Comedians reminisce about The Purple Onion; iconic San Francisco club to close Oct. 1

The Purple Onion hosted the stand-up comedy debut of the late Phyllis Diller, and has played host to live CD and DVD recordings for, among others, The Smothers Brothers, Zach Galifianakis and Moshe Kasher. Woody Allen, Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor all have performed there, too.

But this San Francisco comedy club in the city’s North Beach neighborhood will close at the end of September. The building housing the intimate 80-seat venue, as well as the barber shop above it, has a new owner who plans to shut both businesses down. The club originally opened in 1952, went through a punk music phase, and reverted back to comedy in 2004 when photographer Dan Dion began booking live comedy shows there again.

In this clip, Patton Oswalt tells The Purple Onion audience about the black hole of looking at YouTube videos. Roll it.

Zach Galifianakis, who released his stand-up comedy DVD, Zach Galifianakis: Live at The Purple Onion, in March 2007, told The Comic’s Comic:

“It was like holding court in your aunt’s living room. Your aunt that lived in a warm house with loving walls. You often hear in the back rooms of comedy venues comics speak of the layout of a room. The Purple Onion and its geography was perfect for an intimate evening of performance. I hate that rooms like that are dwindling in numbers. Long live the spirit of The Purple Onion.”

Other comedians have reacted with a mixture of sadness and anger about it all, sharing their emotions with The Comic’s Comic.

“The Purple Onion is a slice of San Francisco comedy history and completely irreplaceable,” Greg Proops told me.

Here is Proops at club during the previous presidential election campaign, talking about how parts of America wouldn’t vote for Barack Obama because of his race:

From Dion: “The Purple Onion is the most historic extant comedy stage in America. Its demise is at the same time sad and appropriate for the times we are living in — when money rules, true meaning is ignored, and the champions of authenticity have no power. I’ve been given the honor of booking the last show; I aim to give it a fond farewell.”

Will Franken, who regularly staged his one-man shows at The Purple Onion but has spent all of August performing at the Edinburgh Fringe, said: “I feel like I’ve left the country for a month and my house burned down while I was away.”

More reflections from comedians who have left their humorous hearts in San Francisco.

“If anyone understands the power and inanimate magic of a room it’s comedians. There is something powerful about a room that has hosted decades of comedy and has soaked up generations of laughs. The Purple Onion had comedy ectoplasm dripping down its walls. I recorded my album there and have performed there more times than I remember. Always you could feel the shadows of Lenny Bruce and The Smothers Brothers and Phyllis Diller dancing around your set. It was a beautiful room and one of the best I have ever performed in. I don’t know what will be in that dank little basement in a year but I grieve the memories that will be swallowed up when The Purple Onion shudders its doors. A little less laughter in the world.” — Moshe Kasher

“The Purple Onion, even when it was almost empty, felt full of good comedy juju. When it was full, it was fantastic. There were very few good lounge venues of that size for comedy.

I also always felt like the club struggled because it depended on people producing shows there. This meant that there were times that somebody built some momentum, and then they’d stop and someone else would have to start over. No one who worked for Mario directly took responsibility for maintaining it, so audiences didn’t get in the habit of just checking to see what was going on there. Also, locals mostly don’t go to North Beach for entertainment, and with an inconsistent venue it became very difficult to promote to tourists. So to be successful you needed to have enough promotional reach on your own to draw people into the neighborhood.

San Francisco is heaven for real estate speculators who are manhattanizing the city as fast as possible. There’s always clucking about the loss of historic landmarks or local culture, but there’s no political will to impede the freight train of high-end development.

I’ve always thought that there’s enough great comedy history in San Francisco that there should be a nonprofit SF comedy museum that was attached to a performance space. The Purple Onion could be a fine place for that, perhaps with the museum where the restaurant is now.” — Nato Green

“The Purple Onion was such an thrilling place to perform, especially when I was starting out in San Francisco. It was, at once, so fancy and so crummy. Despite its legend, by the time I got there it was a charming, run-down, cobbled-together version of itself. It had all the romance of North Beach nightlife and San Francisco’s rich history, plus some of the grossest bathrooms in town. I remember the day that I knocked on the exposed brick wall behind the stage and discovered it was plaster. If you looked closely at the portrait of Phyllis Diller on the wall you could tell it was printed out from the Internet. Shows were frequently interrupted by the owner, Mario, stomping down the stairs and yelling at the waiters in Italian.

There was every kind of stand up comedy show there. Bringer shows, urban shows, alt shows, competitions, open mics, album recordings. I caught my first joke thief there. I performed for Robin Williams there. When shows were crowded, I perched with Janine Brito, Reggie Steele, Chris Garcia, Sean Keane, Alex Koll, Dave Thomason, and Caitlin Gill on the stairs behind the curtain and drank wine. When there were only three people in the room, we’d sit in the back booth eating the Chinese food we snuck in and passing notes about how horrible the show was gonna be. I’ll remember it forever, provided I reread this every so often and don’t do too many drugs.” — Emily Heller

“It’s a damn shame!

The SF comedy community needed and wanted this venue to succeed. So many tried. Some more successful than others. It wasn’t for the lack of effort on the part of our comedy community. In the end there were things beyond our control that brought this to an end.

But many things come to pass and new and exciting things come in to replace it. And right now there are many exciting things happening in and for the comedy community in SF. We have new blood in Sylvan Productions creating a multitude of shows with young fresh talent. We have a national audience being exposed to the SF style w/W. Kamau Bell. And SF influence on many shows, from Laurie Kilmartin on Conan, Al Madrigal on The Daily Show, Aisha Tyler on Archer, Chris Burns on Shameless, Ali Wong, Mo Mandel, Moshe Kasher, Hasan Minhaj, on Chelsea Lately. Not to mention a vibrant past that includes past Purple Onion Alumni, such as The Smothers Brothers and Phyllis Diller and the final torchbearer, Zach Galifianakis who filmed his DVD here at The Purple Onion.

I will miss the Purple Onion. I have performed here many times on my own shows, and on others, including Sketchfest, as well as closing out what was apparently the final NYE show in 2011. I brought in comics such as Kyle Kinane, Brendon Walsh, Henry Phillips, Laurie Kilmartin, Brian Scolaro, Tom Segura, Ari Shaffir, Sam Tripoli, and Sheng Wang. Glad to be part of its storied history. Wish it would’ve made it a lil’ longer but, the memories, photos and videos will live on.” — Al Gonzales

“After they turn it into something else, local comics should take turns pretending they are the ghost of Lenny Bruce. OK, serious idea, start a Kickstarter to buy the venue off the new owner?  Get Galifianakis, or another well-off comic who would consider paying homage to the legendary venue that put them up to donate a good chunk? Petition and proposition the new owner to consider maintaining the space as a comedy venue? Or a tried and true SF favorite, stand out there and protest. The Kickstarter idea is really all I have.  Hope this contributes something.” — Sammy Obeid

This local ABC affiliate’s report, however, ends with a curious note about the future of The Purple Onion. Roll it.

What do you remember of The Purple Onion? What do you hope happens to it and the San Francisco comedy scene? Please share your reflections and thoughts in the comments.

Sean L. McCarthy

Editor and publisher since 2007, when he was named New York's Funniest Reporter. Former newspaper reporter at the New York Daily News, Boston Herald and smaller dailies and community papers across America. Loves comedy so much he founded this site.

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