From the Front Lines of SF's Alternative Comedy Scene: Cynic Cave and King Tuff's Garett Goddard on Burger Records' Upcoming Stand-up Project

It was just over a year ago that George Chen and Kevin O'Shea brought stand-up comedy to Lost Weekend Video's fledgling basement theater, The Cinecave.  But within months, their monthly comedy showcase, aptly called Cynic Cave, went weekly and began selling out on the regular.

The packed houses are not without good reason: George and Kevin quickly became known for putting together line-ups that brought out the best names in local comedy, and national stars from Bobcat Goldthwait to W. Kamau Bell started stopping in for guest sets.  That very reputation has led to Cynic Cave's latest project, a compilation album with Burger Records capturing the best of the Bay Area alternative comedy scene, featuring sets from 25 local stand-ups.

We caught up with George, Kevin, and Garett Goddard (of King Tuff) about the album, getting started at Lost Weekend Video, where they see SF's scene, and Cinecave's low ceilings:

Uptown Almanac: How'd this record come about?

George: Our friend Garret has been coming by the shows regularly, not just the Saturday shows but a lot of the monthlies and one-off shows that we throw on Fridays and Sundays. We tend to hang out in the neighborhood afterward and he mentioned how he wanted to do something along the lines of the Holy Fuck album, a very influential LA show that put together its own compilation. Garret's bands have been associated with Burger Records (King Tuff) so he pitched the idea to them.

Garett: I knew that the guys at Burger were doing a cassette release of a Neil Hamburger album, so it occurred to me that maybe they'd be interested in doing a release with new and up and coming comics.  I've been attending comedy shows for years, but i'd say in the last 3 years or so a newer sensibility has been emerging amongst younger comics, more alternative venues have been springing up (most notably The Cynic Cave in the basement of Lost Weekend), and it seemed to me like a really exciting time to try and document this in SF.  The Burger guys were excited about the idea and said I should go ahead and put it together.  Since I don't know many comics personally, I asked George and Kevin to help me assemble comedians around the Bay to be recorded at their weekly show at The Cynic Cave and they pretty much got the ball rolling.

UA: There are 25 comics signed up to record for the album.  Is this going to be a double album (albums don't exist anymore, but you know…), or are you going to grab each performer's best 3 minutes?

George: The goal is 5 minute sets max. I am not sure the limitation but I believe a cassette can go to a full 60 minutes per side. In that way it actually beats the max recommended length of a CD. So no need to do a double album, just a tape deck with auto-reverse.

Garett: The most arduous task in this project will probably be editing down everything after it's recorded into a listenable 40 or 50 minute cassette release.  I'm hoping that we'll get enough good stuff that we can maybe do two releases eventually, but I think it's important to not have a comedy record that's too long.

UA: When Lost Weekend opened up Cine Cave, they talked about it being a space for screening rare, cult films.  Then within a few months, Cynic Cave came along and pretty much changed it into a comedy venue.  How'd that happen?

George: There are still cult film screenings and screenings of Downtown Abbey, old Twin Peaks, sports events, etc.  It just seemed that when we were doing a monthly Cynic Cave, our turnouts were the most consistent and we were starting to get good local word-of-mouth. I was approached by the staff about booking all the weekend shows that were comedy-related around last Thanksgiving, and I'd recently been laid off, so I had the time and bandwidth to work on that.

Kevin: It is also such an amazing venue for live performance. There are few places that feel as intimate and are comfortable to be in.

UA: Cine Cave has short ceilings and you have some tall performers. Have there been any traumatic head injuries during your shows?

Garett: I have to crawl to the bar to get beers…BUT, short ceilings are great for comedy! Part of the reason I think that comedy shows have been so successful in that room is the intimacy it fosters between the performers and the crowd, and how well the laughter reverberates in that room.  It makes a crowd of 20 seem like 60.  It's my favorite venue for live comedy in LA or SF, bar none.

Kevin: They did this amazing in covering the beams of the ceiling with pool noodles so it's virtually head hitting proof.

UA: Speaking of short ceilings, standups have a tendency to get a little recognition in San Francisco and then quickly leave town for LA or NYC—including many veterans of Cynic Cave.  Do you see this as a problem for the SF standup scene?  How can it be an asset?

