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New Alameda Comedy Club brings laughter back to stage during pandemic

San Francisco Chronicle logo San Francisco Chronicle 10/18/2020 Kevin L. Jones
Joy Gohring holding a microphone: Comedian Joy Gohring performs at Alameda Comedy Club, run by Patrick Ford, to a packed house on opening night Friday, Oct. 16. Photo: Amy Osborne, Special to The Chronicle © Provided by San Francisco Chronicle Comedian Joy Gohring performs at Alameda Comedy Club, run by Patrick Ford, to a packed house on opening night Friday, Oct. 16. Photo: Amy Osborne, Special to The Chronicle

Comedians often start their sets by asking the crowd, “How are you doing?” But seven months into this pandemic, Joy Gohring already knew the answer to that question. Instead, she walked onto Alameda Comedy Club’s outdoor stage and asked whether it was the first time anyone in the audience had left their house.

It was for her.

“I literally just left L.A. to risk my life and entertain everyone,” Gohring deadpanned.

Her live, in-person set during the club’s opening night on Friday, Oct. 16 — on the bill with San Francisco comic Doug Ferrari (who almost fell off the stage) and headliner Eddie Brill, who flew in from New York — brought much-needed laughter back to 2020. Despite having to perform on a small wooden staircase as their stage before a masked crowd, it was like any other show.

a man sitting in a dark room: Comedian Eddie Brill performs on the outdoor stage on opening night at the new Alameda Comedy Club. Photo: Amy Osborne, Special to The Chronicle © Provided by San Francisco Chronicle Comedian Eddie Brill performs on the outdoor stage on opening night at the new Alameda Comedy Club. Photo: Amy Osborne, Special to The Chronicle

“I’ve been furloughed for the last six months. Other than trips for necessities like groceries, I’ve been home,” said Oakland resident Lisa Brink, who was among the four dozen socially distanced fans at the sold-out show. “Being out at something like this is such a treat.”

Patrick Ford wouldn’t let the coronavirus pandemic keep him from realizing his dream of opening a comedy club in the East Bay town, a dream he’s had for more than a decade. A software engineer who once worked as Bill Gates’s PR coordinator, Ford has always loved live comedy.

In the 1980s, he lived four blocks away from the original Cobb’s Comedy Club on Chestnut Street and saw all the San Francisco comic greats of the day, including Ellen DeGeneres, Bobcat Goldthwait and Paula Poundstone. He even spent some years performing stand-up himself in Los Angeles, where he built up enough stage time and material that he secured a spot on the competition show “Last Comic Standing” in 2008.

a group of people playing instruments and performing on a stage: Patrick Ford stands has wanted to open a comedy club in Alameda for more than a decade. Photo: Amy Osborne, Special to The Chronicle © Provided by San Francisco Chronicle Patrick Ford stands has wanted to open a comedy club in Alameda for more than a decade. Photo: Amy Osborne, Special to The Chronicle

Ford said he and his wife, Lori Theis, decided to start the club after they ordered bad pizza at a comedy show in L.A. At the time, Theis, a veteran restaurant manager who helped open nine restaurants and operate such establishments as Farallon and Epic Steakhouse, was thinking about opening her own place. The terrible comedy club pizza made it clear what she needed to do.

a group of people sitting at a table in a restaurant © Amy Osborne

“We decided to up the game of comedy food,” Ford said.

The couple moved to Alameda in 2013 and just last year found the location for their new club on Central Avenue. They invested hundreds of thousands of dollars into setting up the space how they wanted, building a stage, updating the kitchen, installing a state-of-the-art sound system. And they were on track to open in May.

An ultraviolet light sanitizer box cleans the microphone after the comedians perform at Alameda Comedy Club, which opened during the coronavirus pandemic. Photo: Amy Osborne, Special to The Chronicle © Provided by San Francisco Chronicle An ultraviolet light sanitizer box cleans the microphone after the comedians perform at Alameda Comedy Club, which opened during the coronavirus pandemic. Photo: Amy Osborne, Special to The Chronicle

Then by mid-March, the coronavirus changed everything. Venues all over California shut down, and for a moment, Ford considered abandoning the project altogether. But the state gave his club a second chance when it allowed for food service and limited gatherings in outdoor venues. He took another look at the club’s layout and determined he could fit about 40 people, social distanced, in the back patio.

“Could I still run a business? It turns out I barely can,” Ford said.

Indeed, Ford’s gamble seems to be paying off. During a few soft opening shows, each has sold out.

a group of people sitting at a table: Patrons pack Alameda Comedy Club on opening night at socially distanced tables on the patio. Photo: Amy Osborne, Special to The Chronicle © Provided by San Francisco Chronicle Patrons pack Alameda Comedy Club on opening night at socially distanced tables on the patio. Photo: Amy Osborne, Special to The Chronicle

Other comedy promoters are seeing similar successes, even without permanent venues. Marty Cunnie and Janesh Rahlan of F Bomb Comedy have been booking in-person shows since September and are proud to report they’re seeing sold-out crowds at such spots as Chambers in San Francisco and Luka’s Taproom & Lounge in Oakland.

“Comedy has been well suited to the current regulations,” Cunnie said. “What other form of entertainment sits you down and has you stay there and not yell too loud? It’s perfect.”

a group of people looking at a cell phone: Katy Anderson takes a selfie with friends at the sold-out opening night of Alameda Comedy Club. Photo: Amy Osborne, Special to The Chronicle © Provided by San Francisco Chronicle Katy Anderson takes a selfie with friends at the sold-out opening night of Alameda Comedy Club. Photo: Amy Osborne, Special to The Chronicle

It’s unclear when Ford can host shows inside his brand-new theater, but he’ll be happy to continue to book his back patio for as long as people keep showing up. He’s already booked weekend headliners straight through to the middle of December and is already promoting weekly show ideas like drag brunches on Sundays.

He also signed a lease with three five-year renewal terms, so as he sees it, he’s committed to the club for the next 15 years — at least.

“In my mind, this is the last job I’m ever going to have, and I want to die on that stage,” Ford said. “Just not on the first night.”

Alameda Comedy Club: 2431 Central Ave., Alameda. For a full schedule and ticket information: alamedacomedy.com

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