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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, May 01, 2002

Stand-up stories Stand-up stories (May 01, 2002)

The Rose and Crown serves up comedy on the side every Monday

by Robyn Israel

Kevin Shea clearly remembers the first time he did stand-up comedy at the Rose and Crown. He was the last one to perform that October night, and when he finally went on, his audience consisted of the bartender, three drunk men and a "crazy, middle-aged drunk lady."

"One cool hippie guy laughed at everything I said, but nothing was funny" Shea recalled. "But you got to do your time."

Six months later, Shea still performs at the Rose and Crown's open-mic comedy nights, which take place every Monday. But he typically gets assigned one of the middle slots on the bill - and a more attentive audience.

Performers run the gamut from amateur comics to more experienced comedians, some trying out new material, others polishing up old jokes. There are no tryouts; anyone who wants to perform gets five minutes in the spotlight. And though the gig doesn't pay, the experience and exposure are still valued by those who grace the stage of the tiny British pub at 547 Emerson Street.

"This is the birthplace for a lot of comedians," said San Jose comic Jeff Applebaum, who often serves as emcee. "You get encouragement, a chance to develop your own style. And you get a real audience. You get more people who are not comics here than comics."

The Rose and Crown crowd is typically a cross-section of Stanford students, dot-commers and other professionals - fresh faces that change each week. An April 15 show drew nearly 50 people into the small space, with 22 comics -- three of them women -- competing for their laughs.

"We have a more sophisticated crowd here in Palo Alto, and they appreciate good humor," said owner Tony Babb. "I think the super-raunchy stuff doesn't go over here - maybe with the younger crowd, but not with the older crowd."

"It's generally not a rowdy crowd, and the comics like that," Babb added. "We don't serve hard liquor, so you don't get a lot of drunks."

New York-based comic Dan Nainan found out about the Rose and Crown on the Internet, and decided to include it on a recent West Coast business trip. He found the experience "phenomenal" - and the audience a refreshing change from New York's jaded comics.

"I did the same act in New York City, and I didn't get a single laugh. Not a snicker. Nothing," Nainan recalled.

Many comics said they're drawn to the Rose and Crown's supportive atmosphere, which fosters great camaraderie. The relaxed ambience, many say, makes it one of the most attractive open mics in the Bay Area.

Established two years ago by former Rose and Crown bartender James Dibble, the program took some time to gain a following. But slowly, through word-of-mouth, comics started hearing about it. Today it is a very popular event, drawing comics from the Bay Area and beyond.

"The comics I meet here are some of the nicest people," said Palo Alto funny-man Norm Goldblatt. "We're always trading ideas on our routines. Every one of these guys I'm crazy about. We have so much fun."

The jokes center around relationships, sex, daily observations, current events and Palo Alto, "where even the homeless have Web sites!" mused comic Albert Vallejo. At the April 15 show, comic John Beck (who alternates emcee duties with Applebaum) poked fun at the case of the Palo Alto woman whose tall shrub violated the city's visibility rules.

Many comics typically draw from their own life experience, with several finding humor in their ethnicity. A fine example is Nainan, the son of a Japanese mother and an Indian father. Nainan does a linguistic bit about how words can have different meaning, like "graze."

"You know, cows graze. You can be grazed by a bullet. And according to my mom, "It can also mean a type of donut."

Another example is Edwin Okongo, a Kenyan native who pokes fun at his alien background.

"So the drinking age in America is 21 years old," he said. "21?! I am from Africa, where the life expectancy is 27. We've got lions killing us. We've been drinking since we're 6 years old. At 21, I'm thinking it's time to quit!"

Shea, an Asian American who was adopted by white parents, finds humor in the way people react to his heritage.

"Dude, you should go back and visit the mother country!" they tell me. "Hey, I live in San Francisco! If it was any more Asian, there'd be swords flying around!" (a joke that typically gets a better response in the city, Shea said).

