Just like being single on Valentine’s Day, ‘Valentine’s Day Comedy’ at the Ashkenaz is bittersweet

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It’s safe to say that not everyone’s idea of a perfect Valentine’s Day includes discussions on racist American cats, Uber drivers on scooters and how there are no cute boys in Raleigh, North Carolina. But that was exactly how the holiday transpired for the amalgamation of couples and disgruntled singles who braved the pouring rain to huddle inside Berkeley’s Ashkenaz Music & Dance Community Center on Thursday for “Valentine’s Day Comedy at the Ashkenaz: Love Thy Neighbor.”

This audience was treated to punchlines from a group of comedians who boasted a range of backgrounds, subject matters and delivery styles. Sampson McCormick, Clara Bijl, Nicole Tran and Lisa Geduldig covered topics ranging from national identity, gender and living in co-ops, each to varied success. While some of these comedians were able to drum up chuckles, others had to settle with thorny silences. Of course, this is to be expected: stand-up comedy can be an infamously fickle mistress and surefire success is never guaranteed.

The comics at the Ashkenaz on Feb. 14 missed out on a likely success primarily because of a lack of editing — many bits started off colorfully enough, but were quickly pushed past their expiration date, lessening their effectiveness. Nicole Tran’s set consisted largely of puns revolving around her inability to pronounce English words due to it being her second language; a fun premise until it’s been seven minutes and Tran’s still talking about how she thought a student loan meant she’d be getting loaned a student.

Parts of Clara Bijl’s set also focused on the hang-ups of assimilating to American culture, and was similarly unevenly paced. A lengthy chunk of material about gaining an American citizenship and a subsequent American superiority complex decidedly did not resonate with the audience, but a lampooning of gender roles near the end — “How many women have you met that died in a duel?” — was utterly joyful and entirely too short.

Thankfully, despite the notable lulls, there were more jokes that resonated than disappointed. Geduldig’s deadpan delivery pleasantly opened the show and filled the spaces between sets; Tran’s bubbly energy endeared the audience as she discussed things like her Kim Kardashian Halloween costume; and Bijl’s wry assertion that “we’ve all seen a man with a cold” had women in the audience close to tears of laughter.

But the most energetic laughs of the night came about as a result of Sampson McCormick’s earnest, efficacious set, which closed out the show with a sweet finish. McCormick talked about everything from his identity as a Black gay man, Whole Foods, the trials of finding a good barber in Los Angeles and his favorite Aunt Jackie — all while holding the audience’s rapt attention and churning out sharp punchlines like it was no big deal.

It is a testament to the talent of McCormick and his fellow comedians — or for the more cynical, to the alcohol selection at the bar — that many seemed to leave the show a little cheerier than before. The jokes may not have been perfect, but they still left many audience members feeling the love. And, considering the occasion, that’s something that the Ashkenaz can surely count as a success.

Contact Grace Orriss at [email protected].