The Other kind of SF comedy makes a comeback

Richard Snow, Bob Ayres, and Chip Romer astride their Cole Valley den of laughs in 1980
All photos courtesy of Bob Ayres

“The stage used to be right here.” Bob Ayres, founding partner of the classic Haight-Ashbury stand up comedy club, The Other Café, is sitting in his old yuckster stomping grounds, now a neighborhood crepery. He’s gesturing to the corner of the restaurant, roughly where we’re sitting, and where his small stage used to host everyone from Robin Williams to Jerry Seinfeld. Now in its place it’s just me and Bob and a guy eating a sandwich two tables down. Could a desire for resurrection be driving Ayres’ Other Café reunion show this weekend (Sat/25)?

Ayres, fresh back from living in Nevada City (“I missed my peeps”) is now rocking an impressive Jew ‘fro and a distinctive pendant under a partially unbuttoned shirt.  Over a bottle of mineral water and a cup of coffee we chat about just what San Francisco misses about the scene at The Other, which he opened with partner Steve Zamek in 1977. It was initially a place for bluegrass shows as well as the comedy it eventually chose to specialize in. 

Located in a neighborhood known for its progressive values – “the Haight was ground zero for that,” Ayres tells me -- the club gained a reputation for comedians that avoided berating their audience and using swear words or “take my wife” jokes as a cheap crutch for laughs. Eschewing liquor sales and smoking inside the club doors (perhaps the first venue in California to do so), the team cultivated an environment that was less a meat market, bar-like ambience, and more a place where people came to hear consistently good jokes. 

A generation of comedians with sitcoms built around their act would come up from L.A. to play the cafe, agents sent up their big name clients to practice their material for the Tonight Show in front of an audience that could appreciate clean jokes. When the club first opened, the glut of comedy now available on cable was merely a glimmer in the distance, long before the 1990 merger of the Ha! Channel and Comedy Central that brought stand up into living rooms from San Francisco to San Antonio. Clubs like these were where comedy lovers came to see everyone who was new and hot. "It became the hottest thing around for three to four years," says Ayres.

A young Jay Leno holds the mic to his chin at the Other, circa 1980

With an official crowd capacity of 49, the Other would regularly squeeze in 180 comedy fans for local favorites like Dana Carvey, who pioneered his “Church Lady” character right where I’m sipping my cup of soy milk and medium roast. “Our doorman was always on the lookout for the fire marshall,” Ayres tells me. So you could squeeze everyone out the back door real quick if he came? “We didn’t have a back door. That was another problem,” he laughs.

A community of sorts formed around the Other, whose staff was dedicated to promoting unique, non-repetitive shows that they themselves would watch. Some employees were more passionate about punchlines than others – Paula Poundstone washed dishes in the Other Café’s kitchen before she made the leap to the stage, knowing the neighborhood well enough to even time comments about the perennially empty 10 p.m. #37 Corbett Muni bus, which would thunder past the club each evening when the headliner was onstage. 

One such night, Poundstone stopped her set, strode out the door and boarded the bus, leaving club staff to cover the mid-set interruption. Slightly uncomfortable for those left behind, yes, but indicative of a place where comedians felt comfortable experimenting with their act. “That was a time when it was more funny to tell the story later,” Ayres tells me. That said, he relished those moments when the stars would go off script into moments of improv. “That’s usually when they were the best.”

I ask him what makes good comedy, and he answers with a story about his “hero,” Steve Martin. Before shows, Ayres says, Martin would stuff baloney into his shoes “so if he didn’t get laughs he could always think of the baloney.” The point being that if you can make yourself laugh, you stand a good chance of making your audience laugh as well. “I think that plays out in every part of life,” Ayres counsels me.

So what does he miss most about the days of fire code violations and impromptu sets? “Knowing there’s a great comedian in your club that night, and inviting all your friends and family. After you see a good comedy show you are happy.” Ayres remembers standing at the front door on Cole and Carl after such a night’s performance, watching smiling faces leave the club. “Then you’re high. You’re, like, doing something good for the people.”

But when I ask Ayres what young comedians he recommends for a night on the town like the ones he’s reminiscing about, he demurs to name a single one, telling me that he’s not well enough acquainted with the scene today. Look for that coyness to change: Ayres is setting up young comedian showcases in Boston, Chicago, and New York over the next year. He says he’ll be checking out possible acts for upcoming shows he’ll be putting together in the Bay Area. 

“It’s clear to me that we have a following: an older crowd who wants a more focused, comfortable setting,” he tells me with an air of a man who knows that he knows what he knows. Look to his reunion show this weekend, then, not just for a look at once was, but possibly what will be for San Francisco comedy.

The Other Café reunion show

Sat/25 7:30 p.m., $70

Palace of Fine Arts

3601 Lyon, SF

(415) 563-6504