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San Francisco Community Rallies To Save Historic Comedy Club

Jun 8, 2019
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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Comedian Dave Chappelle calls it one of the most important rooms for American culture. And now this room is at risk of being lost forever to the accelerating forces of big tech. Punch Line Comedy Club, the oldest in San Francisco's once-vibrant standup scene, cannot renew its lease. And it's not because Punch Line doesn't have the money. NPR's Aarti Shahani has this story.

AARTI SHAHANI, BYLINE: Punch Line opened its doors in 1978. Household names have stood on this stage - Robin Williams, Dana Carvey, Ali Wong, Nato Green. All right, that last one is only household in the local scene.

NATE GREEN: I need to talk to you about politics. Some people don't want to talk about politics. They're, like, Nato, why do you got to talk about politics? What do politics have to do with me? I'm not an immigrant or a black person or a Muslim or gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, or a Jew or a woman or an old person or a young person.

SHAHANI: You get it. By day, Green is a labor organizer fighting for nurses at the hospital renamed after Mark Zuckerberg's family. By night, he's grappling with becoming the entertainment help for the Facebook, Google, Apple, Salesforce engineers looking to unwind after their hard day's work. Green tells himself to smile more when he's about to singe his audience, like now.

GREEN: And if you're a tech person, I want you to know I don't hate you. I don't have anything against you personally, just everything that you represent.

SHAHANI: Punch Line may be the next casualty in San Francisco's march from bohemian enclave to tech office park. At least six comedy clubs have closed in the last decade. Punch Line was supposed to be invincible. It's owned by Live Nation, a multi-billion-dollar company. But bigger billionaires have declined to renew the club's lease. Green and other comedians speculate that property owner Morgan Stanley has a different vision for a space - tech workers to replace culture workers.

GREEN: People programming computer programs so that other people somewhere else can look up what it is like to be in person at a comedy club - that's instead of having an actual human experience.

SHAHANI: Tech has created opportunities for comedy - the endless stream of curated standup on Netflix and Hulu. But Green says that's no substitute for the messy, creative chaos of the physical world. He and his friends got paid to try out new material, fail and fail fast or rise in this intimate venue.

CHRIS GARCIA: It looks exactly the same. I mean...

SHAHANI: Comedian Chris Garcia, this night's headliner, at the bar in the back.

Yeah, the rug definitely doesn't look new.

GARCIA: Yeah, that rug is old. Yeah, you look at this brass. This is - like, that's from the cocaine days (laughter).

SHAHANI: Comedian-organizer Green turned this fight to save the Punch Line into an all-out campaign. He sent up the smoke signal. In response, one of the biggest names in comedy came and stood beside him on the steps of San Francisco City Hall.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DAVE CHAPPELLE: When I quit my show, that room became like a home to me.

SHAHANI: Dave Chappelle, who came to town to perform at the Punch Line.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHAPPELLE: It was the last place I saw Robin Williams alive. It was the place I was at when I found out I was having my first kid.

SHAHANI: Now, the skeptics may say, just move the club to a new space. What's the big deal?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHAPPELLE: It'd be like burning down the Louvre or selling the Louvre to somebody. And there's beautiful art that's going up in this city, and you can't just put it in another room. That room is special.

SHAHANI: This past week, the government stepped in. City supervisors unanimously passed an emergency ordinance that says whatever the owner wants to do with the room, it's got to be used for entertainment. The move was unusual and also temporary. Morgan Stanley declined to comment, but one of its other tenants, Google, said in a statement they want to keep the Punch Line as their neighbors. Aarti Shahani, NPR News, San Francisco. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.