors, including a tie-dyed Giants shirt, overalls adorned with a big Artist Formerly Known as Prince symbol pin (among others), and funky red sneakers.

We headed through the Bullshead's doors to find two small rooms of mismatched tables and chairs and one large refrigerated meat case displaying all the available cuts of beef.

"This is one of our favorite places to eat," Debbie explained. "Any place you can see meat has got to be good." We sat down at a large round table right in front of the meat display, and I decided to push the privacy issue just a little. "You live nearby, I take it?"

"We're Sunset people," declared Will. "I've been here 20 years. She's been here forever."

"I was born here," Debbie confirmed.

"Her head was the same size," said Will.

"Shut up," smiled Debbie.

"Are you a meat eater?" Will asked me.

"Indeed."

"Excellent," said Debbie. "You know, a lot of people just are not meat people anymore."

Sad, but true.

The waitress stopped by to take our orders. Debbie went with her usual, a cheeseburger. Will ordered the ground sirloin steak, "with lots of the sautéed mushrooms and onions." Debbie kindly advised me on my selec- tion. "The burgers are excellent," she said. "Everything is good. I've always had beef. You know, you don't come to a beef place where there's meat in the window and order chicken."

"Uh, I'll take a bacon cheeseburger too," I decided. "Cheddar. Medium rare."

"Which size?" asked the waitress.

"You want the big one or the small?" Debbie asked. "They come in two different sizes."

Very carefully, and slowly, I decided on ... "the smaller one."

"The third a pound?" asked Will, somewhat leading the witness, "or the half a pound?"

Sensing a critical opportunity here I slowly revised my choice to ... "the larger one."

"Ah, the half-pound," grinned Debbie, settling back in her chair.

"And a bottle of Budweiser, please."

So the key, I discovered, to winning over the Dursts is: more meat.

"Pookie had a very busy day," said Debbie turning to Will.

"Yes," he agreed. "I think the whole creative slate has been wiped clean."

"You can tell it's been a busy day," she explained, "because his hair sticks up."

In addition to his regular stand-up schedule (including a run this week at Cobb's), his PBS Livelyhood show, and his frequent contributions to various national magazines, Will has also been getting his fingers into multimedia development. His busy day included project meetings with a CD-ROM company. "It's one of those things where they hook all the wires up to you," he explained, "so when you move around, the character moves around. I want to do my commentary and have them create a virtual Will."

"Creeeepy," said Debbie.

With that, Will excused himself and headed for the salad bar, a benefit of his bunless burger. I asked Debbie how she and Will got together.

"Gosh, over 20 years ago," she answered. "We met at an open mike. At the Punch Line, downtown. I was in an improv group at the time and we were hosting the show. He was just one of the comics, and I thought he was very interesting because he didn't do puppy or doggy material, or, you know, 'What I hate about flying.' He was kind of into politics, and thinking, and I thought, 'Wow. He must read.'"

Our appetizer -- a large plate of fat, crispy onion rings -- arrived as Debbie finished the story. "So we decided to elope. We had a benefit for ourselves, at the Punch Line, 'cause that's where we met. Took the money and went to Vegas."

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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