INTERVIEWS

Supreme Commander of the Comedy Underground: Jon Fox

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Besides interviews with stand-up comics, SUSC will also be pulling together a history of comedy in the Bay Area. This cannot happen without getting the stories of promoters and club owners.

You might think that Santa Cruz is off the beaten-track for humor—located on the outermost spoke of the Bay Area comedy hub—but you would be mistaken. For over 30 years the Crow’s Nest, on East Cliff Drive in the Santa Cruz harbor, has been presenting four comics on Sunday nights to a mostly sold-out crowd—which means Santa Cruz has one of the longest running comedy rooms in all of California. Locals and tourists jam pack the upstairs area and through the din, clamor and, at times, extremely rowdy environment, road weary stand-up comics and newbies attempt to tickle strangers’ funny bones.

Silver-haired and a smooth talker, Jon Fox (the promoter, not the comic) has been providing a forum for stand-up comics for 35 years. Launching the careers and providing a national forum for people like Mitch Hedberg, Dana Carvey, Eddie Murphy, Robin Williams and Patton Oswalt first through The SF International Comedy Competition (via Showtime’s The Big Laff Off)—later through the opening of the prestigious Punchline comedy club in San Francisco. Fox has always remained behind the scenes and Stand Up Santa Cruz is proud to present the first ever glimpse into the ever elusive promoter.

John Fox (2)DNA: You’ve been booking comedy every Sunday at the Crows Nest in Santa Cruz for 30 years?

FOX: Two places. The old Albatross, used to be off of 41st avenue. That lasted about 15 years on Sunday nights and they went out of business and the Crows nest called me and asked me if I would like to move over here and have been here ever since. And it’s been super successful.

It can be an imposing room.

It is, but the attraction is that it is a filled room. And 99% of comedians will take a full house over a friendly sparse crowd. It was designed as a comedy club, it’s got that wide space in the back where people tend to talk, so that can be a challenge.

If you don’t win over the locals, you’re sunk.

The regulars sit in the back and make a point of not paying attention unless it is really good.

You started the Punchline?

I started that in October 1978 and we started attaching Saturday gigs there with the Sunday show here. Rooster T. Feathers was originally called the Country Store Tavern, they took the Tuesday and eventually the Monday.

There’s a lot of meat to the story—but, Bill Graham died and the Punchline was taken away from me. It went through a lot of different things. Initially it was the eleven key executives of BGP that banded together and bought the company out. I had always been an independent contractor and they didn’t retain any independents. They actually hired my assistant away who is now booking the national tours for Live Nation. It was a bitter pill to swallow and not an easy one to survive—basically I ended up going to the Northwest where I reign as the supreme commander of the comedy underground since 1981. I’ve got the Comedy Underground in Seattle and one in Tacoma as well.

Was your background in promotion?

I was an entertainment reviewer; I used to think of myself as an entertainment critic for the Tribune for two or three years. I got fired because my wife started up a weekly in San Leandro and it’s a long story, basically the guild would not allow us to take pictures—so I figured I could take some pictures for her newspaper and it wouldn’t be a problem. Senator Nolan committed suicide, his neerdowell  son took over the paper and decided to make an example of somebody to exert his authority and I was it. I was in the wind and got a job at this press festival in SF putting on their shows and booking it. They had Walter Cronkite and Ben Bradley, Jacques Cousteau, Jimmy Hoffa and put on political debates. It was a great job. We had a Friday night entertainment hour where I would invite entertainers who were appearing locally to come and appear in front of the media to try and get publicity for their shows. I stumbled across this comedy workshop at a place called The Intersection in North Beach featuring Robin Williams and Dana Carvey—there were no customers, the comedians were the audience, there weren’t even in the main room they were down in the basement. I said, “Oh my god, these people are so talented.” There was no interest. We were just coming out of the Vietnam War era. The guy who was running it had an idea about doing a comedy competition we could put them all onstage at once and make like a sporting event out of it and I had all these media contacts—so we went into a partnership in 1976—and that was the launch of the SF Comedy Competition. The next year there was the introduction of cable television that suddenly came to the forefront. None of the established production houses wanted to feature product on it they were afraid that they would lose their business with the networks, so this guy who had graduated from UCLA the year before saw my flier in a liquor store and contacted me about doing a show. It became the very first cable television show ever called The Big Laff-Off. We went around to Showtime and other emerging market, put on these comedy competitions and had a national run-off. Some of the people that participated were Eddie Murphy, Jerry Seinfeld, Harry Anderson—Murphy and Seinfeld were in the same competition together which was won by George Wallace. That was the New York one we did. After three years of this I got my first real taste of how television works and a new president came in. Out with the old in with the new, right? Showtime and others found through my event that uncensored comedy was something they could market through cable TV. Something they could do that the major networks couldn’t do—and to this day you have Comedy Central who created their own network at which point we were cut loose. I remember calling up HBO and saying, “I’ve got this great event, would you like to pick it up?” And this executive goes, “Would you take a meeting?” So I fly back to New York and we’re being dined in this fancy restaurant and he’s eating steak tar-tar, raw-meat, right and here’s me out. Finally he goes, “Why would I want what the #2 network doesn’t want anymore?” So, that was the end of that.

