This year’s lineup, a combination of up-and-coming talent, national and Bay Area favorites, and a cadre of comedians who first performed during Comedy Day’s early ‘80s infancy, includes: Carlos Alazraqui, Tom Ammiano, Diane Amos, Ngaio Bealum, Dick Bright, Eddie Brill, A. Whitney Brown, Bruce “Baby Man” Baum, Larry “Bubbles” Brown, Andy Bumatai, Candy Churilla, Brian Copeland, Debi Durst, Will Durst, David Feldman, Marga Gomez, Caitlin Gill, Maximilian Gstettenbauer, Linda Hill, Jeremy Kramer, Grant Lyon, Don McMillan, Dr. Gonzo, The Meehan Brothers, Rick Overton, Steven Pearl, Mark Pitta, Michael Pritchard, Dan St. Paul, Bob Rubin, Bob Sarlatte, Carrie Snow, Barry Sobel, Tony Sparks, Johnny Steele, Howard Stone, Barry Weintraub, J. Raoul Brody And The STUPEDS, And Very Special Surprise Guests!
Founder Jose Simon’s dream of a free, open-air comedy celebration became a reality in 1981, and since that time, more than 600 of the world’s funniest comedians have performed gratis for more than a half-million people. Comedy Day has hosted many of the biggest names in stand-up, among them Robin Williams, Whoopi Goldberg, Garry Shandling, Ellen DeGeneres, Eddie Izzard, Dana Carvey, Bobcat Goldthwait, Paula Poundstone, Brian Copeland, Rob Schneider, George Lopez, Greg Proops, Dave Chappelle, Margaret Cho, Greg Behrendt, Dana Gould, Tom Kenney, Dave Attell, Arj Barker, Brian Regan, Jake Johannsen, Patton Oswalt, Janeane Garofalo, and Father Guido Sarducci.
“We all need a good laugh…especially now,” says Debi Durst, Board President of Comedy Day. “Our goal is to give the audience a break from the trials of daily life. Sure, there’ll be jokes about the state of the economy, dubious politicians, upcoming midterm elections, the big oil spill and other scandals, but finding something funny about these distressing times helps people release all their pent-up energy.”
I had an opportunity recently to talk with Dr. Gonzo, a legendary name among comedians from during the 1980’s, a period that people now call The Golden Era of San Francisco Comedy. Dr. Gonzo (John Means) retired from performing more than a decade ago, and returned to his hometown, Mason City, Illinois, to teach community college English for a while and open two restaurants. In his heyday, Dr. Gonzo was most known for his song parodies and opened at concerts for big musical acts, like Huey Lewis and the News, Greg Kihn, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Journey and Carlos Santana, just to name a few.
Q: You haven’t performed in 12 years, but you’ll be back on the big stage at Comedy Day?
A: It’s a weird thing to jump back in again. I was on the road for 20 years and I was getting burnt out on the lifestyle. I had given up all of my vices—all the things that were going to kill me—so I wanted to do something different with my life, so I went back to school and got a degree in English. Then my dad died and I got divorced, so it was tough for a while. So, my life changed drastically in a very short time and I remarried a woman I knew from high school. We’ve fixed up seven buildings here in my hometown. We own two restaurants that are pretty cool. We live above the restaurants, which is great, because I don’t have a lawn to mow and my commute is excellent.
Q: You’re going to see a lot of your fellow comics from the heyday at this year’s Comedy Day. Will it be a fun reunion?
A: It’s going to be a blast! Wow, it’s hard to believe it’s been 30 years. I was there for so many Comedy Days, so this will be cool. It’s a great experience, because you get to see so many of your friends all in one place. It will be an exciting experience, performing in front of 10,000 people after not being on a stage for 12 years. I’m not getting back into it for a living, but this is more of a kick.
Q: What was it like doing your last gig back in 1998?
A: My desire was gone by then, so it was anti-climatic more than anything else. Things had changed, because the audience got younger and I got older. I thought my last show would be an emotional deal, but it wasn’t. At that point, I was deep into going to school and I thought that performing for that supposed last time would be emotional, but it was more like a monkey getting pulled off my back, actually.
Q: People look back at the‘80’s comedy scene in San Francisco and say it was an incredibly talent-laden time. Did you know that it was that way back then?
A: I think we knew it. There was something special in the city by the way comedy just boomed during that time. I came to SF as a musician and the music scene back then took a dump just when comedy was starting to peak. It was easy for any club with a light and a small stage to do comedy, and there were so many comics out there that shows were everywhere. I don’t think many of us got into standup back then to make money—we just thought it was a lot of fun. We were screwing around and it just happened. Steven Pearl, Doug Ferrari, Will Durst, Bobby Slayton, (the late) Jane Dornacker, Billy Jaye, Michael Pritchard, Linda Hill—they were all here and it was amazing.