After topping out on San Francisco’s local scene, Jason Downs skipped town to chase bigger dreams. Now he’s touring all over the nation, funnier than ever and he’s taken the time to tell us about his humble beginnings.
If you’re in San Francisco this Wednesday or Thursday, you can be a part of Jason’s debut album recording! Buy your tickets HERE.
RC(Rooftop Comedy): When did you hit the SF comedy scene, how did you hustle and who were the big comics on the local scene at that time?
I started in the early 2000′s. You could get a MUNI bus pass for like $35 bucks.
I lived in Monterey, CA, a small little tourist town two hours south of S.F. My girlfriend and I would drive up on a Saturday for 5 minutes of stage time at a little place called Java N’More on Church Street and the Moch Cafe on Valencia. After a two hour drive, we would exit on Vermont St., drive right to the Moch to sign up for 5 minutes, then drive to the Java N’More, do a set there, and then drive right back to the Moch and do my final set of the night. Then we would drive back down to Monterey that night, wake up the next morning, then we would drive back up to San Francisco on Sunday to hang out at the Punchline for the showcase.
The big local comic at the time was Arj Barker. Al Madrigal was always great to watch. I would just watch and study his stage presences and how at ease he always was with the crowd. Kamau Bell was just starting to become a phenom. Kevin Avery was just a mad man with crazy energy that destroyed every set. To this day, I don’t think I’ve ever seen Avery have a bad set. John Hoogasion was this comic’s comic. Just a really great writer. Those were the local kings.
RC: Do you remember your weekly schedule of open mics? Any memorable shows?
When I finally moved to San Francisco, I became obsessed. Mondays, the Rose Crown in Palo Alto. Tuesday, the Luggage Store. Wednesday was always hanging at Cobb’s or the Punchline. Thursdays, the Brain Wash. Fridays, the Java Source. Saturdays was the Moch. Then you would call every Mon-Wednesday to try and get a set at the original Cobb’s on the wharf. It was just about hustling to get as much stage time as possible.
RC: What do you think was the most important lesson you learned in your early days of stand-up?
I learned where all the good parking spots are in San Francisco. If you’re in the Mission there’s a great parking lot in between 22nd and 23rd st, off of Valencia. If you’re in the business district don’t park on Clay. Tons of car break ins. Park on Washington; tons of parking and very little break ins. If you’re in the Richmond, park on Clemente st. between 6th and 8th Ave.
RC: Did you have a group of cronies? Who was in your “class” of comics?
I started during that whole new wave comedy with Kris Tinkle, Louie Katz, Kevin Shea, Sheng Wang, Jasper Redd, Ryan Stout, Mosha Kasher, the Sirofs. They took this whole stand up thing way more seriously than I did. I took it as more of a party, get to hang out type of thing, don’t bother chasing success, it’ll come when it comes. It took somebody like Louie Katz to break out and actually start achieving success before I realized,”oh, we actually have to pursue this. We are actually trying to accomplish stuff. Oh, okay. I better get on it.”
RC: Do you think SF is a good place to cut your teeth? Why?
I think San Francisco is the best city start out in. No bringer shows. Although, I think that is just starting to change. That’s sad. I hope S.F. comics put a stop to that bringer show shit that’s starting to creep in from LA. San Francisco has high standards. People who go see comedy in San Francisco are comedy savvy. They know what good comedy is. You can’t get away with doing hack jokes. You have to be original. Yet, they’re forgiving and it’s far enough from LA and NY, that you can make mistakes and the industry won’t hold it against you for the rest of your life. When I am on the road and a newbie asks for advice I just say,” move to San Francisco”.
RC: When did you feel like you “found” your voice? Was there a specific moment?
I think I find it every six months. Every six months I make a break through where I am like,” I found my voice. This is it.” Then six months later, I am like,”now this is it. I think I found something new.” Then it happens again six months later.
