In Praise of the Purple Onion

The most historic comedy club in America that exists today won’t in October. The building that contains the Purple Onion’s 60-year-old subterranean stage was recently sold and will be gutted; taken with the red booths and faux-brick walling will be the legacy of The Smothers Brothers, Lenny Bruce, Woody Allen, Richard Pryor, and Phyllis Diller.  I have a personal history with the club that goes back almost twenty years now, and its passing is truly awful-  personally, to the comedy community, and San Francisco as a whole.

In 1994, the Onion was showcasing garage bands under the psychotic stewardship of a local victim described by the SF Weekly as “Crispin Glover after two weeks of intravenous double-lattes.”  The club where I was on staff, my beloved Holy City Zoo, had just closed down and a couple of comics and myself had formed a production troupe staging shows at alternative and DIY venues, and we pitched the return of comedy to The Onion. It did not go well. When the guy in charge of the room is drunk and heckling the show, sends rookie comics offstage in tears, and needs physical coercion to cough up the door split, that’s not good. But for a while I had the honor of saying I put on the first comedy show at the Onion in over a decade. It closed soon after- an entire trust-fund spent by a managerial lunatic on 3-chord surf music and kegs of PBR.

The space itself was taken over by the Ascione family, who operated Macaroni Sciue Sciue upstairs, and it was ignominiously used as a storage area. At the time I was living in North Beach, and would walk by the shadowy staircase and envision a time when I could once again put on shows there. Ten years after our first debacle, while arranging a photo shoot with Don Novello, I learned that Mario had restored the place and was planning a re-opening. Mario had great intentions, but little knowledge of our local comedy scene, so I offered to start off booking the club for him. Opening night of “Jim Short and Friends” will forever be a homecoming, a triumph, and now a bittersweet remembrance.

Jim became my partner and whenever he was in town, Jim Short & Friends were the likes of Greg Proops, Will Durst, Tom Rhodes, Arj Barker, Robert Hawkins, Greg Behrendt- national headliners playing a 99-seat basement club because of the love of the room.  There were other great shows, too- with Paul Krassner, W. Kamau Bell, Will Franken, Mike Birbiglia. All of them unique, honest, and brilliant comics.   It also allowed me to reconnect with the amazing young talent of which San Francisco always seems to have a bumper crop.

After a year or so, the birth of my daughter, and tons of great shows, I handed the reins of the Onion over to David Owen, a truly professional producer and co-founder of SF Sketchfest, who proceeded to up the ante by bringing in the likes of Judah Friedlander, Doug Stanhope, the return of Mort Sahl, and a DVD production for Zach Galifianakis.

Then in 2007, I partnered with Crackle/Sony Entertainment to film “Live at the Purple Onion,” a stand-up web series that allowed me to present Paul F. Tompkins, Patton Oswalt, Maria Bamford, Tig Notaro, and other personal favorites. And that’s the thing- I had the incredible privilege of always booking shows that I would have wanted to see. My shows ran on equal parts talent and goodwill, as the size of the place makes a big payday impossible. I didn’t need to worry if my acts had the right TV credits, social media clout, or mailing list. I didn’t have to care if we made good numbers with nachos. My shows were by candlelight, there was no drink minimum, and the comics dressed up.

The ongoing problem at this point was that the club had become a room-for-hire, with a hodge-podge of producers bringing in various showcases, theme shows, and comedy-college graduations. Quality could be amazing or unwatchable, and I started hearing complaints from people who had been coerced into going there to watch their friends’ first time on a real comedy club stage.  I love Mario- he’s honest and has a great heart- which is probably why working in show business was challenging for him. Plus he had the gift and the burden of having an intimate venue.

After years away, I had actually booked a show there for September 6th, when I heard the awful news that the building had been sold and the Onion would be no more. Then I asked for and was given the Purple Onion’s final show, which will be on Monday, September 24th.

This Thursday’s show is Bob Rubin, with Larry Bubbles Brown, Randy Hauser, and more. Tix are available via Eventbrite here: http://onenightwithbobrubin.eventbrite.com/

Plans for the last show are still underway, and tix will go on sale soon. We’re looking to send the place off in style, with a marathon of great comics as- what else?- Jim Short & Friends. If you want to be notified when tickets will be released to the public, write me at dan@dandion.com  .

