Back in 2008, I wrote an article for San Diego CityBeat about places to laugh in San Diego. I’m not sure whose idea it was but somehow I ended up seeing how many I could do in one night…and the following morning. It was a fun concept but there wasn’t enough room to do a good job of describing all of them, so the piece went unpublished and we never did them separately, even though the Mystery Cafe Dinner Theater at Imperial House gave us two free tickets and dinners for a possible article (again, unpublished). All of the venues were nice enough to let me take a complimentary peek inside their establishments so I always meant to put this up somewhere as thanks. So….thanks.
Hardy har by Adam Gimbel
There’s quite a variety of places to get laughs in San Diego. In addition to the unintentional hilarity of open-mic nights, drunk karaoke singers or your local DMV, there are quite a few clubs that feature comedy on a regular basis. Places like Lestats, Winstons, Moondoggies, Bamboo Lounge and the new Jon Lovitz Comedy Club at Aubergine all play host to regular stand-up comedy nights. On a Saturday night, however, there are three places you can always go to get some laughs. If you plan well, you can do all three in one night.
A good starting place is The National Comedy Theater (3717 India St, NationalComedy.com), which specializes in improvised comedy, something that many famous comedians don’t dare try. For two decades, the NCTs here and in New York have been doing unscripted shows that come completely from audience suggestions. Modern improv dates back to the 1940’s but most Americans got their first taste of it via the US version of British television program Whose Line Is It Anyways? This local chapter has done so well over the years that it has its own versatile theater near Little Italy and teaches improv classes of its own.
Every Friday and Saturday night, performers are matched in a mock-competition with two three-player teams switching off doing short sketches that are moderated by a referee. There are a few hundred improv comedy games that the NCT troupe uses to incorporate the crowd’s ideas and sometimes the spectators themselves end up onstage. It’s a family-friendly affair (teams are actually penalized for inappropriate material) with the teams wearing matching bowling shirts that are a little hokey. However, the second they get started, there’s nothing to distract from how incredibly fast the comedians come up with material. Whether it’s a rapid-fire charades session acting out “insipid oscillating elephant”, a series of recreations of an audience member’s recent charity walk or a rhyming exercise disguised as a rap battle, the cast members are all mind-blowingly quick-witted.
Up in Kearny Mesa, a very different night of comedy takes place every weekend. Local comedian Tarrell Wright starts out the late show at the Comedy Palace (8878 Clairemont Mesa Blvd, TheComedyPalace.com) with a simple question: “Where my weed smokers at?” The crowd erupts at the surprising ceremonial first joke. San Diego has long been a breeding ground for up-and-coming comedians like Jamie Foxx, Whoopie Goldberg, Bobby Lee, Rene Sandoval, Darren Carter, Bobby Lee, Dante and many more. Our proximity to Los Angeles, long considered THE place to get noticed in comedy, means new talent can get good without the pressure of Hollywood looming too large. Plus, there’s something hysterically familiar about watching local comedians deliver material about Santee, surfing, the Chargers, and Asian UCSD students. In a town where it’s hard to keep any kind of entertainment club open, comedians are usually left to find a music venue or other unconventional establishments to host a night or two a week. The Comedy Palace is no exception. The shows take place in a Mediterranean restaurant that local comedian Sean Kelly approached a couple of years ago. The large room works surprisingly well as a comedy setting and, three nights a week, you can catch some stand-up AND a buffet. Trying to keep down gyros can be a challenge when someone like Dangerous Dick talks about his experience with an interracial relationship: “You know what they say. Once you go white….you go back to black.” Just a few minutes away, you can catch a late set at the only full-time comedy club in town, the Comedy Store in La Jolla (916 Pearl St, TheComedyStore.com). Since 1977, the more southern version of the famous Los Angeles club has played host to everyone from David Letterman to Robin Williams. The town’s best locals perform here and Sunday’s open mic allows newbies to perform at the best joint in town. The club’s iconic motif is “none more black”. Black walls, floors and tables feature caricatures of greats like Abbott & Costello, Chaplin and Laurel & Hardy while a huge stained glass design lights up the ceiling. Of course, the big draw is that the country’s biggest comedy stars perform here regularly since it’s only a short freeway ride away from Hollywood.
On a recent Saturday, Curb Your Enthusiasm’s Jeff Garln headlined two hysterical sets of storytelling from his long career. While young comics have to hone short bits and keep things moving, a veteran star like Garlin can just tell true tales about his life and keep a large audience’s attention for an entire set. Of course, it helps if you were once saved from a dildo-wielding psycho at 3am by WWF star King Kong Bundy at an all-night disco with porn being projected above your head. This kind of respect allows Garlin to go off on tangents, talk about distracting breasts in the front row at length and even have a pianist onstage to accompany a strange song repeatedly sung in French gibberish. In Garlin’s case, you can even afford to retire from “the road” this year and be in your car and back to LA before your audience is.
If you wake up Sunday morning and want to keep laughing, you might try heading down to Mission Bay Park and join a group that meets to stretch, breathe deep and laugh like maniacs. The group is one of 5000 worldwide “laughter yoga” clubs (LaughterYoga.org). It’s a global movement started by Indian doctor Madan Kataria in 1995 that takes laughter being the best medicine quite literally. There’s no question that it’s good for your oxygen intake, breathing passages and lungs but there are many that believe it helps reduce stress, blood pressure and depression. Whether you believe in its healing qualities or not, there’s one thing for sure: any decent stand-up comedian would have a field day with a bunch of earthy looking folks clapping and forcing themselves to laugh while chanting “Very good, very good YAYYYYYY!” in unison.