From the Video Store Basement to Smog City With George Chen
Last July, in a move that can only be described as "typical," musician, comedian and all-around local treasure George Chen said goodbye to the Bay Area and moved to Los Angeles.
What wasn't typical is that Chen bid farewell to San Francisco by doing standup comedy in the basement of a San Francisco video store. On the last night of Cynic Cave -- the monthly comedy show that he promoted for four years -- Chen recorded his set in the basement of Lost Weekend Video, which he releases this week as his first official comedy album.
In his time here, Chen was a beloved, ubiquitous figure in the Bay Area underground scene who embodied its DIY attitude. He seemed to be everywhere at once -- his booking collective Club Sandwich promoted hundreds of shows, his record label Zum released dozens of records, and he played in just as many bands, including Kit and Chen Santa Maria.
Six years ago, Chen started hitting open mics and putting his perpetual energy into the local comedy scene. By the time he ended Cynic Cave and moved to Los Angeles, he'd developed a unique style of comedy that mixed silly, slow-burning punchlines with biting takes on modern politics. After hearing his well-crafted set on his debut release Word Origami, I talked with him about his newfound comedy career and how his move to sunny L.A. is working out.
You recorded Word Origami before you left San Francisco. Why did you leave?
I’d been contemplating a move for a long time, but the immediate factors were my girlfriend getting a job in L.A., my job allowing me to work remotely, and a series of problems with my very cheap apartment in Oakland (which I describe in this storytelling bit).
I grew up in San Jose and had lived most of my adult life in the East Bay, so I was worried about general stagnation. I also learned that Lost Weekend was going to be moving off Valencia Street around the same time my girlfriend got her job offer, so all signs were pointing towards leaving.
Has the move led to more comedy work?
Personally, I’m not doing a greater quantity of comedy work, though the opportunities to do standup are plentiful. I knew this was inevitable whether I was in San Francisco or L.A., just by nature of losing the venue where I had a weekly show. I’ve heard from everyone that the first year or two in L.A. are incredibly difficult, and I’m starting over in a new scene without a lot of credits. That’s partly why I wanted to put this recording out, to establish something for myself without having any guidance or input from the industry. No one invites you to move to L.A., so I’ve found! Quite the opposite.
What made you want to start doing comedy?
It was always a great passion growing up. Pre-Comedy Central, we taped all the weird British sketch shows off MTV and then went deep into those early cable comedy clips they ran like music videos. My sister and I also listened to the Alex Bennett morning show on Live 105, so we grew up hearing Greg Proops and Marc Maron and all these local '90s comics. He also had a KQED standup show filmed at the Great American Music Hall, where I first saw Dana Gould and a bunch of others. Can you guys make that footage available? There was a bald biker character comic named Tree. I wonder what happened to him.
I would also say the early days of Twitter were a good transition. My overlapping music and comedy interests had a place to manifest, and I got a little attention for some weird narrative tweets. I also started in the midst of the podcasting boom, so I listened to all of those shows. Doug Loves Movies and Comedy Bang Bang gave me the feeling of those Alex Bennett Live 105 shows I heard as a kid, but without the FCC restrictions on swearing.
What's been the harder scene to work in: punk or comedy?
Both punk and comedy have intense personalities, junk food, and late nights. Open mics always ended within three hours and there was no equipment to load out at the end, so for sheer pragmatic reasons they beat out music (which as a performer is like a six-hour commitment). But I also ended up with a day job at a record label, one of the punk scene’s very few professionalized positions. And being at noise shows with six people in the audience for a decade fortified me to the affront that is the open mic scene. There was an immediate difference transitioning between scenes in that punk, at least Bay Area punk, is far more woke than a comedy club. That’s a conflict but also an interesting dialogue.
How did Cynic Cave come about?
I literally lucked into that situation. I had been doing a lot of one-off shows in weird venues, collaborating with John Benson on his bus shows, Lindsey White’s life-drawing comedy shows at Will Brown, and I did a few things at Saturn Café in Berkeley. Hannah Lew knew me from music and asked me if I wanted to put something on at Lost Weekend before the basement venue officially opened. I think that she’d asked Chris Thayer to do it, but he was already planning on moving to L.A. and our first show was kind of like his going-away party. That first show ended up being a perfect storm of a mysterious new venue in the Mission and a mix of L.A. and Bay Area comics, and there were lines out the door. It went from being a monthly showcase to very quickly becoming every Saturday. By the end, we filled the calendar every night of the week with shows put on by different producers.
You ran Cynic Cave for four years, which seems like quite a while for a comedy night. Looking back, what about those four years makes you happy you did it?
I feel like everything I have in comedy and a lot of my life came out of the Cynic Cave. I got jaded living in the Bay Area, but the comedy scene gave me a sense of purpose after a lot of personal bad times, and introduced me to a whole parallel overlapping society. We have some of the Lost Weekend theater seats at our apartment, and also, I met my girlfriend there. I ran a first Friday show there called Talkies, which still exists to this day but is moving around to some East Bay venues. That was a great place to try things out, I did a lot of PowerPoints and characters specifically for that show, and it started down the street at ATA. Comedy where you still need to do a soundcheck -- kind of defeats the purpose!
Finally, having done it for seven years now, what's the best part about comedy?
Well, I started when we thought Mitt Romney was the worst thing that could happen to America. I still love seeing comedy, I am grateful when I get asked to do it, and I put this record out so if I quit and become a chef, at least there’s a document of it.