Did you eat raw meat also?

No. I ate crow that day. Out of the comedy competition we were able to establish the Punchline nightclub.

Did you own the Punchline?

No, it was originally owned by a guy named Jeffrey Pauly it had been the dressing room of the old Waldorf nightclub. I convinced the owner of the Waldorf after doing the comedy competition finals. He told me, “Hey Jon, this is a great event too bad it only happens once a year.” That was 1977. I said, “Hey Jeffrey, there’s this brand new thing called a comedy club and this dressing room would be perfect for it. He was like a real guy who would just do things, and 6 weeks later we opened the Punchline. It was the first full-time comedy club in SF. Holy City Zoo and the Other Café were the other two.

The Purple Onion?

That room was of an earlier era: Lenny Bruce, Mort Sahl, the Smothers Brothers, Bill Cosby. Every year we hold the opening night at the Purple Onion because it has that history to it.

What’s your connection to Santa Cruz?

I lived in Pacific Grove as a child. When I went to San Jose City College I spent many weekends in Santa Cruz. My daughter went to UCSC and yeah, I feel a real affinity to it. I’m committed to help keeping Santa Cruz weird.

You’ve seen the meteoric success of some of your earliest acquaintances, Robin Williams, Dana Carvey, but it’s the other 98% who are just the road dogs of comedy, playing little clubs and travelling the country.

There’s an equally talented work force of comedians outside of Hollywood and New York, who work, who don’t cost me a fortune—that are every bit as entertaining who are not trying to get down there on television—which is  good, because television sucks.

Do you have a theory for booking the Crows Nest?

The great attraction of the Crows Nest is the full house and over 99% of comedians will take a full house over a friendly crowd or a sparse crowd. It wasn’t designed as a comedy club, it’s got that area in the back where people tend to talk, it’s a challenge but I don’t have a problem booking it. The regulars who sit in the back, perhaps pride themselves on not paying attention unless it’s really good. They’ve been coddled and god bless them.

What do you look for in a comic?

They have to be entertaining and they have to show growth. I like the iconoclastic comics the ones that challenge people and get them to laugh and perhaps wonder about their own value systems at the same time. That would be the highest level.

What about Mitch Hedberg? He didn’t challenge anyone’s value system, but he made them laugh!

Very mild and very unique—a totally unique voice that nobody will be able to duplicate. He was in my comedy competition and I knew Mitch very well—and actually won the Seattle Comedy competition. Believe me, we booked him as much as we could—he was a gigantic draw and a great entertainer. I worked as a pollster in college and I learned that you have to buy for your market, you cannot buy for yourself. A lot of people have done what I’ve done and fallen by the wayside because they booked what they liked, rather than what the audience would like, it takes clarity. Comedy as an art form has never been totally accepted because comics need that television exposure to generate the crowd.

Do you think stand-up comedy is a young man’s game?
It is in a way because you have to travel around the country and stay in shitty condo’s and put up with all kinds of tremendous irritations. At the same time, comedians are like fine wine and they do get better with age. But, young people want to relate to younger performers so they would prefer the person they see on YouTube rather than the person who has been working on their act for thirty years.

Dane Cook?

He came in second in the comedy competition, beaten by Doug Stanhope.

How do you do comedy for 30,000 people?

I have no idea. At a certain point the audience gets too big. Comedy relies so much on facial expressions, but I guess that’s why they have the big screens at shows like that. He’s an amazing success story.

As a promoter do comics see you as a stepping stone and once they reach a higher rung no longer stay in touch?

That’s the truth of it.

Do you accept that?

When I first started some of my close bosom buddies went to Hollywood and suddenly I couldn’t get them on the phone anymore and I realized that we were more of a financial relationship rather than friends. I made money, they made money, more power to them.  At the same time I met most of them when they were 19 and 20 and they didn’t have their defense shields up. But when we do talk they all have fond memories of the competition.

When you walked into the Intersection while booking the Press Club and saw, in a sense, discovered Dana Carvey and Robin Williams and others playing to nobody, did you have a light bulb go off? Was this your “aha” moment? Lightening in a bottle?

