Jeff Zamaria seems chipper in the face of increasing pressure. My computer is glitching from a hastily assembled Facebook video chat, but I’m sure he’s friendly as ever (if not a bit distracted). As crazy as it seems, and under the most creative-license laymen’s terms possible, Zamaria is the new “Mr. Comedy” of San Francisco—there’s always a new one—and it’s kicking his ass. His free time has evaporated and he’s answering “every e-mail”. Previously working on a food truck, and even more previously working at Punch Line San Francisco, has led him to organizing comedy at Doc’s Lab, an entertainment venue below restaurant Doc Rickett’s, which open last week. Its calendar is chocked with comedy nerd credibility: national headliners, stacked weekly showcases, chummy open mics, all costing less than $20 and having no two-drink minimum (i.e. an incredible deal). And yes, it used to be the legendary Purple Onion.
The Purple Onion was dead as dead could be. On the last night everyone glammed up (you know, like for a funeral), salutes were had, Father Guido Sarducci gave last rights. More than a half century of important, cultural gatherings—abundant if you know what you were looking for—tucked away under a flight of stairs and shuttered behind an eery iron gate. No placard of historical importance, just an eviction notice.
The club was dying before that and it was hard to watch. Sometimes there’d be signs of life: a really good set from a newcomer with promise or a guest spot from an impressive visitor. Other nights the soju cocktails couldn’t come fast enough. Everybody seemed to care less and less: the promoters, the servers, the owner all had a shrug-nod-this-is-what-it-is energy about them. Only the evergreen comedians, booked on (mostly) bringer shows, had a gleeful enthusiasm but their draw too drew dim. Aside from the annual flurry of SF Sketchfest and the fleeting specialty event, the Purple Onion wasn’t what it could be.
It wasn’t always that way and I’m legitimately pissed about 2005. Why didn’t anybody tell me!? How could, JUST A BART RIDE AWAY, this comedy-loving (then) teenager not fake-ID himself into underground bliss. I missed Mort Sahl, Zach Galifianakis, Greg Proops, Tig Notaro, Paul F. Tompkins, a brilliant new wave, and a dress code requirement. My ignorance denied me a piece of San Francisco’s soul.
Someone should have told me, but then again, how would they know? Even with smart phones and social media, San Francisco comedy is fleeting, intangible, ethereal. Greatness is anecdotal and hard to translate, word of mouth is slow, and even if you’re on the stage, or waiting anxiously to get up, or a superfan, or a tastemaker, or a facilitator, or an advocate, there’s a good chance you’ll miss what you didn’t know you had.
Zamaria has something special: a beautiful and intimate setting, gourmet food and drinks, supportive owners and a ton of potential. He hopes to use the opportunity to centralize hang-ability among comedians and inspire North Beach residents (and beyond) to check out the best of the Bay (and elsewhere).
Spinning Platters: What was [Christopher Burnett, Doc Rickett’s owner]’s goal when he opened up the place?
Jeff Zamaria: His goal, honestly, was to give that room and that place back to the neighborhood. I think that’s why we meshed from the beginning…Going into it I was a little intimidated because I never met a nice “rich” person. I don’t know if he’s rich, but he’s very nice. [Also], they knew what the place was. I think a lot of people [who] would have bought a building like that would have turned the room into a storage or a kitchen that no one would ever see. These guys are kinda history buffs, which is cool…They did so much research that they changed orientation of the room to where the stage is back where it was when [the building] was rebuilt in 1911…it opens [the room] up a lot… They want to turn [Doc’s Lab] into a destination.
SP: Did you give any input to how the room was set up?
JZ: Yeah, definitely. [The owners] definitely asked me how I wanted the stage set up, the lighting, all that kind of stuff. [They] never ran a comedy club, so, it was really cool of them to ask. There was a lot of freedom… There’s even a permanent light instead of a flashlight [to signal performers to get off the stage].
SP: What was your relationship to the Purple Onion?
JZ: I went to quite a few shows. Before I started working at the Punch Line, I did stand-up briefly, for a little bit. [Purple Onion] was one of the places that I did do stand-up—once or twice—and it was great. I loved going there, loved hanging out, sitting on the stairway trying to get out of the way of the waitresses.
SP: What got you into doing comedy and what got you out of it?
JZ: I guess being funnier than all my friends and boredom. [Laughs] Didn’t really do it too seriously. Once I got the position [at the Punch Line], I was like, “since I’m not taking this as serious as [other comedians], I rather move my focus to helping those people”…I’m way happier doing this.
SP: You have, in my opinion, one of the most stacked calendars to open the club. Did you have philosophy or aesthetic you were going for as a booker?
