Lobbing Jokes Across the Barroom

Comedy nights are flourishing across the East Bay.


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Photo by lance yamamoto

Mike Spiegleman performs and wrangles crowds at The Layover, comedy central for the East Bay.

On a Tuesday night in mid-October, Mike Spiegelman, a stocky, bushy-haired 45-year-old with boundless nervous energy paces and then rounds up potential audience members as best he can at The Layover.

In true Bay Area style, the crowd arrives 10 to 15 minutes late, although the room quickly fills with more than 30 people who grab seats, order drinks, and settle in for the night: 10 comics doing 10-minute sets.

Spiegelman, 45, of San Francisco, has run a successful weekly comedy show at The Layover since January 2010 with a steady following growing out of it. “They come, and they come next week,” he said. “It’s really word of mouth, something that I don’t think would happen elsewhere.”

The East Bay may not be the comedy mecca that New York or Los Angeles is, but the stand-up scene has surged, with downtown Oakland the epicenter of worthy paid and free comic showcase venues. The Layover may not be the epitome of a performer’s dream venue—there’s sort of a sinkhole effect that goes on that forces comedians to “mortar” their jokes to the far end of the room at audience members they can’t always see—but it reflects the types of burgeoning comedy clubs gaining popularity in the East Bay.

On this Tuesday evening at The Layover, San Francisco’s Tony Dijamco kicks the night off—aka, takes the bullet—loosening up the crowd. “There’s nothing better than hot nerd sex,” Dijamco says. “Sex is better when it’s between two people who don’t know when they’re going to have it again.”

Lyall Behrens and Shanti Charan are up next, doing largely racially based material that pokes fun at themselves while challenging crowd assumptions and stereotypes. Comedian Jesse Elias follows, commanding the most attention. Haloed in a mass of thick hair and wearing trademark blue jeans, black T-shirt, worn sneakers, and olive green overshirt, Elias rarely looks up and shuffles duck-footed back and forth, strange and brilliant. He playfully banters and captivates the crowd with absurd jokes about snakes, fog, sex, and vintage ’90s-era Happy Meal toys, holding attention until the last joke. The final comic, John Hoogasian, tall and lanky, chooses self-deprecating material about his personal history, past drug use, his own failings, and inane one-liners. His subject matter is dead-on, busting guts with jokes about everyday life, love, sex, race, politics, what’s expected in day-to-day life, absurdities, gender, and anything else that comes to mind. These comedians who tug, pull, and play with the audience get the most laughs.

For Lydia Popovich, who manages the Ladies Love The Layover, a booked showcase of all-female comics on the second Tuesday of the month, these are boom times.

“I think, in general, the East Bay is on the cusp of doing something amazing,” Popovich, 36, of San Francisco, says. “I’m really excited to see more and more comedy rooms opening up out here, because it is a new environment. It’s a whole new bunch of people; it’s not the same. It’s much more diverse, socio-economically, socio-politically, religious-wise, racially. You see so much more of a cross-section of the Bay Area.”

“You can pretty much find good comedy every night of the week—Monday’s the Nite Lite, Tuesday’s The Layover; Wednesdays, there’s Penelope’s, Thursday’s the Stork Club, and that’s never happened before,” says Johan Miranda, 25, of Pinole, who directs comedy shows at the Ivy Room in Albany, along with showcase nights at Pappy’s in Berkeley.

Richard Toomer, 31, of San Francisco, oversees the Storking Comedy showcase at the Stork Club. “It was a slow process starting off, and there were only a few people that’d come at first,” Toomer says. “Now it’s a pretty good room. At least 20 comics come through, and at the end of the show, we have at least 70 people that’ve come through, which is great.”

Such up-and-coming comics make going out on a random weeknight to see comedy worthwhile. You may not have heard of them yet, and you may not love everything they have to say, or even the way they say it, but give these funny men and women a chance—they may just make a fan out of you.

For more information about upcoming comedy shows and venues in the East Bay as well as the rest of the Bay area, visit The Rundown, a list of free and ticket-based open mics and venues maintained daily by area comedian Matt Gubser at MattGubser.tumblr.com.

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