Monday, September 27, 2010

Comedy and Time Travel

For some people, it's hearing a song they associate with a particular time or place, like a first trip overseas. For others, it's a smell, maybe hot cookies, like Mom used to make. For still others, it's an airplane; a plane can be a time machine that takes you from the 21st century to those rare parts of the world that still have pre-industrial, barter economies from centuries ago. These are all forms of travel: in this case, time travel.

For me, the other night, the vehicle for time-travel was comedic. My wife and I went to a 30th anniversary reunion show at San Francisco's Palace of Fine Arts Theatre for the San Francisco comedy nightclub the Other Cafe, a popular, innovative venue that thrived in the 1980s.

Even the venue for the big show evoked a kind of time travel: The Palace of Fine Arts is the only surviving piece of the 1915 Pan Pacific Exposition, a successful world's fair that showcased San Francisco's recovery from the great earthquake and fire of 1906. Now the Palace itself is in need of recovery; it has physically deteriorated over the years and is in the midst of a long-term, expensive restoration. The theatre is operating normally, though, and if you're in San Francisco, you can find a full bill of fare there - as well as take some great shots of the Palace out of doors.

The Other Cafe was located in the Cole Valley section of one of San Francisco's epicenters of cool, alternative culture: The Haight-Ashbury. The 49-seat club nurtured the early careers of Dana Carvey, Ellen DeGeneres, Kevin Pollak, Paula Poundstone, Will Durst, Bobcat Goldthwait and many others. Robin Williams performed there, though he was already famous by the 1980s heyday of the Other. So did the young Jerry Seinfeld and Jay Leno, who were stand-up comedians working the club circuit across the U.S. in the '80s. (See I was able to walk there from my flat in the Upper Haight.

The 30th reunion show was sweet, very long (over 5 hours) and very funny. Most of the comedians are funnier now than they were when I covered live comedy back in the day for the old, Hearst-owned San Francisco Examiner; more assured, with sharper timing and more stage presence. Most have aged well physically and professionally. A handful looked shockingly old, even frail. But then I hadn't seen them in 20 to 30 years, so they might have thought the same thing about me. It was a good gig I had back then with the Ex - I got paid for laughing. (If you want to read in more detail about the Other Cafe and the burgeoning '80s comedy scene, check out my Sept. 19, 2010, stories for the San Francisco Chronicle, posted at

The reunion show got me thinking about the passage of time and how people change - and how they stay committed to things they care about. The Other Cafe's former owners, led by Bob Ayres and Chip Romer, organized the reunion bash. The two men, still San Francisco Bay Area residents, have taken different paths since the club closed. Ayres, excited, voluble and passionate about show-business, wants to get back into comedy and sees the reunion show as something of a springboard to future ventures. Romer, quietly funny, white-haired and soft-spoken, is deeply involved in Waldorf charter schools and has served as a school principal; he is passionate, too, but he's passionate about something else: education and the lives of children. The former partners are still friends and both were on-hand for the reunion show.

For me, the show was a wonderfully rich trip back in time, great fun and at times unexpectedly emotional, especially when recalling people from that unique time and place that have passed away. They say that the past is another country. I think this is so. As with any form of travel, I was happy to go visit - and, as with any form of travel, I'm happy to come back home, enriched and rewarded for having gone.

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