When people think of standup, I doubt they think of cafes. In San Francisco, you can't have one without the other. A lot of open mics are held in tiny cafes. What that means is a lot of people sitting down to have conversation over coffee, or people staring at their laptops get interrupted by people just starting out in standup. The mix can be unintentionally hilarious if awkward social interaction is your thing (and really, who doesn't enjoy a good train wreck?)
I've been hitting open mics again. Taking a slip of paper up in my hand and just throwing ideas into the wind can be exhilarating, in a way headlining sold-out shows in a dedicated comedy club can’t. There’s also the "San Francisco factor" that makes these shows something different. This is my latest adventure in “Cafe open Mics”.
While waiting to go up, I’m standing in the corner watching it all. The guy up right now is doing his best. I've seen him before. He’s putting everything he has into it, but the small group feels more confused than anything else. The audience consists of 10 or so people, sitting at square cafe tables that have been placed in a semi-circle. He stands in
front of them as the host politely spaces-out on a stool behind them. What I’m watching is the action over his shoulder outside. This cafe has a huge glass window that looks out on the front parking spaces. The first space is taken up by a low dumpster. Two elderly Asian women, right out of central casting, are methodically going through the dumpster. Occasionally, they toss a box or plastic bag into their wire cart. The scene looks like something from Bladerunner. What makes it all surreal is that while these two women demonstrate just how bad the economy is, a guy inside is trying to make people laugh with jokes about nothing. Then it takes the first of many odd turns that make this night wonderfully strange. The show has reached that point where people start to zone out. It's not going to be any better than this, folks. The guy "on stage" starts repeating the host’s name (his glassy-eyed stare seems fixed on a point above all our heads.) The comic repeats his name several times. Finally the host answers with a plaintive “yes?”, and the comic asks, "can I do a dirty joke?" Apparently the host has told everyone that this is a PG-13 show. When a comic asks if he can do a dirty joke you know the mood is about to change. Sure enough, the host gives his permission, and within five seconds we hear the words ‘cock’, ‘pussy’ and ‘rape’. Delightful. It's such a rapid change. The comic commits to a rape joke, where seconds before the jokes were harmless puns. It causes a few of us in back to laugh at the sheer absurdity of the situation. Unfortunately, we laugh right as he delivers the punch line, stepping on it. This upsets him. So, he repeats the punch line. This makes me suppress another laugh because the dichotomy of watching two elderly women pulling stuff out of the trash while a comic gets upset that we spoiled his rape joke is too bizarre not to laugh!
Then I hear my name. I'm up! I've always been an ‘in the moment’ type of comic, so of course I call attention to the two women acting out some modern Charles Dickens poverty tale, as a guy gets angry that people messed up his rape joke. To my surprise, even though the window is clear, people just realize there are two women digging through a trash bin as we all sit in the comfortable warmth of a café, scratching our collective balls and wondering what’s going on. As we all turn to look out the window, one of the women smiles a big toothless grin and holds up a bunch of bananas she's pulled from the dumpster. A woman sitting at one of the tables says in a 1970's stereotypical Russian spy accent "that is the landlord." Since most of the people here are familiar with the café, they laugh in that way that tells an outsider, like me, that this is the truth. That really is the café’s landlord! I look at the woman and simply ask "really?" She sheepishly nods her head and I say "I don't know how much you're paying in rent but clearly it's not enough."
That's when I notice a guy behind the counter sprint outside and get the bananas. When he comes back in. I ask what I hope is on everyone's mind, "you’re not going to use those are you?" In typical San Francisco fashion, he tells me that bananas have "...this excellent organic packaging that renders them safe." Wait, I'm still not done processing the fact that your landlord is rummaging through the trash for food, and now I also have to handle the information that bananas fished out of a dumpster in front of the café, as a comedy show is happening, are going to be resold to people in smoothies! At this point any jokes I wanted to try out are pretty much useless. As I voice that realization, the little group of audience laughs and points out the window again. The woman is smiling and holding another bunch of bananas up. This time she’s gesturing that they’re for me. What can I say? I smile back, and politely refuse as I mouth the words, "No thanks. I'm trying to cut down on my botulism." San Francisco. Why do I continue to live here? The jokes write themselves.