Frenching the Onion

From The Bold Italic

January 13, 2011
By Harmon Leon


I’m walking into the bowels of comedic history, entering a time where nightclubs had tablecloths, patrons sipped highballs, and comedians wore suits.

These are the steps once trampled by the likes of Lenny Bruce, Woody Allen, and Richard Pryor. Tonight, I’m gigging at the Purple Onion and I’m hoping the ghosts of comedy’s past will shine down brightly upon me, like Tiny Tim being presented with a new crutch on Christmas Eve.

Or something like that.

Big Al runs the “Live at the Onion” comedy shows. He slipped me on the bill last minute when I told him that the evening would be memorialized in a Bold Italic story — that’s how showbiz works.

Since opening its doors in 1952, the renowned club has sat in the basement of 140 Columbus Avenue in North Beach. It’s an intimate 80-seat space that was an entertainment cornerstone during the Beat era. The Smothers Brothers recorded their 1961 album, The Smothers Brothers at the Purple Onion here, and four decades later, Zach Galifianakis did the same with his 2007 DVD: Zach Galifianakis — Live at the Purple Onion . The Onion is the heart and soul of San Francisco comedy.

Comedy has always been in my soul as well. When I was growing up in Minnesota and my friends were all forming bands, all I wanted was to compile a tight 10-minute standup routine. Since then, being a comedian has enabled me to gig around the globe in such exciting places as Scotland, Australia, Ireland, and, of course, Modesto, as well as on The Howard Stern Show and Last Call with Carson Daly.

Though I grew up in the Midwest, the Purple Onion has long been on my comedy radar, thanks to that Smothers Brothers album landing in my dad’s record collection. In my mind, the venue appeared as a mythical place filled with martinis and cigarettes .

When I moved to San Francisco in the ’90s, I first preformed at the legendary haunt when it wasn’t packed with martini sippers — rather, it had been reincarnated into a stinky garage rock club.

The place was always trashed, and permeated with a smell of caked beer. Back then, the guy who ran the Onion had a crazed, bipolar edge and resembled Crispin Glover in River’s Edge . He’d often jump on stage, grab the microphone out of comedians’ hands, and just start ranting. The Onion was teetering on the edge of doom during that seven-year run as a music club.

In 2004, the Purple Onion returned to its comedy roots. The owner of Caffe Macaroni accomplished a Herculean task of refurbishing the venue. In its new incarnation, I performed as part of a collective, Joke-e-Oke, during last year’s SF Sketchfest. We collaborated with Paul Provenza (director of The Aristocrats ) on our “karaoke with jokes” and had Robin Williams cackling at our antics from the crowd. That night, the comedy spirits rained down upon us — and the audience went apeshit.

When I get to the base of the steps, Al is manning the door, doing double duty of collecting money and performing.

There’s something cool about a basement comedy club. A special bond is generated between comedian and audience when you’re all collected together below the earth’s surface. Or maybe that sense of camaraderie comes from the lack of a green room. At the Onion, there’s a good chance that the person sitting next to you now will try and make you laugh from the stage later.

Inside this dungeon-of-yuks, the walls are lined with framed photos of Woody Allen, Mort Sahl, The Smothers Brothers, and Greg Proops. Keeping in theme with Caffe Macaroni upstairs, an Italian server gathers drink orders from the couple dozen laugh-seekers, and the bar is stocked Italy’s best brews.

I take a seat in one of the plush retro booths — the optimum viewing spot at the Onion. I love the feeling of being in the back of a comedy club while waiting to go on. I imagine in bygone eras this spot was reserved for the Rat Pack when they came to see funnyman Jonathan Winters. These days, it’s, well, the best place to polish new material.

I’m in the zone now. My last minute euphonies will be tested moments later from the stage. A few other comics sit nearby, also scribbling away in notebooks like we’re all cramming for an exam.

