A comedian walks into a bar… The rise of Silicon Valley’s stand-up scene

Get your laughs local with startup comics & open mic nights around the Peninsula & South Bay

Pick Your Poison hosts Brian (BMo) Moore and Ruben Escobedo (Image by Jim McCambridge)

Stepdad fight club.

Jesus’s Twitter feed.

Meth dealer motivational speaking.

Tyler Hinz pokes through an envelope full of these comedic launching points, poised to take the mic. With a physique and mustache reminiscent of Kip from Napolean Dynamite, Hinz adjusts his pink baseball cap (sporting a pineapple patch at its center), then freestyles to each category with varying results — some jokes uproariously effective, others skirting his grasp for on-the-spot wit.

Welcome to Pick Your Poison, a comedy show that tests both the rapid-fire improv skills and scripted material of Bay Area comics. One Tuesday a month, Clandestine Brewing opens its storage room for this event, setting up a few dozen seats and a stage between stacked, stainless steel beer kegs and their loading dock door. Juggling through these wacky topics, each of five performers takes their best crack. The crowd settles on a winner to headline for the evening.

Clandestine Brewing is one of an increasing number of local bars (and the occasional coffee shop) opening its doors to regular comedy nights. Although Silicon Valley is home to long-established, traditional comedy clubs — like Rooster T. Feathers and the prestigious San Jose Improv—makeshift spaces for amateur comics have surged in popularity over the past few years. These range from Irish pubs like Lilly Mac’s and Murphy’s Law, to hip hangouts like Hop Dogma and the Vinyl Room.

Ambitious comics often bar hop between these locations, easily working three or four shows a night. Weekdays as often as weekends. That kind of momentum has created an ideal incubator for an emerging stand-up culture around Silicon Valley.

Joe Begley and Mighty Mike McGee are two local names to know. (Images via Joe Begley’s FB page and Ramar Lumiere Photography)

Meet the Comedy Crew

“The local scene has kind of blown up,” affirms Joe Begley, a local comic (as well as a bit of a Tik Tok celebrity). Begley is a Santa Cruz surfer stereotype (down to the shaggy blond hair and the lanky build), but talk to him long enough and you’ll find he’s actually a Connecticut transplant. He’s also one of many regular comedy night hosts cropping up at local bars.

To truly grasp this community’s swift growth, you have to realize just how new this burgeoning scene really is. Many local comics point to Super Stacked—a free show established at Hapa’s Brewery in 2017—as the wellspring for this current trend. It fostered a hunger for humor and served as a templet for what is now happening in a variety of forms around Silicon Valley.

Go Go Gone Show at Cafe Stritch (Image via website)

“There’s a select group of people who have all just decided there’s opportunity here,” Begley explains. He and his buddies Dena Ware, Coral Best, Zach Lord and Mean Dave (who Begley notes is, disappointingly, “kind of a nice guy”), have established themselves at two Irish pubs in Sunnyvale: Lilly Mac’s and Murphy’s Law.

Begley ticks off a few more of the usual suspects on his fingers. There’s Pete Munoz at Woodham Sports Lounge, Ato Walker at the Caravan Lounge, Tyler Stannard at Santa Clara Valley Brewing, Jorge M. Sanchez at Vinyl Room, Mighty Mike McGee and Tom the Timelord at Cafe Stritch. Then you’ve got Ruben Escobedo and Brian Moore (more affectionately known as BMo) over at Clandestine Brewing.

At the same time, the local scene is not so big it jeopardizes the tight-knit feel of the community. “Everyone knows each other,” says Ruben Escobedo. Not only is Escobedo the co-founder of Pick Your Poison, but he’s also the podcaster behind “Kid Tested, Mother Approved” and a comic in his own right. “You end up meeting other people all the time who say, ‘Oh I’ve heard your name or seen you on a poster.’”

Down for lattes and laughter at Caffe Frascati? Comic Anna May caught mid-joke. (Image by Jim McCambridge via the cafe’s FB page)

Humor… The Silicon Valley Variety

Beyond the deep community, there’s the beautiful complexity: Humor comes in more flavors than Baskin Robins offers ice cream varieties. And Silicon Valley, a place surprisingly rich with comedic diversity, welcomes them all. Take Caffe Frascati, a late-night kind of coffee shop. Each Wednesday for the past five years, Frascati dealt out comedians, quick, like blackjack — fitting well over 20 acts back-to-back into neat 5-minute slots.

