Robin Williams closed the Other Café ‘s 30th Anniversary show Saturday night before a sold-out audience at the Palace of Fine Arts, and maybe for the first time in his illustrious career, Robin had the crowd thinking:
“Ten minutes, Robin, no more. Maybe seven .”
Of course, there is not one anti-Robin feeling anywhere between here and Alfa Centauri. But the crowd of more than 1,000 just couldn’t take one more laugh, not one more chuckle, after a cavalcade of comics pushed an already elongated scheduled four-hour show past the five-hour mark. Or could they?.
“Ken Burns has been filming this for the last six hours,” Robin shouted. “Three babies have been born back stage.”
In perhaps the most extraordinary comedy event in Bay Area history, more than 30 mostly big name alumni of the Haight-Ashbury comedy club delivered line after line after line until almost 1 a.m. It was a remarkable salute to the Other Café, an ordinary Haight Ashbury establishment that prospered from 1980 to 1989 during the golden era of Bay Area comedy.
The Other – along with the Punchline, Cobb’s and the Holy City Zoo – was one of four full-time comedy clubs operating in San Francisco alone.
Forget the local big league names such as Bob Sarlatte, Johnny Steele, A. Whitney Brown, Sue Murphy, Tom Kenny, Will Durst, Barry Sobel, Mark McCollum, Michael Meehan, and Michael Pritchard.
The evening boasted an astounding six other comedians listed by Comedy Central as among the “100 greatest” stand up comics of all time. Besides Robin , the comedy monoliths included Bob Goldthwait, Kevin Pollack, Bobby Slayton, Paula Poundstone and Dana Carvey.
Bob Ayres, the founder of the Other Café, along with Chip Romer and Richard Snow, Scott Gelfand, Debra Sartell and Elisabeth Manning had worked on this event – a fund raiser for KQED’s public media – for more than two years, and the effort clearly paid off, not only in the laughs, but also in the evening’s good vibes – on both sides of the curtain.
Ayres kicked it off by introducing his Santa Rosa parents, now 84 and 81, who, he said, had advanced him the money to open the café. And, he told the audience, “That’s what you should do. Give your kids money.”
The evening featured a wide variety of comic styles and approaches, consistent with the Other Cafe’s free-wheeling approach. Besides the straight traditional stand-ups, you could find the odd team of Fran and Jan Solomita (talking over each other), brilliant magician/comic Michael Davis, guitar playing Mark McCollum and a very funny improv sketch team.
Of course, the central theme of the evening was memories of the Other Café and how everyone is three decades older.
Carvey recalled that “I met my wife at the Other Café, and I’ve raised her as my own.” Goldthwait remembered that Romer had brought him out from Boston, and “I stayed at Paula and Dana’s houses.”
In a slide show, many of the performers were seen as they looked at the club. If you were among those who were there in those wild anything-goes days, as this writer was, you could have seen Goldthwait begin his act by breaking out of a giant card board box, or a wildly screaming Slayton in the middle of his act, chasing an offended lesbian couple up Cole street.
As far as how time has taken a toll on the comics, Slayton finds it’s left him finally with the perfect marriage. “I can’t see my wife now. And she can’t hear me.” Sobel said, “I’m the only person in the line-up that hasn’t had a stroke.” Added Marga Gomez , “The snack table back stage looks like a pharmacy.”
Some memorable moments:
* Darryl Henriques’ brilliant if bizarre “Twilight Zone”-like yarn of a solo drug-fueled car trip down Highway 5to Los Angeles and his “Soylent Green”-like encounter with “space farmers” who process humans for food.
* Isn’t This Special: Carvey explaining how his beloved SNL church lady evolved out of his work at the Other.
* Sobel’s imitation of comic Chris Rock lamenting the plight of Tiger Woods. “We have one black golfer and he f—ed it up.”
And a few great lines:
* Marga Gomez responding to a friend who asked her if her attendance at a rural lesbian music festival was like going to the Burning Man. Says Marga, “Yeah, we burned a man.”
* A. Whitney Brown: “I went back to the Haight today where the Other Café was. The café is completely gone. And now they want to build a mosque next to it.”
Brown, unfortunately, also ended up on the small negative side to the evening. In an attempt at sarcasm aimed at President Obama detractors, Brown turned the crowd quiet when he used the N word, and thus joins Dr. Laura and Michael Richards in the penalty box. Sometimes 30 years of experience doesn’t help.
And Tom Kenny, now known as the voice of Spongebob, who killed, went so overtime that you expected the lighting person to jump the stage and jam the flash light down his throat to get him off.
But these are minor quibbles.
One interesting aspect of it all: There are no 30 year olds at a 30-year reunion. Most 30 year olds would likely label this “the Antique Road Show,” sadly unaware of just what 30 years of comic maturity can bring to the stage.
Even the old-guy cameraman, operating next to my seat, laughed throughout the production, and the old audience laughed enough by the end of the 300 minutes to have probably filled a year’s worth of comedy back at the Other Café in the 1980s.
David Kleinberg was the editor of the Sunday Datebook from 1980 to 1994 during a 34-year career at the San Francisco Chronicle. He has been a standup comic for the last ten years, and has appeared on stage with Robin Williams, Dana Carvey, Sinbad, Bobby Slayton and Richard Lewis.