Garett: That just seems to be an inevitability if your going to pursue comedy as a career.  I'm not a comic myself, but it's no secret that all of the best writing and acting jobs related to comedy are in LA or NY, and there's only so much you can do as a comic here in SF.  But that is part of what's great about SF comedy: it's where people are trying to figure their shit out, they experiment.  It's sort of a proving ground. 

Kevin: It is a problem for SF. If you love things, support them or they'll go elsewhere!

UA: In general, how do you feel the SF comedy scene is doing? What does it need right now?

Garett: I think it's really great here in SF right now, more exciting to me than the current music scene in a lot of ways.  That's the main reason I thought it should be documented.  What the scene needs is people to continue to put on more shows at alternative venues, and more people to attend the shows. A big part of my aim in doing this release is to try and make people aware of all the great comics here right now. I know plenty of musicians that go on tour and listen to Louis CK, Hannibal Burress, Sharpling and Wurster, etc. but really don't engage with the comedy scene that's happening in their own backyard for whatever reason.  I'm also hoping it will lead to more crossover with music and comedy; I've already talked to Lee at Burger about having live comedy at Burger events in the future.  Sub Pop has done plenty of comedy releases, Matador has a few, and even Kill Rock Stars just released the new Kurt Braunholer album, so there's no reason that Burger can't do the same.

UA: Finally, how and where will the album be sold? Is there an expected release date?

George: What's nice about Burger is that all their bands tour a lot, so I imagine they'll be available at house shows on tour. Otherwise, mail-order and Burger has a brick and mortar store in Orange County I believe, plus I hope that Aquarius Records across the street picks a few up.

Not sure of an exact release date or how available it ail be digitally.

Garett: I know they signed a distribution deal recently, but I can't recall who with.  But their releases are all pretty widely distributed at record stores all over the US.  But George is right, there's still a lot of DIY style promotion, distribution, and word of mouth with Burger.  Lee's constantly taking bands on tour in his own van (what other record label does that?!! right now he's in Olympia driving Red Kross around the country!) and he sets up a little merch booth at every house show and venue with all of their Burger releases.  So once it's out there, it shouldn't be to hard to find.  No release date as of yet, I would hope for December or January maybe.

If you want to see any of the sets recorded live (you do), $10 tickets can be purchased in person at Lost Weekend Video anytime, or you can get advanced tickets on Eventbrite. Here's the line-up:

September 7th: Alison Stevenson, Brendan Lynch, Cameron Vannini, Joe Gorman, Jules Posner, Mary Van Note, Imaginary Radio, Jesse Elias (plus visiting guests: Nate Craig, Brandie Posey & Brendan McGowan)

September 14th: Joey Devine, Kaseem Bentley, Land Smith, Natasha Muse, Ray Molina, Sad Vicious, Scott Capurro

September 21st: Sean Keane, Kelly Anneken, Kate Willett, Jesse Fernandez, Casey Ley, Anna Seregina (plus visiting guests Brock Wilbur, Xander Deveaux, Rick Wood)

September 28th: Andrew Holmgren, Miles K, Clare O’Kane, David Gborie, Caitlin Gill

Local Comic Struggles to Clean Out Fridge

Speaking of local comics killing it yesterday, Emily Heller was interviewed on Broke-Ass Stuart's God-daymn Website yesterday:

Three things that are in your fridge right now?
Tapatio, a moldy bowl of beans my housemate is soaking, a single leaf of a corn husk from 2009.

Three things you’d take to a desert island?
The bible (to laugh at, then later, go crazy and pray to), a knife (to crudely shave my legs with), and some rubbing alcohol (to get fucked up).

Read on to find out about Emily's hobby of photoshopping her face on celebrities' bodies (pictured above), how you can get your butt massaged for 90 minutes for cheap, and where to eat good vegetarian food in SF.  Also, the interview doesn't continue in threes.

Babylon Falling: An Interview with Sean Stewart

Back in the oh-so distant summer of 2007, Sean Stewart opened his “‘anti-revolutionary bookstore’ revolutionary bookstore,” Babylon Falling.  The Nob Hill concept store was a even mix of revolutionary literature, discussing the theories and histories of various movements, and revolutionary aesthetic and culture (music, toys, artwork, and even an in-house tshirt line).  But like many of San Francisco's best book stores, sales eventually declined, even as traffic into their various performances and art shows increased.  Faced with the choice of turning Babylon Falling into ”just another hip boutique” that happened to sell books or shut the business down, Sean stuck to his original vision and closed up shop in the summer of 2009.

