“When people tell someone a history it's always one side of it. What I know is a little darker.” Assemblyman Tom Ammiano had seen our post on this weekend's Other Cafe reunion (Sat/25), and had a bone to pick with our description of the defunct Haight-Ashbury stand up club's progressive approach to comedy. Namely, the Other's attitude when it came to gay comics during its 1980s heyday – a view which club founder Bob Ayres vehemently disputes.
Ammiano should know – in addition to his early career as a special education teacher and current one as the political voice of the 13th Assembly District, he was a gay stand up comedian in a city that has been hollered at as the modern day creche of homo wisecracking. He founded the gay comedy night Valencia Rose Cabaret in 1980, thereby earning himself the grand distinction of “Mother of Gay Comedy.”
But he couldn't get work just everywhere. “The interesting thing is that this was San Francisco – I can't really think of a gayer city than that,” he told me on the phone today. “When we tried entry to the Other Cafe and Punchline [another club open to this day], we were denied access.” Ammiano said that club schedulers would tell them that due to the AIDS crisis, audiences weren't comfortable with “gay material.” Or else that audiences just didn't like listening to gay jokes, or they would be less direct but still firm on the fact that no gigs with them would be forthcoming. “It was really a bummer. We had our audiences and everything, but [club owners and schedulers] were homophobic.”
Ayres' comments on the matter implies a bit of sour grapes on the part of Assemblyman Ammiano. Quoth he:
"At the height of the comedy boom it was tough for many comedians to get gigs there. We were able to pick from among the very brightest of acts from around the country. It was the hardest thing about owning a high profile comedy room, saying no to deserving comics. The charge that we closeted comics or disallowed gay material is blatantly untrue nor is it supported by the facts. We had many gay comedians play and even headline the club. Must we list them? Tom as a beginning comedian back then may have felt he deserved more stage time and maybe he knows others that feel that way. But there are also hundreds of straight comedians who feel they deserved more gigs there. We simply tried to bring the funniest comedians we could find to our club every night. Their sexual preference was of no concern to us ever. It still isn't. We would never have survived nor prospered as a comedy club had we told comedians what material to do."
When I read Ammiano a list that Ayres had sent me of gay comedians that had performed at the club, Ammiano said that most of the names were people that had performed there "in the '90s" (note: the club had already closed by then), or had performed closeted, or hadn't done explicitly “gay material.”
Which is not to negate all of Ammiano's respect for the Other's comedic legacy. “It was just amazing. People got their careers started, we had a lot of heavyweights get their start here, they're absolutly right that way,” he said.