JZ: I did and I didn’t. I think my main goal was to reach out to anybody that would say “yes” or remember me, which worked out well. I just wanted to put together a bunch of solid line-ups right out of the gate just to prove, “this is what we’re doing, this is what we’re capable of doing”. We’re not dabbling with “comedy”. We’re going to do comedy two or three nights a week. It’s awesome that so many people are excited about a new place opening and helping me by being on the shows.
SP: Will Doc’s Lab accommodate multimedia, like, will you have a projector for shows needing visual aids?
JZ: Yeah, we already have a projector!
SP: You do? Can I get a list of amenities?
JZ: We pretty much have everything you would need right now except for the camera installation… We have a full backline for bands…a full drum kit, there’s a piano on stage…full sound equipment, an automated screen—it’s awesome, you press a button and it rolls down. [Also] any whiskey you could possibly name.
SP: There are two comedy clubs in San Francisco, the aforementioned Punch Line and Cobb’s Comedy Club, and they’re both owned by LiveNation. Have you come into any conflict with them?
JZ: I haven’t run into many complications with them or pushback. I anticipate it’s gonna happen as we get bigger and as my talent budget increases and I maybe try to get the same kind of people that LiveNation would try to get, but right now it’s cool. They don’t seem to be too worried. I think what we did right is, as opposed to coming out with a venue that JUST does comedy, we’re doing comedy, music and literary events. Basically, anything that will draw people to check out the space.
SP: North Beach has a stigma of being a little out of the way, a little touristy, a little older. Do you think that will hamper the rest of the city from coming to the venue? How are you communicating to the foottraffic that there’s good comedy downstairs?
JZ: Right now it’s all word of mouth and neighborhood people hearing music or hearing something come up from the stairway to the street. The place is more visible [than the Purple Onion] as you walk by. I know a lot of the city doesn’t necessarily “like” North Beach, but if [we] can get them to come to that part of town a little more often, not mind a frat guy every now and then, I think it’ll be worth it for them.
SP: What was the inspiration for your weekly Thursday showcase, Learn From Me.
JZ: Running the Sunday [Showcase] at the Punch Line…
Note: Every Sunday, 15 comedians perform in what many consider San Francisco’s premier crucible. There’s a year waiting list for first timers, which is the beginning of a long process to work at the club (widely considered one of the best in the country). Afterwards, some comedians hang out every week for months without a guarantee they’ll get up. The back of the room is packed with eager talent (and tension).
JZ: I kinda developed it from that. People thought I hated Sundays at the Punch Line, but that was my favorite day there. I loved working with [comedians]. I loved giving [comedians] chances and opportunities…I took what I liked about running that show and adapted it to the show I want to do: I’m only booking six or seven comics…lots of people that are [from] out of town…I’m going to try to leave a five minute spot open for [a comedian] in the room. I want to make [Doc’s Lab] a place [comics] hang out on Thursday if they’re don’t have a show like, “let’s go to Doc’s, hang out, maybe Jeff will give us a set”. My theme is just “great comedians”; I genuinely believe in everybody that I put on the showcase.
SP: What are your main sources of anxiety?
JZ: I’m a little worried about getting the word out. Right now we’re not doing a lot of print ads. We’re getting a lot of good [online] press on the restaurant and the club… From the beginning I was excited to [potentially] get a calendar in the SFWeekly or the Guardian, just like the Punch Line and Cobb’s, but [the owners] wanted to take a different route, which I understand. They want it to be more of a, “did you hear about this new place?” [because] it’s always cooler when you find things on your own and you can tell a friend.
JZ: I’m gonna be stretched pretty thin in terms of being “the person” at the venue all the time. I have some support there [and] we’re still hiring people. It sucks to say, “I need a little help”, but right now I’m [focused on] making sure I’m getting a couple of hours of sleep every night and don’t snap at anybody. I’m having a great time with it so far and I’m really optimistic.
I’ve been there—last Thursday at the first Learn From Me. Hint: it’s great. Mind you, as a comedy person, I sat on the steps and had a complimentary drink, so my experience will be VASTLY different from yours but… Doc’s Lab is pretty nice. Too nice! How dare they let in such a rube as myself! It’s classy enough to make feel you awkward that you didn’t wear a sportscoat, but hip enough to encourage wearing Michael Jordan’s shoes.
See for yourself! Doc’s Lab’s calendar is available here. I highly recommend the charming crass of Thug Note’s Greg Edwards this Wednesday [seen above laughing about titties in classic Greg fashion], really looking forward to Mike E. Winfield/Pheobe Robinson on October 15th and anticipate a barnstorm with the homecoming of Emily Heller on 10/18.