A comic walks into a festival …
Local comedians share laughs, opportunities—and maybe the occassional fight—at this week’s Sacramento Comedy Festival
Whether you prefer a witty one-liner, a clever delivery or being politically challenged with a side of comedic relief, Sacramento’s comedy scene has it covered. Between sketch-comedy troupes, improv sets and a growing number of cafes and coffee shops catering to stand-up, comedy is at an all-time high in Sactown. Although many local comics say the scene is ever fluctuating, one could argue that despite—or perhaps thanks to—the late nights, unexpected opportunities and occasional bar fights, it’s the ones behind the mic getting the last laugh at this year’s Sacramento Comedy Festival, an epic eight-day event that kicks off Friday, September 7, and plays host to more than 120 local and out-of-town comics at Luna’s Café & Juice Bar and the Sacramento Comedy Spot.
Festival director Brian Crall, who also owns the Comedy Spot, says he believes the scene is thriving.
“I’m able to scrape by off of comedy,” Crall says. “I love being able to perform three or four nights a week. It’s like being able to play in your little sandbox every week and have a good time.”
The good times are evident on a recent Tuesday evening during Ray Molina’s sketch-comedy night Comedy Space, held weekly at the Comedy Spot. Inside the 80-seat space, a black stage with red theater curtains welcomes a modest-sized audience. They’re greeted by a certain Sacramento-area artist-at-large, Skinner, who stands onstage, wailing on a guitar as the lights dim and fade in time to his metalesque squeals. Molina eventually enters the scene, sarcastically pushing the artist offstage and out of sight. As the guitar notes still echo loudly from backstage, the chuckling audience bursts into full applause.
In the beginning of his now six-year run in the industry, Molina says he didn’t want to perform; he wanted to write. Not surprisingly then, his routine is filled with a handful of original sketches—bits often sprinkled with minutes of stand-up and dry-humored witticisms—before he yields the stage to both local and out-of-town personalities. Despite his near-veteran status, however, Molina says he only recently experienced the sort of pure enjoyment he often witnesses on the faces of fellow comedians.
“I never got a rush,” explains Molina. “I used to be really shy, and I didn’t like big crowds, but about a week ago, I did this show and enjoyed it.”
The timing couldn’t be better, he adds.
“I’m trying to reach the greatest demographic that I can reach and have something to say,” Molina explains.
As Molina worked to get over his dislike of big crowds, friend and fellow comedian Cheryl Anderson—a.k.a. Cheryl the Soccer Mom—nursed her phobia of public speaking with stand-up. She remembers six years ago telling her husband and two daughters she was “going to Target.” In reality, however, the Soccer Mom was regularly escaping the house to attend various open-mic nights scattered throughout the region.
These days, the blond soft-spoken comic has long come clean to her family about her love affair with all things funny. She appears regularly on Good Day Sacramento with her all-female comedy troupe, the Real Housewives of Rio Linda, and recently flew to Orlando, Fla., to tape a segment on a new Nickelodeon show NickMom Night Out with comedienne Caroline Rhea.
The spin to Anderson’s appeal is her set’s content, a mix of lighthearted jokes—such as the one about discovering the definition of the acronym “MILF”—as well as bits on tossed salads and Martha Stewart.
But she says it wasn’t until she saw an audience member slap a table with laughter that the Soccer Mom (who really does drive a minivan, by the way) felt her own moment of enjoyment in an industry she once kept as her dirty little secret.
“Being able to get a physical reaction from people just with words—it’s like an explosion,” she says. “People will literally fall on the floor. That much power is amazing.”
In comedy there aren’t, of course, just the knee-slappers—there are tough crowds, too: the occasional lone, stone-faced audience members who won’t crack a smile. Perhaps worse are the obnoxiously vocal hecklers.
For stand-up comedian Keith Lowell Jensen, a trip up north to perform in Blue Lake, Calif., at the Mad River Summerfest, started off with a joke like this:
“Summerfest, huh? Kinda like a white-power Burning Man,” laughs Jensen retelling the story at a Midtown coffee shop. “The promoter said I had more people coming up to him with compliments than any other comics and more complaints.”
Jensen, whose material highlights personal stories of losing faith and finding atheism, often challenges an audience to laugh at their surroundings. However, Jensen along with friend and Sacramento comedian Johnny Taylor, says he found that to be an impossible task while performing at the Mad River Brewery Company during a show in which patrons shouted insults from the bar in an attempt to interrupt each comic’s set. The festivities peaked with Jensen yelling at the hecklers, effectively ending the night.
Despite the occasional rough performace, however, both comedians keep busy. Jensen is set to release his third comedy album this fall with Stand Up! Records (the disc is currently untitled—he’s leaning toward Elf Orgy, but stay tuned). Meanwhile, Taylor, with two years and counting in comedy, says he’s looking forward to a Punch Line Comedy Club stint, opening for Brian Posehn, a former Sacramento comic who now appears regularly on TV.
Taylor says he enjoys not just performing, but also connecting with the audience.
“I like the connection you make with people. I find it really cathartic,” Taylor says. “When you’re performing, you’re not completely you. But my material is really personal, so I want [the audience] to get a sense of who I am.”
Of course, it’s not just about the audience—connecting with fellow comedians is also key.
Such networking is in effect on a recent Wednesday night at Luna’s Café during the restaurant’s weekly comedy night hosted by Jensen.
On this particular evening Taylor, along with a handful of other performers, stand outside joking, swapping stories and debating whether it’s worth it to make the drive to San Francisco to perform a Sunday-night show.
“It’s insane the number of rooms we have [in Sacramento] now, the opportunities for stage time,” Jensen says.
Of course, with opportunity come a few friendly rivalries. Most of the comics on the scene are friends—but they’re also each other’s competition.
It’s no worries, the way Jensen sees it. There’s always room for a little healthy, funny rivalry.
“Comedy is exploding again, and I’m glad Sacramento’s a part of it.”