While San Francisco lost a great bookstore and arts venue, we ended up gaining a rad blog dedicated to the counterculture of the 1960s and 70s full of hundreds of scans of period literature from the Bay Area and beyond.

We shot Sean a few questions about his upcoming book, the blog, and his decision to move to NYC after shuttering the bookstore.  Enjoy: 

How'd you get into, as you call it, “hoarding” 1960s and 70s counterculture magazines and newspapers? Did you live through the era in San Francisco?

I actually grew up in Kingston, Jamaica and was born in 1979. I moved to San Francisco (via New York) specifically to open Babylon Falling.

Since I was a little kid I’ve had all kinds of random collections going and so I’ve been trolling estate sales, flea markets, junk shops, and eBay forever. Here and there I would pick up underground magazines or papers from the Sixties and I loved them because nothing I was reading or watching about the time period was really representing just how richly diverse and nuanced the culture really was. So little by little I started to learn this alternative (to me) history of the Sixties through the papers and naturally I would seek out the papers any chance I got.

Beyond the 60s/70s counterculture pieces, you also feature a lot of 90s hiphop photography and memorabilia. Many of the artists featured fit the theme of the site (e.g. Public Enemy), but others are generally not known for being political, even if they put out ground-breaking albums (Nas, Dr. Dre). Any reason you also feature these nonpolitical artists so prominently? How do you see them fitting into the spirit of 1960's counter-culture?

For me the spirit of rebellion is the same, of course the different ways it manifests seems incompatible on the surface but when you really check it out the sentiment is mostly the same. In general I think its important to big up any resistance against the status quo whether it’s consciously political or not.

The simple reason it all coexists on the blog is because it’s what I’m seeing and it’s generally how I’m feeling. Anytime I’m digging in the papers and magazines I’m chasing some thought I had, which is usually prompted by the music I’m listening to and I literally just scan and post what catches my attention in that moment. To me the site is the online equivalent of saying to your friend, “check this shit out…”

Muhammad Ali speaking at San Francisco’s Civic Center as a part of the April 27th (1968) Mobilization for Peace. Photo by Alan Copeland.

Tell us a little bit about your upcoming book. How will the blog and the book compliment each other?

The book is called On the Ground: An Illustrated Anecdotal History of the Sixties Underground Press in the U.S. and will be released by PM Press (who are based in Oakland) in the Fall of 2011.

It is essentially a collection of stories told to me by the people actually involved with the production and distribution of the newspapers—John Sinclair, Art Kunkin, Paul Krassner, Ben Morea, Emory Douglas, JohnWilcock, Bill Ayers, Spain Rodriguez, Trina Robbins, Al Goldstein, Harvey Wasserman and many more—and features over 50 full-color scans taken from a broad range of newspapers.

As the publishing date approaches the blog is going to end up being an accumulation of outtakes and b-roll to the book. There’s so much fascinating stuff that I’ve collected that isn’t appropriate for the book and the blog will be an outlet for all of this content. I can’t wait actually because I’m itching to put this stuff out there. I’ll still be throwing in scans of M.O.P. ads to confuse people here and there.

Have a favorite scan you've posted on the blog?

The American Flag as Redesigned in 1901 by Mark Twain. Ramparts, May 1968.

Mark Twain was the shit and so was Ramparts.

Despite the decline in student activism, are there any major causes today being taken up in the Bay Area that you find memorable?

Seeing the mobilization to speak out against the murder of Oscar Grant was inspiring. I’ve also noticed that a lot of veteran organizers and revolutionaries in the Bay Area are starting to re-emerge and re-engage with the younger generations. We’ll see where it all goes but there seems to be a general growth of student movements and a recent welling up student protest around the world. It all goes in cycles.

Tricky Dick Visits S.F. San Franciso Express Times, September 1968.

After closing down the bookstore in SF, what prompted you to move to Brooklyn?

Classically hard headed, I decided the correct course of action after closing the store was to pursue a career in the publishing industry (any NY based publishers reading this – I am a humble, hard working aspiring wage slave. Holla at me –

Was it a major pain in the ass to get your collection across the country?

The papers are nothing compared to the insanity of lugging around our books. The real pain in the ass has been trying to convince my wife that the papers and magazines (in unmarked binders, plastic tubs and poly bags) deserve prominent placement in our living room.

You can follow Babylon Falling on Tumblr.