I’ve heard variously that the building is going to be a steakhouse or a strip club, but for me, the most gorgeous prime rib or even the tastiest slab of T&A doesn’t compare to a night of hilarious, smart comedy on a stage steeped in history.

Toast to the club with Bob Rubin.

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Read more.. Tuesday, September 4th, 2012

In Praise of Patton Oswalt

Twenty years ago, at a dingy nightclub on a block of Clement Street in San Francisco’s Inner Richmond District, the aging comedy boom of the 8o’s gave birth to the snarky, cynical, over-educated meta-child that would come to be known as Alt Comedy. (Like most nicknames, it was not chosen, but given.) Cable shows had oversaturated  the market; genuine wit and brilliant absurdity had been replaced by annoyed populist observations. Hollywood had once again siphoned off some of The City’s most promising performers, and was trying desperately to figure out how best to vampirize native daughter Margaret Cho. But SF was still a mecca for stand-ups, and a peak was imminent with the ascension of a few bright locals, and the immigration of several others- locals Greg Behrendt, Laura Milligan, Brian Posehn, and Arj Barker broke out. Fiery journeymen Marc Maron and Tom Rhodes hung out their shingles from our hills, and from the Baltimore/D.C. area came Jeff Hatz, Blaine Capatch, and Patton Oswalt- a comic triumvirate  raised on Monty Python, Alan Moore, and The Pixies.   “The Class of 1992″ had arrived.

Laura Milligan, Greg Behrendt, Brian Posehn, Blaine Capatch, and Patton- 1994

I was a part of that class, too. albeit with a different function. I’d put my Jesuit philosophy degree to work as a staff member of the Holy City Zoo, San Francisco’s most historic and legendary comedy club, where 80’s celebrities like Robin Williams, Dana Carvey, and Bobcat Goldthwait earned their stripes, and utterly unique and brilliant talents such as Bob Rubin, Warren Thomas, and Jeremy Kramer still prowled the stage, fighting the thumping live music from the Last Day Saloon upstairs.  Capacity: 79 not counting the roaches. It was here that I married my love of comedy with my photography career and started shooting portraits of these most dynamic artists.

Patton Oswalt in my vintage Volvo.

Patton Oswalt stood out in any show’s line-up. He had a different kind of energy, material that never seemed contrived, and a distinctive vocal timbre that projected confidence, even when the joke was on himself. He can be self-deprecating, but he’s never a loser.  He was early geek-chic, and proud to be a comic book nerd way way way before it was mainstream. He’s never seemed concerned with being “cool,” as cool requires acceptance by and admiration of the majority. Patton’s comedy consoles you that it’s ok not to be.

There’s a bit of a Dennis Miller in him; he throws references around like you ought to know them. But I got all of Miller’s and maybe two-thirds of Patton’s. But I never had any desire to research Miller’s rantfrences, whereas Patton led me to read The Man in the High Castle and tipped the scales as I browsed the racks at Amoeba Records. His comedy can be a hyperlink, whereas Miller’s was arrogance plugged in to a bit. It annoys me when comics use pop culture references as the punchline, and the audience laughs in self-congratulation at getting it. Patton uses them to frame his context, to let you know who he is and where he’s coming from.


In an ad for Dark Horse Comics

Early on, I can recall someone in the industry saying he was “very ambitious” which was intended as a patronizing insult but I took as the opposite. He may have been insubordinate to the timeline ladder, but he was headlining and producing his own theme shows in short order. His impeccable taste in comedy and respect from his peers has allowed him to gather amazing people. (I look back on his “Four Tuesdays of the Apocalypse” show flyer that reads like a time capsule of the city’s best.) Many years later this talent would manifest itself as he created The Comedians of Comedy with Posehn, Maria Bamford, and not-yet-household-misspelled-name Zach Galifianakis.

Patton in SF

One great thing is that he’s always writing. Even if you see him just six months apart you can bet that half his set is going to be new, or at the very least material you haven’t heard before. Can’t see him live? Check out his blog. Or watch Ratatouille with your kids (or without) to see one of the few Disney projects that doesn’t involve a woman being rescued. Or read his interview in ¡SATIRISTAS! Or see Big Fan for a film about obsession (with a brilliant climax). Or see him in Young Adult with Charlize Theron and tell me what it’s like to see a film in a theater. (My two young kids have constricted this activity for me.) And he still finds time to appear in his friends’ webisodes, get arrested on Reno 911, write a book, and give a graduation speech to his high school.  The fucker is prolific.

