by Chad Lehrman
Gerald Nachman is the author of Seriously Funny: The Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 1960s. He is also co-curator of a new exhibit about the hungry i, the legendary North Beach nightclub. The hungry i exhibit will be on display from March 28- August 27 at the San Francisco Performing Arts Library & Museum. (details at sfpalm.org/exhibits/HUNGRY/Hungry.htm)
Nachman calls the hungry i of the mid-1950s “the Comedy Central of its day.” The following description of the SF comedy scene is an excerpt from page nine of Seriously Funny:
The clubs that nurtured the subversive satirical comics of the fifties era were dives, basements, storefronts, attics, abandoned Chinese restaurants, rat holes, and mine shafts- Mort Sahl’s term for the hungry i, one of the cozier caves. While these dingy clubs were architectural disasters, they were perfect viewing perches- snug and audience-friendly, just right for comedians who had begun at college hangouts, rathskellers, coffeehouses, and jazz joints.
The comic Ronnie Schell, who puts on annual hungry i reunions featuring the original hands, recalls: “Between shows at the Purple Onion, I could go out front and watch Phyllis Diller, or over to the hungry i to see Woody Allen or Mort Sahl. Sometimes I’d run up to Ann’s 440 on Broadway for Lenny Bruce, hit Bimbo’s to hear Shecky Greene, or slide into Fack’s on Bush to see Don Rickles. San Francisco was like a revolving door for all the new comedians.”
How did the new hungry i exhibit come about?
Well, it may have started with me, because of my book. When I was trying to get some publicity for it, I got in touch with the Performing Arts Library and Museum. I suggested maybe some kind of a show based on the book, and Brad Rosenstein, who is the curator there, said he didn’t think so at that time. Then about a year later, he thought it would be great to just focus on the hungry i rather than on the comedians- but they’re one and the same really. Cause most of the people in my book played at the hungry i at one time or another. So the exhibit just sort of came about, I don’t know if he got the idea from my book or on his own.
Was there a stand-up comedy scene in San Francisco before Mort Sahl made his debut at the hungry i in 1953?
Jeez, I was too young then. I wasn’t going to clubs and I wasn’t aware of a comedy scene. I was in high school. I think if there was a scene it was the standard traditional comedians who would be coming to the bigger clubs, like maybe Bimbo’s and the Venetian Room at the Fairmont, the major showroom type clubs, and those would have been guys like Jack Carter- the flashier old-fashioned kind of comedians. They were guys of the previous generation, people like Henny Youngman. A lot of them descended from the Catskill tradition and they played Las Vegas and Miami and the big cities. I think that’s what kind of a scene there was, if you can call it a scene- but San Francisco was just another stop on the circuit. It wasn’t special the way it became when the hungry i opened.
Can you share a favorite memory of the hungry i?
I remember interviewing Jonathan Winters after his show, and it turned out to be kind of a major time, because he flipped out the next day, or maybe it was even that night after I interviewed him. I was writing a column for a college paper at San Jose State. I would interview people like Bob Newhart and Winters. I would kind of corner them after the show, and a few of them did talk to me- Winters did, Newhart did. That’s my real memory of it, just simply going to it and experiencing it. It felt like a very inside, kind of cult thing in a way. At the time when things are happening, you’re not aware of it because it’s all around you. And you just think this is the way it is. It’s not until much later when you look back that it becomes a golden age or an era or anything like that. There’s a famous quote I always like to use, which was by a singer called Helen O’Connell during the Big Band era. She said to somebody, “If I knew it was going to be an era, I would have paid more attention.” And that’s kind of how I feel about that comedy era- I was just a kid in college and I enjoyed it, but I didn’t know it was going to be anything special.
Wow, I didn’t know that. I don’t go to comedy clubs. Well that comes from a whole different era that started with Robin Williams and the Holy City Zoo, and most of that’s all gone, so I guess the comedy scene is kind of diminishing. I didn’t know they were owned by the same company, that’s too bad. They’re probably independent of each other in terms of booking policies, the parent company probably just cares about profit. But the fewer there are, the worse- and if they’re owned by the same company, that’s bad.
What made you stop going to comedy clubs?
I got too old and they got too young. They’re doing material I couldn’t identify with, and to be honest a lot of it is a little too dirty, too crude for me. They seem to be leaning on that. And I just didn’t think it was sharp enough or interesting enough. I think the audiences got too eager and they just kind of laugh at everything. They don’t really go to see specific comedians anymore, do they?
Why do you think there are so few comedians today doing socially and politically relevant comedy?
Well a lot of the big names are guys who are doing that- like Bill Maher, Dennis Miller. I don’t know because this era, I don’t think I said this in the book, but I’ve thought it for a long time- this era is very much politically like the 50’s, because of Bush and because of the way the world is. Politically, it’s a very oppressive time and there’s a real need for comedians to come along and take this stuff apart. It’s ready for another Mort Sahl, someone in that same spirit, who is fearless and will say anything. So I don’t really know why, to answer the question. I would think this is a time when it would be just ripe for a lot of comedians to be making hay because there’s so much to talk about and the country’s divided. Things are so polarized, so it seems like it would be an opportune moment to come along and maybe someone will. There’s the Iraq War and Islam and just a ton of material- maybe the issues are too complicated for comedians to deal with, but political cartoonists have a lot to say and they usually manage to cut through it all very artfully.