Paco Romane walked on stage at San Francisco's Make-Out Room, surveyed the crowd, adjusted the mic, then launched into a series of observations -- about his personal life, about his upbringing in Michigan -- that had the audience laughing, applauding and yelling, "Yeah!"
"I grew up," said Romane, "in the racist, redneck area of Michigan -- called Michigan." A minute later: "My mom was very, very liberal -- so liberal that she was pissed when she found out I wasn't gay." And another minute later: "Detroit is now the MySpace of all major US cities, because Detroit is also full of shitty bands, prostitutes, and abandoned profiles."
For ten minutes Romane went on and, to use the parlance of stand-up comedy, "killed." Romane, in fact, has been killing San Francisco crowds since 2004 -- as a solo act, as a member of the Killing My Lobster troupe, and in other notable ensembles. In 2005, readers of the San Francisco Bay Guardian named Romane "Best Comedian," and in 2012, readers of SF Weekly also voted Romane "Best Comedian" (in a category where he tied with Marga Gomez and Casey Ley). Romane's best-known gig is his monthly showcase at the Make-Out Room, the Romane Event Comedy Show, and this Wednesday's Romane Event marks its eighth year of existence -- a run that has turned Romane, at age 38, into a kind of doyen of San Francisco comedy. Comics who want to make it big know Romane's Make-Out gig is a gig of opportunity -- a stepping-stone that has helped propel the likes of Mo Mandel, Moshe Kasher, and Will Franken.
Romane's own career is on the upswing. Besides his on-stage comedy, he does voice-overs for television and radio commercials ("my voice is the friendly conversational guy next door who has no accent -- I don't do cool or aloof or 'motorcycle guy'"), and he occasionally appears in advertisements, such as the recent IBM TV commercial where he portrays a guy surprised by a machine driving itself. This summer, you can expect to see Romane on Comedy Central's new Drunk History cable TV series, which has funny people ingest beer or liquor before spewing forth with coherent (or semi-coherent) tales of history. It's PBS's The News Hour meets Saturday Night Live. The show's producers just filmed an episode inside Romane's Panhandle-area apartment with Romane and his comedic cohorts.
"They supplied us with 20 cases of beer," Romane tells me. "The way the show is set up is they go to different cities, and they talk to different local celebrities who can bring funny people around, and talk to them like, 'So, San Antonio -- you have the Alamo,' or whatever. I brought over 20 of my funniest friends, and we had a hoot of a time. One of the producers called me a couple of days later and said, 'Dude, we're going through the footage and you guys are amazing. You were the funniest, smartest, drunkest people we've talked to so far in these cities.' It might just be him buttering me up, but I feel like he wouldn't have called if that wasn't the case."
Romane describes his comedy as "smart and silly," and "a mix of your favorite uncle with just a pinch of Jack Black." Yes, Romane does quips that get to the point quickly, but he also has a repertoire of stories that take their comedic time to develop, like the one where he's riding a Muni bus and his seatmate, a stranger, starts to smoke crack. The story is darkly humorous. The crack-head is lighting up in the middle of the day, and she's on the 6-Parnassus -- not a line like the 14-Mission, which has a reputation for passengers with borderline behavior. The woman also confides to Romane that she's "got a problem" with crack. Um, really?
Sometimes, people will show up at Romane's stand-up events and wonder why he doesn't do his "hits", like his crack-head joke, but one of Romane's strengths is his ability to develop new material. Romane is currently considering whether to include more jokes about race relations. Romane, who is white, has a unique perspective since his mother remarried an African-American man from the deep South who helped raise Romane. Romane has joked on stage about being a bratty "asshole" kid who dared his step-father to discipline him in public in their hometown of Coldwater, a farm town known for being a highly conservative area where blacks weren't necessarily welcome.
"Because my step-father was black and I grew up in a very racist town," Romane told his Romane Event crowd, "whenever we went out and I acted up, he couldn't do a god-damned thing to me. I'd be like, 'I'm going to steal some candy,' and he's like, 'Put that candy back,' I said, 'What are you going to do -- hit me? I don't think so! Nah-nah-nah-nah.'"
With me, Romane offers a biting and truthful observation about race relations: "There are two kinds of white people. There are white people who get more black around black people, and white people who get more white around black people. I get more white around black people, because I don't know how to do it. I'm not that cool. I turn into Mitt Romney around black people. I'm like, 'Yes, I will go to that Martin Lawrence movie.'"
Romane moved to San Francisco in 1997, after getting his bachelor's degree in political science from Western Michigan University. He's an actor and sketch comic who fell into comedy after producing and directing it, and now he does a bit of everything, including joke-writing. At this year's SF Sketchfest, he directed a Killing My Lobster piece, acted in it, and also starred in his Romane Event. Both shows sold out.
Among Romane's most cherished moments was being on stage at The Marsh in 2006 and riffing with Robin Williams, who was in the audience for Trailer Town, a live show that starred Romane, Deborah Amos, and Debbie Durst. Romane grew up watching Williams on TV, and here was Williams at an intermission jockeying with the character that Romane was playing.
"I looked at Robin Williams," Romane says, "and I said, 'My brother is here.' And he said, using my character voice, 'Oh, I can't believe you're still doing this.' And I brought him up on stage with me, and then he started doing my character and he took over for a while. It was amazing. He was always my comedy idol, and to be on stage with him while he's doing my character with the audience, and going nuts -- it was incredible. I remember standing back and the hair on my arm was standing up."
The story with Williams could have ended there, but there's an epilogue: "He's good friends with all these people who were in Trailer Town, so afterwards he went with us to this bar in the Mission. And nobody was sitting next to him. So I was like, 'This is my chance.' So I sat down. And I was shy, and I didn't know what to say, and the first thing I could think of was a joke, so I looked at him and said, 'So, have you done anything since Mork & Mindy?' And he looked at me and said, 'Yup.' And that was it."
Romane laughs. Williams apparently wasn't in the mood that night to joke around, and he soon left the bar after people discovered he was there and started taking images of him with their mobile phones. Comedy is often about making fun of moments that were originally awkward, and Romane understands that fine line between awkward and comedic. He's since shared the stage with Williams at Comedy Day in Golden Gate Park, and it's easy to picture him and Williams on stage in the future, where Romane is even better known than he is today. Romane has really only done live comedy for five years (he won the Bay Guardian award for his work in Trailer Town) and he says he's still perfecting his act.
"I'm a small-town kid in a big city, and I bring that point of view to my comedy," Romane says, adding, "I feel closer to 'breaking through' than I ever have."
Paco Romane headlines a free night of comedy on March 26, 2013 at 8 p.m. at Milk Bar in San Francisco. On March 27 at 8 p.m., Romane hosts the Romane Event Comedy Show at the Make-Out Room. April 17-20, he'll perform with Will Durst at San Francisco's Punch Line. For tickets and more information visit pacoromane.com.