Comedy Day celebrates 30 years of cheap laughs

Live Comedy

Originally published on September 17, 2010 | The San Francisco Chronicle | written by David Armstrong

Six hundred comedians, hundreds of thousands of fans and countless one-liners after the first San Francisco Comedy Day was held in Golden Gate Park in 1981, the big, free, outdoor laugh fest returns to Sharon Meadow for a 30th anniversary show.

Debi and Will Durst, the wife-and-husband comedians and media personalities, have performed at every one of the previous 29 shows. Not surprisingly, they'll be there again this year, along with dozens of other comics in a show that will play out over five hours, starting at noon Sunday.

Debi Durst has been president of the nonprofit event's board of directors for 12 years and has assumed the role played by Comedy Day's co-founder, comedian/musician Jose Simon, who died in 2008. "I'm pretty much the host and emcee," she says. "I'm Jose."

The big, sprawling Comedy Day - patterned on Bill Graham's Day on the Green concerts - was dreamed-up in the incongruously tiny Holy City Zoo comedy club when Simon, the late John Cantu and Rebecca Erwin Spencer hatched an idea for an event that would be pleasurable enough and powerful enough to lift the city's spirit during dark times. San Francisco had lost Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk just a few years before, and the memory was still fresh.

"Jose had an idea for something like it, but nothing had happened," says Spencer, who is now Robin Williams' personal assistant. Spencer and Cantu convinced Simon that if they joined forces, they could pull it off.

"I had been working as a paralegal, and I knew a bit about the permitting process," Spencer says. "I helped with that, and got support from (famously dour Supervisor) Quentin Kopp. I told him 'People don't think you have a sense of humor. This is a chance to show them you do.' "

Alex Bennett and Don Bleu hyped the idea on their radio shows, and the first Comedy Day was held in the Music Concourse band shell. It was a hit. It was funny, fun, free and infused with an idealistic spirit of giving-back that the comedy community still has, according to Geoff Bolt, who performed with the National Theatre of the Deranged at the first show.

"We were young, we were alive, we had energy, we were going to change the world," Bolt says.

Williams remembers the first one: "It was wonderful. Everybody was there, having fun and hanging out. There was a great mix of people just stopping by, saying 'What's going on?' The Music Concourse was lovely. It had a European feel, especially before they cut all the trees, and it was acoustically great."

Before long, Comedy Day outgrew the band shell and migrated to the Polo Field, where it was sponsored by The Chronicle. Over the years, the show has drawn comics far (Britain's Eddie Izzard) and near (Bay Area favorite Michael Pritchard). Everyone works for free. The afternoon bash draws thousands to Sharon Meadow, which Durst describes as an unusual venue for comics used to working in nightclubs.

"People are walking around. It's broad daylight, they're talking, they're listening to the ballgame - it's the park. Also, there's a Doppler effect - you've got to wait for the laughter to come back."

Comedy Day isn't entirely about laughter. The parent foundation tries to raise awareness about lung cancer, which has claimed several Bay Area comedians, and promotes humor in conflict resolution.

At age 30, Comedy Day is still unique.

"You get a different kind of heckler in the park," Williams says. "You get some hard-core homeless. They say 'I don't care about this stuff - talk about unicorns!' "

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