36th Annual Comedy Day rounds up brightest Bay Area comedic talent, close-knit community

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Franchesca Spektor/Staff

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Tina Allen Gallo is a teacher. She teaches elementary school students during the week, probably spending much of her time getting kids to raise their hands and complete worksheets. Gallo mentioned her family-friendly day job in her stand-up set at the 36th Annual Comedy Day in Golden Gate Park on Sept. 18. She then transitioned into a less-than-wholesome joke that illustrated when she gave up shaving, saying it looked like a Muppet was hanging from her … well, you get the picture.

Founded by Jose Simon in 1981, Comedy Day has brought Bay Area comics — teachers and comedy legends alike — together for an afternoon of outdoor comedic delirium. Past performers have included greats such as Dave Chappelle and George Wallace, while budding stand-ups have also taken the stage. The annual free event is a true representation of the deeply rooted spirit of comedy that flows through San Francisco, the same spirit that has produced comics such as Dana Gould, Margaret Cho and the incomparable Robin Williams.

The late Williams himself performed at Comedy Day each year he wasn’t working on a film and is still ever-present at the celebration. A banner of the comedian was displayed above the stage in his honor, a watchful guardian for the performers. This year, Comedy Day has sponsored a campaign to rename Sharon Meadow, the grassy Golden Gate Park area that has served as the haven for comedy for years, to Robin Williams Meadow.

Much has changed since Williams’ stand-up heyday, with the presidential election coloring several comedians’ sets in 2016. Scott Capurro — who effortlessly provided one of the afternoon’s top sets with dry, fast-talking grandeur — detailed his fascination with Donald Trump. “He wants to build a wall, which is weird because Mexicans can build doors,” Capurro said.

Political satirist and San Francisco comedy royalty Will Durst said he was actually looking forward to seeing a Bernie Sanders-Donald Trump debate, with Sanders “chewing (Trump) up and spitting him out due to religious dietary laws.” With a straight face, Durst simply looked down and wandered to the opposite end of the stage as the meadow-dwellers applauded and hollered for what very well may have been the most clever punchline of the Comedy Day 2016.

It’s with this liberal acuity that San Francisco comics have been able to develop a relationship with the Comedy Day audiences each year. It’s an outdoor event, after all, that could easily devolve into a rambunctious free-for-all. But somehow, even outdoors, Comedy Day has continuously maintained the inherent intimacy of stand-up comedy. It may be a testament to the city in which it is held.

Barry Katzmann, Board Secretary for Comedy Day, describes San Francisco as an everlasting birthplace for comedic talents. “Most comics want to do stand-up for six months then get a sitcom,” Katzmann said of the common comedian migration from their hometowns to the entertainment hubs in Los Angeles and New York. But he says that San Francisco, more often than not, has allowed comics to “hone (their act) here, take it there.” They can work material at Bay Area mainstays such as Sunnyvale’s famed Rooster T. Feathers or Oakland open mics, then hit the big time in Los Angeles once they’re ripe for the picking. Here, you can be a niche comic.

Ngaio Bealum has been able to establish himself as a comic most associated with his other passion: cannabis. It’s a subject that couldn’t be so openly discussed elsewhere. Wearing glasses, a suit and tie, Bealum explained that he’s been a panelist for hemp festivals and described the delicious discovery of buttering Pop Tarts. His delivery is somehow both disillusioned and thrilled. It’s a masterful balance. And never has the declaration, “I love weed, you guys,” been so charming.

Isolated from the flashiness of Los Angeles and New York, Comedy Day performers can sharpen their act and become a closer-knit community — it shows. Each year, thousands of attendees make the trek to Sharon Meadow (hopefully soon to be Robin Williams Meadow), sit in lawn chairs, toting umbrellas and coolers to see the funny men and women that their city has bred.

Toward the end of the day, Milt Abel took the stage for a five-minute set. Between jokes about Canada, a tiny diapered child wandered to the foot of the stage, beneath a cutout speech bubble that read “Three men walked into a bar…” and stared at Abel. Without breaking the rhythm of his set, Abel continued his joke and waved at the baby. Abel made it clear that more than anything else, Comedy Day is about the community and the city in which the comedians fine-tune their craft.

Danielle Gutierrez covers comedy. Contact her at [email protected]. Tweet her at @dmariegutierrez.