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Sonoma County's stand-up comedy scene is booming

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On a chilly Saturday night, the Juncture Taproom & Lounge in Santa Rosa was packed, but all of the widescreen TVs were turned off. There would be no sports tonight.

A small stage in the corner held a single microphone, and several comedians waited behind a curtain at the back of the house in a makeshift dressing room.

The evening’s host, Levi Smith, took the stage to ask “Did anybody come here to laugh tonight?” and from the crowd’s response, the answer was something along the lines of “You better believe it!”

A few rows back, patron Kris Kelso of Santa Rosa put it plainly: “It’s a night to go out and let loose and have a few laughs. I like the local comedians best, because they can relate to the stuff around.”

Kelso, a husky guy of 35 who works in a tile shop and goes out to catch local comedy shows when he can, is not alone. Sonoma County has long had some kind of comedy scene, and it has had its ups and downs, but it’s difficult to remember when the business of getting laughs has ever been livelier, with dozens of live shows popping up at venues all over the local landscape.

Taprooms, brewpubs, bars, restaurants and wineries are all inviting comedians — from headliners out of the Bay Area (and even LA), to newcomers at open mic nights, to a growing population of local part-time professional comics — to stand up and be heard.

“This is not just a comedy boom,” Smith, 39, said in a later interview. “It’s an explosion.”

Prices range from as much as $25 for name headliners to free for open mic nights, with the understanding that one does buy a drink and snack while enjoying the show.

Reasons given for the rise in comedy events and venues range from the current political climate to the ongoing emotional aftermath of the Northern California wildfires of 2017 and subsequent fires and floods.

Cody Smith, 31, is a Santa Rosa native who currently produces regularly scheduled shows at the Fogbelt Brewing Company in Santa Rosa, Murphy’s Irish Pub in Sonoma and the Office at Main and Mill of Ukiah.

“Comedy is booming right now because the word is out and people are yearning for entertainment around here. I saw a real spike after the fires. People want a distraction from everyday hardships, and this is it,” Smith said.

Lisa Pidge, 49, has produced comedy shows mostly at wineries under the Crushers of Comedy banner for the past five years, and ran her own Laugh Cellar comedy club in Santa Rosa for two years until it closed last summer. She continues to use her Laugh Cellar brand to put on twice-monthly shows at the Flamingo Resort Hotel in Santa Rosa.

“People are going to comedy to NOT think about politics,” she said. “They want to escape.”

At Juncture, where last month’s show delighted the crowd, Levi Smith and the taproom’s owner, Peter Lopez, are planning their sixth “Craft & Comedy” night Saturday, and once again they’re looking forward to a sold-out show.

It’s not an isolated experience. In November, Jackie Evans, 59, of Cloverdale, a longtime music and sports event promoter, booked a comedy show at the Railroad Station Bar and Grill,

“The show sold out in two weeks, so now I’ve booked another one, and it sold out it in two hours,” Evans said.

That second show is a live performance in early April by Jimmie “JJ” Walker of the ‘70s TV sitcom “Good Times,” who is also scheduled to perform at Sally Tomatoes in Rohnert Park, which has booked its share of name acts over the years as well as local talent.

“We recently completed our sixth ‘So Your Friends Think You’re Funny’ comedy competition at Sally Tomatoes and the talent continues to amaze me,” said longtime local comedy promoter Casey Williams, 42.

“Many of our recent winners have gone to produce great shows,” he added, “like Martin Maruffo, who runs a monthly comedy night at the Rincon Valley Tap Room, and Kala Keller, who has done weekly bar shows at Belly.”

Keller, 28, who took over production of the Friday night “Belly Laughs” events three months ago at Belly Left Coast Kitchen & Tap Room in downtown Santa Rosa, was on the lineup as a performer at Juncture’s “Craft & Comedy 5” show last month.

“I have three kids and one more due in June. That’s three kids in four years,” she told the crowd. “My favorite thing to do is go the store and buy pregnancy tests.”

The personal stories get Keller laughs, but she aims to keep evolving as a comedian.

“My goal this year is to develop a 10-minute set in which I don’t talk about my kids. There are other women out there doing that now,” she said.

You can’t blame comedy moms for joking about what they know best, since like all working mothers they struggle to juggle their multiple roles.

“Comedy is my hobby right now, because I have a three-year-old,” said Lila Cugin, 48, a comedy and former producer of local shows. “I do plan on being a professional comedian. Right now, there’s such a boom that there are a lot of places for me to perform and a lot of open mic nights.”

You can reach staff writer Dan Taylor at 707-521-5243 or dan.taylor@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @danarts.

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