Patton and David Cross at Cobb's Comedy Club

There’s a great example of his comic worldview in his closing note as guest editor of the “The Funny Issue” of Spin Magazine. If anything, I think he’s an example that you can be very smart onstage and off-  without having to prove that you are smarter than everyone else.

Class of 1992 Revisited- 2009

ALL PHOTOS ©DAN DION

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Read more.. Wednesday, February 1st, 2012

¡SATIRISTAS! White Guilt Night at the Actors’ Gang

Paul Provenza and Tim Robbins

We had another sold-out house at The Actors’ Gang Theater for our monthly ¡Satiristas! night as part of the Axis Mundi Series curated by Tim Robbins. In honor of black history month, we celebrated White Guilt Night.

Billy the Mime

Following cocktails on the patio, Billy the Mime, performing in whiteface, kicked things of with his history of the African American Experience in America- incarceration and exploitation capped with a triumphant cigarette outside the White House.

Mark Silverman sang about the word white people can’t say, and cartoonist Keith Knight presented a slideshow of his racially themed one-panel cartoons (th)INK.

Cartoonist Keith Knight
Humorsician Mark Silverman

This was followed by a game Paul calls “RACIST or NOT RACIST” wherein he projects imagery gathered from around the world of questionable taste and intent and the audience comments on its effect. But within our audience were comedian friends and SATIRISTAS galore- Kevin Kataoka, Ngaio Bealum, Jim Jeffries, Rick Overton, Matt Kirshen, Kumail Nanjiani, Gary Shapiro, Suzanne Whang, Troy Conrad, Chris Pina, Emery Emery, and Franklyn Ajaye.

Everyone was encouraged to comment without reservations, but egregiously racist comments, even if hilarious, required a cash donation on the spot for the Southern Poverty Law Center, the civil rights organization that successfully sued the Imperial Klan in Kentucky for actions of its militia members.

Agitator Eddie Pepitone
Agitator Eddie Pepitone

This lowbrow high-mindedness seemed to be lost on Eddie Pepitone- as evidenced here in this video.

But even the Satiristas have their breaking point- and it apparently comes in the form of a woman yelling out racial slurs in fake accents. Thankfully, we had our own comic ninja  Dylan Brody available to forcibly eject her, for which he earned a punch in the nose before subduing the the heinous heckler.

Kung-Fu Comic Dylan Brody

The show itself had its proponents and detractors, with a glowing review on Buzzine, and a he’s-just-not-into-us open letter to the Actor’s Gang by Brian Kim Stefans, which he also posted to the Satiristas website.

During all the laughing, shouting, comedic race-baiting and card-playing, painter Michael Pukac was upstage creating his interpretation of the evenings’ proceedings. Shana Sosin, producer of Axis Mundi, summed it up better than anyone: “There were times when I was really uncomfortable. THANK YOU.”

Artist Michael Pukac
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Read more.. Monday, February 14th, 2011

¡SATIRISTAS! Axis Mundi show at the Actors’ Gang Theater

Pre-Party at the Actors’ Gang

On election night, we had our inaugural monthly SATIRISTAS show at The Actors’ Gang Theater as part of their new Axis Mundi series. The theme for the month was Prop 19, so we invited a few Satiristas as well as some other like-minded friends for an herbal comedic summit.

Our thanks to all the performers, producers, musicians, artists, and theater staff who made it happen. Among them,Robert Dubac, Shana Sosin, Barbara Romen, Carmella Cardina, Matt BesserGary ShapiroTere JoyceFranklyn AjayeRick ShapiroDylan BrodyJimmy DoreTracy NewmanJohnny DamRon Shock, Gary StockdaleMax Neutra, and Tim Robbins.

Below are some photos from the event.

Next show is Tuesday, Dec. 7th. The first one was jammed full. It’s pay-what-you-can, but RSVP here.

¡Viva Las Satiristas!- Paul ProvenzaDan Dion

Robert Dubac & Paul Provenza
Gary Stockdale and The Band
The Crowd- Sold Out!
Jimmy Dore

Johnny Dam

Matt Besser
Tere Joyce
Ron Shock
Franklyn Ajaye  (with Max Neutra)
Gary Shapiro
Rick Shapiro
Tracy Newman
Dylan Brody
The Reveal! Max Neutra’s Painting
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Read more.. Monday, November 22nd, 2010