On a recent Saturday night the Laugh Cellar, Sonoma County’s newest venue for stand-up comedy, was packed, both with return customers and first-timers.
Tucked away in a shopping center space off Highway 12 that previously has been home to a grocery store and a couple of different restaurants, the site has taken on a new life as a stand-up comedy club, decked out to fit its name, complete with a wine barrel onstage in the corner of the room.
The place was packed the night Lisa Ellison and Tod Ceruti of Santa Rosa chose to make their first visit.
“We love comedy but we haven’t been to too many shows, because we don’t want to go all the way to the city, so this is perfect,” Ellison said.
Sonoma County has a rich history of staging live comedy, and comedy clubs have come and gone over the past few decades, but fun seekers will find the current local comedy scene lively.
“Because we’re so close to San Francisco, a lot of comics from the city will come up here,” said Casey Williams, 41, co-founder of Barrel Proof Comedy, which produces comedy shows all over Sonoma County and in Mendocino County.
With co-producer Steve Ausburne, who also performs at Laugh Cellar, Williams has hosted a Barrel Proof Comedy podcast for the past year and half. Now Barrel Proof brings nationally known headliners on a monthly basis to Sally Tomatoes in Rohnert Park, including Comedy Central and Madtv impressionist Pablo Francisco, who will appear there Wednesday.
“We started by putting on bar shows with local talent, but the comedy community discovered you can get a consistently good audience up here,” Williams said.
“That’s the biggest difference between here and San Francisco. There are a lot of shows in the city but, at the ones that are outside the major venues like Cobbs and Punchline, you’ll go and do a show, but there are like seven people there,” he said. “Whereas here, at some of the winery and bar shows we’ve done, there’ll be 40, 50, even 100 people.”
At the Laugh Cellar, founder and producer Lisa Pidge estimated last Saturday’s crowd at 90 people. The comedy lineup that night featured headliner Emily Van Dyke from San Francisco, which she described as “a city of dorks who know how to make cell phones work.”
The opening acts were both from Los Angeles: Kazu Kusano — who acknowledged her Japanese accent by saying, “I can say some American words, like Toyota” — and her husband, hypnotist Allen Gittelson, clad in a three-piece brown suit, who demonstrated the power of suggestion with the help of audience volunteers.
Like the Barrel Proof team, Laugh Cellar founder Pidge, 48, started out gradually and built a following, producing Crushers of Comedy shows at wineries and other venues since 2014.
At Laugh Cellar, Pidge and her wife and business partner, Carlee Pidge, 35, divide the duties, with Lisa booking the talent and handling the comedy shows and Carlee running the bar and cafe, which features comedy-themed items like the $6 “Laugh Your Nachos Off.”
“We’re in Wine Country People come here from all over,” Lisa Pidge said. “There are a lot of locations for comedy. We’re trying to work together to build something in Wine Country.”
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