Update 6/17/2019: This article has been updated to include more recent photo of Karinda Dobbins and additional information about the Pride Comedy Night
Oakland’s eclectic New Parkway Theater has movies, food and a collection of mismatched office furniture for seating. Every month or so, it’s also home to a local comedy show entitled “The Formula Presents: The Resistance!” As the night wound down on Friday, Karinda Dobbins, the last performer of the night, took the stage sporting a leather jacket and a mock-irritated expression.
“Since you all only left five minutes for the Black lesbian, I guess I’m gonna have to make this quick,” Dobbins said to laughter and applause.
In many ways, the routine was a microcosmic reflection of Dobbins’ role as a wry, sharply observant voice of reason within the local comedy circuit. A resident of Oakland since 2005, Dobbins has lived in the Bay Area for 14 years and has been doing stand-up comedy for nine. She got her start at an open mic night at Woody’s, a laundromat-slash-café in Oakland. As she recounted in an interview with The Daily Californian, it’s a night she fondly remembers — in part because it happened to also be the birthday of Moms Mabley, a Black comedian and one of Dobbins’ icons, and also because the set was unexpectedly successful.
“I had a friend who asked me, if she found an open mic, whether I’d go and try to be funny. The reason I said yes was because I thought she would forget about it,” Dobbins said, chuckling.
Self-deprecating humor snuck into our conversation as she laughingly attributed her burgeoning success to her having brought half the crowd with her.
Dobbins has gone on to tour the country with her stand-up routines, opening for comedians such as W. Kamau Bell, Trevor Noah, Dave Chappelle and Michelle Wolf and appearing at national comedy festivals. Currently, she co-produces the monthly comedy show “The Resistance!” in order to highlight the talents of local comedians. She also still squeezes in sets around her 9-to-5 job in the tech sector. Since that night at Woody’s, Dobbins has been a cornerstone figure in the Bay Area comedy scene.
Her journey there, however, has not been without its challenges. In her bits, Dobbins frequently discusses her experiences as a Black, gay comic; she remains conscious of the burden of representation that she upholds, as well as the need for jokes advancing a more nuanced view of communities sidelined by traditional stand-up. Her philosophy in writing jokes, she said, is one of responsibility — to her community as well as to her experience.
“I think when people in a community make jokes about themselves, there’s always a sort of realness to it,” Dobbins said, pointing to the age-old “why don’t they love me” jokes about lesbians that are typically told by cisgender men. “People want to hear from people who actually live the life,” she said.
Stand-up comedians generally try to play to the crowd, tweaking their routines based on what garners the biggest laughs. In many ways, Dobbins is no exception.
But despite this classic approach to the practice — as Dobbins put it, “the audience is queen” — Dobbins also seeks to promote understanding and empathy by recounting her own experiences through her comedy. And when the audience’s demographic, rather than comedic value alone, affects which jokes bomb, she prioritizes remaining true to her personal values over catering directly to what will likely get the most laughs.
“I’ve done straight rooms where they don’t necessarily want me to talk about being gay, and I’ve done gay shows where they don’t necessarily want me to talk about being Black. And I’ve done Black shows where they don’t necessarily want me to talk about being gay.” Dobbins said. “But I’m always going to be who I am. I can’t section off myself for different audiences. I have to give my full self. I feel like as long as I make my intersectionality funny, people should accept it.”
Dobbins described an instance when she was scheduled to perform in a Livermore winery — only to arrive and find a Blue Lives Matter flag pinned proudly to the wall. She had prepared a repertoire of jokes which, among other things, championed the rights of Black citizens and communities.
In that split second before she was due to go on, Dobbins made a choice.
“Of course I had to start my set off with trashing that damn flag. That set an adversarial tone. … What can you do? You have to be true to yourself,” Dobbins explained.
Dobbins’ dedication to authenticity has earned her devoted audiences in the oft-changing Bay Area comedy scene. Some fans even follow her career for years after hearing one of her sets.
Debra Wilson, a longtime fan in attendance at the Friday show, compared Dobbins to Chappelle and to Paul Mooney in terms of her use of social commentary. Wilson called Dobbins’ comedy, above all, “relatable.”
With her 10-year anniversary in comedy around the corner, Dobbins has doubtlessly earned such supportive fans who appreciate her sharp, genuine style. She looks forward, she said, to continuing her storytelling in times when the skill to inspire laughter seems more necessary than ever.
“I think particularly when you have politicians who are encroaching on the freedoms of (a) community, you hear it in the comedy of the affected community. … I think (that’s) a great thing because we have to laugh to keep from crying. I feel like that’s one of the ways we might get through this presidency,” Dobbins said.
Catch Karinda Dobbins next at Pride Comedy Night on June 23 at Freight & Salvage Coffeehouse. Tickets are $20 with the code “Student20” on Eventbrite.