Some comics construct long-form stories as carefully as card towers while others toss out witty one-liners. Some keep things clean while others wade right into the gutter. Lighthearted or morbid. Expressive or deadpan. Moms and millennials. Students and grandmothers. All this, plus It’s A Small World variety in cultural backgrounds…in a single evening.

“Stand-up comedy is probably the most difficult thing I’ve ever done outside of boot camp,” adds Jonathan Hodges, one of the new kids on the block with 11 shows under his belt. “It’s an art that you create on the spot without much parameters and guidelines. Most other things, whether it’s running a race, or playing football, or creating architecture, or any type of accomplishment, there’s clear, defined parameters on what winning or success means.”

Hodges notes that Frascati was the spot that first helped him learn the ropes. The short time slots have made it an ideal place for newcomers — either to find out by crickets that they didn’t have the gift or to flex and strengthen their humor muscles with a smaller crowd. Sadly, the cafe’s comedy nights closed indefinitely this February as the business passed to new ownership, but its legacy provided countless opportunities over the years and will continue to be remembered fondly.

“Even though it [was] just at a coffee shop, you can’t really replicate the stand-up experience in your living room,” Hodges says. “Because unless people are staring at you, the pressure isn’t really there.”

For those who like deadpan, Kyle Morrisey’s your man. (Image via Johanna Hickle)

Oddly enough, when Hodges isn’t hamming it up on stage, he’s handling cyber operations with the U.S. Airforce. One bonus of the amateur comedy scene is that whatever comics do 9 to 5 is a fertile vein for comedic mining.

“Day jobs are all over the map,” says Escobedo, who works as supervisor at a local Peet’s, getting the shop up and running at the wincingly early hour of 4:00 a.m. Begley, on the other hand, works as a frontend developer at Walmart Labs. It’s that kind of occupational variety that spices up the material while also reflecting the diversity of Silicon Valley life.

Ruben Escobedo jokes about how he’s been told he strikes an uncanny resemblance to Templeton the Rat. (Image by Jim McCambridge)

The Audience Element

Silicon Valley multiplicity can also complicate things. “Every comic has to get a read for the crowd,” Hodges says. “And just because someone laughed at your jokes last week at a place, doesn’t mean at the same place the crowd is going to laugh again.”

Hodges adds that there’s a psychological art to tailoring the act to the crowd. He recognizes chuckles have a way of building on each other into hearty guffaws — but a lack of laughter turns the atmosphere sour and makes everyone uncomfortable. Comics come under the scrutiny of a collection of individuals — each with their own likes and dislikes, each experiencing a different mood, each interacting within the dynamic structure of whatever group of friends they walked in with.

Fortunately, local comics savor the challenge. “I compare it to playing poker,” Escobedo notes. “I love to talk to people, but I already know what I’m going to say to whatever you say. If I ask you a question, whatever you say, I already have an answer.”

Crowds at bars are infamously fickle because your audience hasn’t necessarily come to see you. Begley chuckles as he recalls a particular act performed in the bar area of an open kitchen. “It’s a cool thing if you’re trying to have dinner, but if you’re trying to get a crowd to listen when they’re shouting, ‘All right! We got the fries up!’ it’s hard.”

(From left) Before he got into comedy, Johnny Pena spent 10 years in law enforcement, even undergoing a stint as an undercover narcotics agent; the scene at Caffe Frascati is often cited as a launching point for many local comics (Image via Johanna Hickle and Jim McCambridge via the cafe’s FB page)

Escobedo divulges one of his favorite ways to deal with drunk hecklers. “Anytime I get an older person yelling, a good shutdown (and it’s a little hokey, but it always works), I go, ‘Not now dad, I’m working!’ ”

All comics bomb sometimes. Even the good ones have the occasional off night. Yet despite the brutal environment, they keep coming back. Why? “It’s addictive,” Begley admits. “If you bomb, you want to prove to yourself that you can do well. And If you do really well, you just want to feel that feeling again.”

Eager to join the revelry? Stop by one of our local bars for a lager and a laugh:

Comedy Sharks at Hop Dogma (Image via Hop Dogma)

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Johanna Hickle

Journalist with a fondness for micro-cultures and all things quirky.

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