Others comics are more off-the-wall, like Kenny Kane, an energy-driven comic whose act includes a Swedish-speaking impala and a Spanish Oscar Meyer commercial. Known for spontaneously assuming yoga positions during his routine, Kane also does a shtick about different creatures mating, like Michael Jackson and Bubbles, or Kathy Lee Gifford and a Klingon.

"My stuff is out there, it's bizarre," acknowledged Kane, a native of Santa Rosa who is currently pursuing comedy in Los Angeles.

The objective for each performance, Kane said, is to establish a viable connection with the audience.

"You're not speaking to them. You're speaking with them," Kane said. "That's the magical part. But that's also the elusive part. That's what makes it so tricky."

And stand-up comedy forces performers to be funny at that moment - no easy task. There are bound to be off-nights and hecklers, so up-and-coming comics must be prepared to deal with rejection and learn to not take it personally.

"When you're first starting out, comedy is replete with traumatic experiences - bad set after bad set. People telling you you suck onstage," Kane said.

"Growth comes when you can let go of people judging you," he added. "You just focus on the material and you're confident in who you are as a person. And when they [the audience] sense that self-confidence, they're more inclined to laugh and go along."

Goldblatt, who's been doing stand-up since 1987 (formerly at the now-defunct Emerson Street Bar and Grill), used to berate himself whenever he had a bad set. Now, the clipboard-carrying comic who previously wrote jokes for Jay Leno (he would send them in and get paid $50 per joke) is more analytical about the process.

"If I have a bad set, instead of being glum, I try to figure out why it went wrong. The last people I blame are the audience."

To that end, Goldblatt will tape his shows and then work on fine-tuning his jokes, either changing the placement or inflection of a word, or varying the timing.

A bad or good night has as much to do with a comic's own perception as it does with the material, Goldblatt stressed.

"I've gotten off the stage thinking I got no laughs, and yet I'll walk by the bar, and people will be patting me on the back. And then I'll listen to the tape and realize people were laughing."

One comic who performed on April 15 walked offstage in the middle of his lackluster set, mortified from what he deemed to be a poor performance.

"There's always a self-doubt. Can I really do it? It always nags you," said Nainan, who made a New Year's resolution to return to stand-up after a three-year hiatus.

With that kind of pressure, what compels these comics to try their luck at stand-up?

"It's amazing when you make people laugh - it's a great way to gain acceptance. And it's a great form of therapy," said Applebaum, who first started telling jokes as a kid - a defense mechanism that came in handy in his Queens, N.Y. neighborhood.

"And it's all about ego. Men are totally driven by that. Women are more secure," said Applebaum, offering some insight into why there are fewer female comics.

For Goldblatt, stand-up comedy offers the ultimate validation.

"I love the instant feedback of finding out whether what I created is funny," Goldblatt said. "To me, it's not the same thing to tell a co-worker a joke."

Several of the comics dream about hitting the big-time. Shea, for example, would love to have his own TV show someday. Applebaum, a businessman by day, dreams about becoming a comedic actor. Kane would ultimately love to become a Hollywood philanthropist and facilitate the growth of up-and-coming comedians.

"I believe you'll get there, if you're willing to pay the price," Applebaum said. "You listen to feedback from other people and you get better."

Buoyed by the success of the two-year-old program, owner Babb is now considering a second comedy night, which would showcase more experienced comedians. The plan, he said, would be to select four or five of the funniest comics and give them each a 20-minute gig.

A similar plan is currently underway at both Rudy's in Palo Alto and Applejack's in La Honda, with both programs being set up by Dibble, the former Rose and Crown bartender who started it all. Rudy's is scheduled to present its showcase on Wednesday nights; Applejack's is already operating on Saturday nights.

Perhaps, mused Goldblatt, it's a sign of the times -- people bored with TV, looking for cheap, live entertainment.

"It's all about people," Goldblatt said. "There's something about being close to someone who's laughing. It's contagious."

E-mail Robyn Israel at risrael@paweekly.com


 

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