This morning, Sup. Aaron Peskin introduced legislation to protect The Punch Line, the 40-year-old comedy club that will have to vacate 444 Battery St. after owner Morgan Stanley terminated its lease.
It was probably the funniest press conference on City Hall steps in a while. Starting off with local comic Nato Green, several other comedians lent their support to Peskin’s proposals, including former Sup. Tom Ammiano, Punch Line veteran W. Kamau Bell, and the great Dave Chappelle — who, as it happens, is in town to play a few sets at the Punch Line this evening.
“Without the Punch Line, you don’t get Kamau or Patton Oswalt or Ali Wong or Margaret Cho,” Green said. “We need to keep a small comedy club in that location.
“We need to have one place in San Francisco that’s not an algorithm,” he added, “and it’s got to be the Punch Line.”
Peskin’s proposed legislation is three-fold. First, along with fellow Supervisors Hillary Ronen, Sandra Lee Fewer, and Ahsha Safai, Peskin will introduce an “interim zoning moratorium” that will prevent the conversion from an entertainment use to any other use. They plan to bring it before the board on June 4, where, if it gets nine votes, it will go into law the following day.
Second, they’re working with Morgan Stanley and their lessee, Live Nation, although Peskin did not specify what would be discussed at those talks. However, according to Peskin, the likely (although unconfirmed) future tenant appears to be none other than Google.
“I want to say to Google: Really, do no evil,” Peskin said.
Lastly, the Board of Supervisors has nominated the Punch Line to the Legacy Business registry, a status that comes with some financial benefits.
Green introduced Ammiano, who praised the club’s contribution to the “mental health of San Francisco,” before relating an anecdote about taking heat for picking up the red phone to call Wendy Paskin (the wife of then-Mayor Frank Jordan) when Jordan appointed Ammiano mayor for the day while he was out of the city.
“If we lose it, it’s like losing so many other things we love in San Francisco,” Ammiano said of the Punch Line. “We don’t want L.A. to be the capital of the comedy world.”
W. Kamau Bell took the mic next.
“I find myself in the position that I often used to find myself at the Punch Line: opening for Dave Chapelle,” Bell said. “I’ll keep it brief, cause that’s how they used to like it there, too.”
Wearing a T-shirt that showed Martin Luther King’s March on Washington with BBQ Becky superimposed over it, Bell pointed out the fact that a “corporation with deep pockets” (Live Nation) owns the Punch Line, and if San Francisco can’t even keep a corporation keep stuff open, then the city is in real trouble. He got some good-natured groans for a joke about Oakland taking the Punch Line if S.F. didn’t want it, then amiably shot back that “San Francisco is still not friendly to Black people.”
When it was Chappelle’s turn, he praised the club as “one of the premiere comedy clubs in America, right up there with the Comedy Cellar in New York.
“When they say special things happened in that room, it’s an understatement,” he said. “When I quit my show, that room became like a home to me. I did hundreds and hundreds of hours on stage there. It was the last place I saw Robin Williams alive.”
Noting that the Punch Line’s potential closure would make it only the latest space for stand-up comedy to disappear, Green cited the Purple Onion, the Dark Room, Doc’s Lab, The Elbo Room, Lost Weekend, Hemlock Lounge. (Someone in the crowd added Brainwash.) But the Punch Line is something special.
As Dave Chappelle put it, “No matter how famous you get, a good room is a good room.”
Dave Chappelle at The Punch Line, Tuesday, May 21, 8 p.m. and 10 p.m., 444 Battery St., tickets.