The Bay Area has long been a step for comedians, a training ground for budding comics with a passion for the form and dreams of stardom. They come to San Francisco in particular because there have always been lots of clubs and open mics, and receptive crowds.
Comedian Sam DiSalvo came to San Francisco from Reno three years ago hoping to do something more with her standup routine. Over that time, DiSalvo has received plenty of stage time and has launched and hosted a few ongoing series, such as the monthly comedy night at Blondie’s Bar in The Mission, now in its second year.
But it hasn't all been smooth for DiSalvo. The comedian addresses some of the challenges she's faced during her time in San Francisco, such as gender discrimination and being groped,in an essay she recently wrote for The Bold Italic. She visited KQED a little while after her story ran to chat about these issues and her life as a comedian.
Do you consider the San Francisco comedy scene to be a training ground?
I've thought about this a lot. If you become the best comic in San Francisco, the best thing that can happen to you is to have someone from Los Angeles or New York notice that. It's a great scene because you can get a ton of shows and become known in a big city that appreciates arts and comedy. But if you want to make it a career, you need to move to New York or L.A., unless you want to go on the road.
Do you see it as a competitive scene? Is there a strong sense of community, with everyone looking out for each other?
I would say that it's both. I think in any career, you will see people trying to get ahead of others and taking things personally -- taking breaks that other people get and wondering why that didn't happen to them. That's all there. But I also think it's been a very encouraging scene, because people who are more established do have influence and they'll recommend you for shows. Also, there are so many shows and venues that provide the opportunity for you to start your own show, which is the number one thing you should do once you become more established.
From your essay for The Bold Italic, it sounds like you've experienced a significant amount of sexism. Do you feel it's a serious issue that needs to be addressed immediately?
I don't think it's unique to San Francisco at all. I titled the essay, "The Reality of Being a Female Comic in San Francisco," but I wanted it to be clear that it was my personal experience and not "all women feel exactly like I do." That being said, in any male-dominated career, you're going to run into a lot of the things I talk about.
My time in San Francisco has been the first I've spent with a large group of comedians. In Reno, there were maybe five comedians at the bar. Even there, I was one of only four women regularly doing comedy and everyone else were guys. It's more emphasized in smaller towns.
Sometimes you get caught up in social situations where men are in the majority, and you'll see that even men who want to be really good to women will still join in a total boys' club and talk trash. It feels like there's no reason for them to care about women as much when they're not in the room.
This really goes against the Bay Area's progressive reputation. Also, so many great female comedians have come out of the San Francisco scene, like Margaret Cho, Paula Poundstone, Ali Wong and Caitlin Gill.
It is strange because there are so many notable comediennes. But I still feel like that they're seen as being "good for women," like "that's a good female comic." Or another way they look at it is, "they only talk about female things and that does not pertain to me." The thing is, men are constantly doing that! They talk about things I don't necessarily relate to but that can still resonate. I think it's taken longer for men to accept that just because they don't have vaginas, it doesn't mean they can't find women funny.
Could you please describe what happened when you were groped on stage?
It was at an open mic and it was super small. When the stakes are lower, I think people feel, "Who cares, this isn't a real show. I can do whatever I want," which is a horrible way of thinking.
The stage was close to the bar. I was hosting, and a guy just came on the stage and grabbed my leg. I pushed him away and got off the stage. It was real weird because I was looking around, saying "Your next comic..." while I'm fighting this guy off. When I got off stage, another comic came up to me afterwards and asked, "Who was that guy?" I was like, "I don't know!" She thought that I knew him and when I told her I didn't, she was horrified.
It felt really weird. Why did you think you could just come up here and grab me? It made me feel like I was an object up there for everyone to have at because I am a woman.
On stage, I talk about having sex. I sometimes put myself as "the fool" so-to-speak in the situations I'm describing and then I'll have men come up after the show who are like, "Man, if she's having all of these sexual blunders, then she'll want to have sex with me, Joe from the bar." They'll come up to me and say, "Hey, I'll have sex with you." Wow, that's not something I invited or asked or needed to hear at all.
They think I'm offering based on my being awkward on stage, but this is not about them. This is not a performance for you. It feels like some men think it is just for them and they can take whatever is on stage as, "This is available for me and I can do whatever, say whatever, because this is a woman." They don't need to respect me like they would a male comedian, even though we're talking about the same things.
Is the sexism getting worse?
I think the view that women are lesser than men -- I really don't know if it will go away. But for the Bay Area specifically, we're sometimes referred to as "woke." [Laughs] Men here are at least trying. They've read a lot of articles. They're really trying not to have that come across and I know because there's new phrasing -- some men will talk to me and say, "Look, I'm not trying to be sexist or anything." They know it's something they shouldn't be. And some men are just better at living that and don't have to tell me that they're not sexist.
You can see Sam DiSalvo at shows all across the Bay Area, including the TGIF'd at Piano Fight on the last Friday of every month, and at Blondie's Bar on the last Monday of every month. For more dates, visit her website at samdisalvo.com.
For arts stories you won't read anywhere else, come to KQED's Arts and Culture desk.