Alameda Comedy Club’s first 18 months a COVID whirlwind
By Lou Fancher
Alameda Comedy Club founder/owner Patrick Ford describes his fledgling club’s history since early 2020 as a dizzying, 18-month time warp.
The revolving-door narrative spins out according to COVID-19’s too-familiar, lamentable timeline: “Originally we planned to open in spring 2020, then everything shut down for a couple of months,” he begins. “Then they allowed outdoor dining, so with (work and life partner) Lori Theis and Eddie Brill — he worked with me on the club design — we brought our architect back in to develop the outdoor patio.
“We built integrated walls with heating systems in them, added an outdoor sound system and ran outdoor shows for two months. Then we had to close in December 2020 because of the state-mandated shutdown. We reopened the outdoor patio in February 2021. We brought in propane heaters, ordered logo lap blankets, added hot toddies to the menu — all things to make people comfortable. People showed up with mittens and hats on. They were ready.”
In April, a full year later than planned, the indoor venue finally opened at 50% capacity, with tables socially distanced generously. In June, indoor capacity increased to 100 seats, about two-thirds real capacity. “Old-school comedy clubs? You sat shoulder-to-shoulder, but we knew people weren’t ready for that,” Ford says.
Today, with COVID’s delta variant on the rampage, Ford says, “We’ve reset the calendar back a year and moved everything back outdoors.”
Mirroring recent policies by the Downtown Alameda Business Association and the city of San Francisco, the club (alamedacomedy.com) also requires proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test in the past 72 hours.
“All performers, staff and customers have to be vaccinated or test negative,” Ford says. “Why the performers too? If a guest contracts COVID and cancels, that means I lose one table or a $25 ticket sale. If a performer tests positive, I have to close the whole show and lose everything. But mainly, we need to protect everyone, not just here in the Bay Area but worldwide.”
He says reactions to the requirements have been “overwhelmingly positive, 100-to-one favorable.” Ford is a software executive with experience performing on Los Angeles comedy club stages and producing stand-up comedy shows for nearly 15 years. Theis brings food industry management expertise to the club and with chef Arran Burns developed a menu unusual for a comedy club. Instead of serving mediocre bar food such as pizza and beer, guests enjoy gourmet-level Mac ’n’ Cheese Balls, Garlic shrimp, Brisket Sliders, charcuterie and cheese boards, craft cocktails, local artisan beers, fresh-baked cookies and more. The popular Drag Yourself To Brunch event on Sundays (featuring a cast of performers in drag) offers a $48 prix fixe menu featuring deluxe waffles, bacon, sausage, salmon and fresh fruit along with choice of a mimosa, Bloody Mary or nonalcoholic drink.
The popular Drag Yourself To Brunch event on Sundays (featuring a cast of performers in drag) offers a $48 prix fixe menu featuring deluxe waffles, bacon, sausage, salmon and fresh fruit along with choice of a mimosa, Bloody Mary or nonalcoholic drink. (photo courtesy of the Alameda Comedy Club) Although a slight downtick in sales occurred when the delta variant ramped up, recent weekend shows with Kabir “Kabeezy” Singh, who earned four “yeses” on NBC’s America’s Got Talent in June, sold well. Fortunately, booking talent is solid: “I’ve heard from probably 700 comedians requesting spots and had dozens of availabilities sent to me by agents. I’m pretty much booked on weekends through the end of the year,” says Ford.
Included among upcoming acts is a third visit Sept. 24-25 from Los Angeles-based standup comedian, screenwriter, radio show host, author, YouTube presence and podcaster Monique Marvez.
“She filled in for us during an emergency last year,” Ford said. “We opened with Eddie Brill (who with Ford designed the club but was also the comedy coordinator for the Late Night With David Letterman show). The second week, the comedian called me and said she had a cold and couldn’t very well see getting up on stage coughing and sneezing during COVID. Eddie said, ‘Call Monique Marvez.’ I did, and she said she’d love to do it, drove up from L.A. on one week’s notice and did great shows. She loves Valentine’s Day, so when we reopened last February we brought her back. She’s a great storytelling comedian and does great crowd work. She asks questions that aren’t just fodder for one-offs, but collects the information from people and weaves it into the whole hour.”
Ford has a strong preference for bold personalities who are adept with crowd interactions, offer smart, structured writing, jokes with good punch lines, unique points of view, and an element of surprise.
“Certainly we want people who are well known and have lots of Instagram followers, but not mediocre comics who get on stage and rant and are loud. They get reactions, but their material isn’t a joke; it’s throwaway, crude statements. I don’t mind dirty humor but I don’t want you to get out there and be loud and shocking and think you’re doing comedy. Good jokes have a left turn, a surprise for the brain. I want endings I don’t anticipate, to laugh involuntarily.”
Marvez, with more than 25 years in the business, agrees.
“You can call me a comedian, but I’m a wizard. It’s impossible to think a negative thing and laugh at the same time. The ability to take someone to a higher vibration in a few words is magic. I never stop knowing how blessed I am to be able to do that.”
Marvez is well-practiced in the art of being flexible after a childhood that had her attending five different elementary schools, two middle schools and three high schools. She learned early in life to rely on a philosophy of “life happens for you, not to punish you.” In her act and podcasts, she “acknowledges reality, does it first, does it live.” This means, for example, that while she calls the coronavirus “the ‘rona,” making it sound like an ignorable, annoying neighbor, she also admits to a changed-by-pandemic world that means “you can’t escape pivot” and calls herself “a Latina female army of one” determined to counter gloom.
Agreeing that the pandemic has disproportionately impacted people of color, she says addressing political topics onstage would be one-sided preaching and would not allow people the grace to choose for themselves what to believe.
“People come to engage for 45 minutes not to be told about things so serious,” she says. “I’m happy to engage privately with anyone who wants to have those conversations. Onstage, I’m there to offer solace, entertainment and distraction.”