It was definitely entertaining and there was no audience. The guy who was organizing it, Frank Kidder, was pretty well dressed for the occasion, came over and told us pretty quickly that he had this idea to enter comics in a comedy competition like he had one the year before. We found out later that he had burned every bridge in town—but we were very receptive immediately. The talent was there, we were comedy fans. Ann had been working at the SF Sports and Boat Show which was an annual exhibit so we had eyes open for an annual event. With all my contacts through the Press Club e thought we could do the competition. Our first year was we were going to handle all the logistics of the event and he was going to handle the comedians. So the first year we just enjoyed the show and handle all the locations. We got all the facts down about judging in black and white and put them in an order that was understandable.

Kidder had already done the event but you created a sustainable model that would last 32 years.

We created a foundation and organized it so it could perpetuate itself. We took Kidders idea from his head and put it on paper so we could streamline rules and things.

Make it legit so the comics didn’t get upset.

We thought it was important that there was judging perimeters and that it was easy for the judges to understand. We didn’t really know if there were enough comedians to make this work. It was lightening in the bottle, but we were gainfully employed but struggling and in our 20s—initially we were going to post a $500 prize. There was a defending comic, Bill Farley (Robin Williams came in second the first year) and that first night at the Intersection I took a picture of Farley, a really nice black and white that would have been perfect to promote the next competition. He was the first one we really talked to. He said, “I’m the defending champion. I shouldn’t have to go through the preliminaries to get to the finals. I should automatically be in the finals.” That sounded reasonable to us.

At the time.

Right. So we went to Frank and said Farley would do it but he wants to go right to the finals. He snapped, “No way. I would rather see it die than compromise the vision.”

I like this Frank guy.

We met with him in Sausalito at Gatsby’s  where Frank was holding a workshop. He was emphatically opposed to it. We were totally disheartened and went back t our apartment on Masonic in the Haight/Ashbury. We had a little wine, smoked a little and started talking about what we should do. We felt we couldn’t go on, we couldn’t do the competition without him. Farley defending the crown gave us a great media angle. Ann was sitting there doodling and we always had this thing between us where she was the bear and I was the raccoon. And she drew this little raccoon whose thought bubble said, “The hell with the chips, raise the stakes.” So I call Farley and say, “If we post a thousand dollar prize money will you compete from the beginning?” He agreed and that was really the big moment. Anytime you do something brand new there’s that moment you want to chicken out.

You want to compromise.

You lose your self-confidence. We got over that hump and called Frank we were putting up $1000 and Farley was in. We then had an orientation meeting with all the comics because we weren’t sure if there were enough comedians to make it a competition.  We met at the Unitarian Church on the corner of Post and Mason and watched them come in one at a time. And lo and behold 34 of them walked in. And to this day 34 is size of the competition field.

For perspective, in 1977, comics were probably playing open-mics around the country in between singers, songwriters and juggs.

More like variety shows with titties.

You had the old school vanguard Bill Cosby, Bob Newhart, Redd Foxx, Smothers Brothers, Mort Saul etc .

Besides Cosby, those guys were getting a little old in the tooth. We had an upper echelon where you would find David Steinberg and Robert Klein but nothing like it is today. Today you have rooms everywhere around the country where people are fostering young talent.

Or crushing it, depending on the room.

Lot’s of broken dreams out there. In 1976 there was hostility towards comedy. We were coming out of the Vietnam War and we weren’t sure if people were ready to laugh. They were trying time and it was seen as inappropriate.

You would think with Woodstock, the sexual revolution, women’s rights, civil rights, there would be ample material.

There was Richard Pryor and George Carlin and Woody Allen, but amongst the young people there was no comedy movement.

Who else was the Intersection that night?

Robin Williams, Dana Carvey, Marc McCollum and people who were the scene like Mitch Krug, Bill Farley. I was impressed.

Did Farley defend his title that second year of the competition?

Well, Marc McCollum won and that’s when I saw the hostility between the monologists and the comics that had a “gimmick.” McCollum was a phenomenal musician and he had a wonderful routine he put together and as we got into the contest that year he winning year after year.  The finals consisted of one show, I convinced Jeffery Pollock who owned the old Waldorf to let us have a Sunday night there (and of course it was the old dressing room that became the Punchline). We thought McCollum would win. Over the years we have seen the pressure on the front-runner. Everyone is out to get you. You want to be the wing-man who comes swooping in at the last minute. As it turned, out Dana Carvey won the title that year.

Was Carvey just unbelievable in 77?

Oh yeah. Lightening quick.  A 19-year-old  Mass Communication student at SF State living in the dorms.

Was he a mimic back then?

Well, he actually played a little guitar himself. He had a brilliant bit on Star Trek, very engaging.

Did you make any money that year?

We made about $1000 profit and bought a filing cabinet, an electric typewriter and this brand new thing called a VCR player that cost $700.

Did you have a desire to go onstage?

Absolutely not. I suffer from stage fright.

 

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Interviews
02/04/2014

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