Though it’s only Thursday, this is my fifth gig this week. I’m gearing up for a big run of shows in February at the Adelaide Festival in Australia. Like an athlete hitting the gym, a comedian needs to get on stage several times a week to stay in shape. Tonight, I’m ready to do some comedic squat thrusts.

As the MC warms up the room with material about being a Filipino DJ, I go into my preshow ritual of jotting my set list on my palm. I never look at my hand during my act. That habit’s just for good luck — like a security blanket, or something that upsets loved ones who accidentally come across it.

Though comedians are generally a supportive community, there is a sadistic joy in seeing another performer tank on stage. No one’s flailing so far, but the tension of anticipating a bomb creates a tightrope dynamic. Tonight I’m following a guy named Sammy who eases up the crowd despite having an uneven set.

Purple Onion audiences generally seem forgiving. Maybe it has something to do with the cheaper cover charge and being forced to hit a drink minimum. I do wish there were more paying folks here, though. Maybe then the freezing club could afford to crank the heat. (Is comedy funnier if one’s wearing a functional parka?)

As Sammy pommels horses off stage, I metaphorically dive into the batter’s circle and swing the bat with the donut on it. I then emulate a performance credo I read about in the book Hiding the Elephant . A particular nineteenth-century magician would look out at his audience from backstage and then say to himself, “I love each and everyone of you.”

There have been times when I’ve actually hated the audience before even stepping to the mic (bachelorette party from Antioch, I’m talking to you). The gig then becomes like a military clash where Art of War strategies should be engaged to win the standup battle. But the atmosphere of the Onion is warm. So tonight: “I love each and everyone of you!”

I position myself in the sidelines, ready to bolt to the microphone.

“Okay everyone,” the MC starts. “I’d like to bring up our next act. He’s been on Last Call with Carson Daly and The Howard Stern Show . His name is — Oh shit! I forgot his name!”

Great. It’s the ol’ yo-yo introduction. I’m ready to vault out to a pumped up intro, only to get pulled back by the MC forgetting my stupid name.

“Oh my god! That’s MC 101!” I blurt from the sidelines, to big laughs from the audience. The MC has unwittingly primed me to play off my surroundings, and I go for it: “Let’s hear it for that guy! Him!” I spout as I burst on stage.

Having successfully connected with the room, I launch into my preplanned material.

“Some comedians pay a lot of money for college comedy classes. When they graduate, they’re funny. I couldn’t afford to do that, so instead I went to DeVry University and studied TV and VCR repair – last week.”

Good-sized laughs follow, but a little later, some of my jokes don’t get the road-tested response. So I improvise. “Shhhhh! It’s quiet in here,” I quip. “I like that. We got kittens sleeping in the backroom. If you are too loud, you’ll wake the kittens. DON’T WAKE THE DAMN KITTENS!”

The laughs build again, and I try to milk them. Comedy should be about the spaces in between the jokes. I enjoy the teetering with danger, the fun of potentially loosing the crowd then working to win them back. I’m safe in the knowledge that my planned material is waiting like a safety net for me to dive back into again.

The crowd reacts playfully as I riff off my current favorite topics: hitting on my dad, feeling unloved at airports when not groped, and explaining how my birth name is Applejuice Shitshoes. The gig finishes well — no one’s crying on either side of the stage. The other comedians fared well too, although it wasn’t a game changer in anyone’s career, just an ordinary evening of being shrouded by local comedic history.

I ascend the stairs out of this crypt of humor. Walking off toward the bright lights of North Beach, I share post-gig glow with kings of the Purple Onion’s past. Praise, praise, Sir Richard Pryor. Praise, praise Sir Lenny Bruce.

Take a sojourn into the heart of iconic San Francisco history. The Purple Onion is located at 140 Columbus Avenue, and you can check out Big Al’s comedy shows every Thursday night. More info at:

Harmon Leon will be performing his show “Joke-e-Oke” at the Purple Onion on January 21 as part of SF Sketchfest.

Back to Menu