A big turning point was in 2010, at this huge club called the Stardome in Birmingham, AL. It’s like a small stadium. I made a rule to force myself to come up with new material. I would open with new material every set, in order to force myself to build material. No matter what, I had to open with new stuff. For a couple of months I was building a ten minute chunk of material on pro Gay/marriage equality stuff. You want to talk about tough, try opening your set with ten minutes of pro gay material in Birmingham, AL. I didn’t bail on the material. I stuck it out. That was what I was working on at the time and I wasn’t going to let the location dictate my material. I bombed horribly. But the audience knew that although they might not agree with what I was saying, they could tell that I knew what I was doing. I wasn’t a fraud. It’s weird, it’s almost like you’re not a good comic until you can bomb with grace. When everything is going wrong, the plane is crashing, but you keep your cool and you’re able to land the plane in the Hudson and everyone lives.
RC: How did you know when you were ready to leave SF? Do you have any advice for other comics on that note?
When MUNI bus passes got to 60 bucks I was like, it’s time to go.
But for real, I knew it was time to go when I did everything I could in San Francisco. I built an act. I pretty much honed my skills. I was a regular at all the major clubs. I had industry people telling me I have to move from San Francisco to Los Angeles. I think most comics should leave when you’ve become at least a feature at all the major clubs in your area and there are people telling you it’s time.
RC: I know you’ve been opening for Michael McDonald for a couple years. How did that relationship come about?
This story is crazy. Michael was performing at the San Jose Improv. I got a call on a Sunday to middle for him, which is weird to just do a Sunday. I have a rule that I never turn down work. I drive down to the club and I see another S. F. comic standing in front of the club. I ask him why. He says I’m replacing him because it wasn’t a good fit. I was like,”I am not going to do the show. I am not going to take money out of my friends wallet.”
That S.F. comic told me to go ahead and do the show. So I did, but I was a total asshole to Michael. I didn’t talk to him. As soon as the show was over I bounced without saying a word. Then I got a call a couple of weeks later from the San Jose Improv. They said Michael was coming back and requested me. I said yes. I was going to do it, but I wasn’t going to be cool to him at all.
So basically, I was a total dick to him for an entire weekend. I had a “total fuck this guy” attitude. At the end of the week, Mike walks up to me before he leaves and says,”Hey, I’ve been doing this for a while and you’re the best feature I’ve had. Would you like to open for me on the road?”
Without a second of hesitation I was like,”Okay!”
That was four years ago. I’ve been opening for him ever since. Now I consider him one of my closest friends. He is one of the nicest, most generous guys I’ve ever met. He’s taught me so much about the business aspect of comedy that I would never even thought of. Moral of the story, don’t turn down work, be a dick, and screw your friends. Actually I found out way later that Mike had nothing to do with the friend getting replaced by me. Basically I was dick for no reason. I have a history of overacting. I’m working on it.
RC: What does the Punchline SF mean to you? What are your favorite things about that particular venue?
I hold the Punchline sacred. The way the farmer looks down at the earth and holds it sacred. The way Christians look at the bible and hold it sacred. The way people hold their marriages sacred….Okay, that was totally a line from Sam Kinison in Back to School. But seriously, it is special. It really does feel like home to me. All the memories, hanging out all night, the NYE parties, going to the Sunday showcases, opening for everybody there, from the late Mitch Hedberg to Dave Chappelle. There is a reason the best comics want to headline that club, because it’s a great club. The standards are high. Most people who run comedy clubs just care about how many baskets of chicken wings they sell. At the Punchline, it’s comedy first. I go on the road and talk to M.C’s. and they’re like,”yeah, I’m the waiter. They needed somebody to open so they just asked me.” At the Punchline, before you M.C. you’re doing comedy for four to five years. Before you even get on the comedy showcase, you’re hanging out watching the Sunday showcase for 9 months to a year. At the Punchline, the comedy is first, which is rare. So when they are allowing me to come back and record my show there, it means a lot to me.
Good luck, Jason! You won’t need it. To follow Jason and stay up on all things Downs please…
Checkout his website: http://jasondownsonline.com/
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