What to Know
The Punch Line Comedy Club opened in 1978, in its current location at Clay and Battery
The venue seats 180, but remains a favorite among comedy greats, and a milestone for newcomers to stand-up
After being told it was losing its lease, comics and local leaders mounted a campaign to save the club from having to close or relocate
"San Francisco is closing all kinds of things, and pushing all kinds of people out," comedian W. Kamau Bell pontificated as he stood on the steps of City Hall, watching rain clouds roll in.
But this time, for Bell and so many other comics, the latest thing threatened with closure is personal: it's the 40-year-old comedy club where they all got their start.
"If you let an institution like that go, you're really gonna kill a part of the city's heart, at least for me," said comedy superstar Dave Chappelle, after speaking on those same steps.
Chappelle came to town for three sold-out appearances at the 180-seat club after he heard it would likely be losing its lease — the latest in a long string of old San Francisco establishments to move or disappear because negotiations with their landlords went south as rent continues to rise.
In this case, though, it's not about mom-and-pop businesses being bulldozed by big corporations. The Punch Line is one of two comedy clubs in the city owned by entertainment firm Live Nation. More accurately, said local comic Nato Green, this is a case of a big corporation being bigfooted by even bigger corporations.
"It's not like I hear they're turning it into a better comedy club, or a new comedy club," Bell said. "It sounds like it's probably gonna be a closet for some tech company's bicycles."
Speaking to reporters at City Hall, Supervisor Aaron Peskin said he believes the likely lessee for the 1,000-square-foot space is Google, which already leases space in the neighboring building. Both properties are owned by Morgan Stanley. After an offbeat and profanity-laced press conference in which Peskin announced plans to block the rezoning of the property, and comedians expressed their love for the club, Google released a statement saying it would be open to talking with local leaders about keeping the club open.
The Punch Line Comedy Club, which seats 180, began its life as a dressing room for the Old Waldorf music venue, run by legendary rock promoter Bill Graham. Comedians say the low ceiling, exposed brick and cramped seating all make it one of the best rooms in the country for comedy.
So, what keeps a superstar like Chappelle coming back to play a cramped room on an otherwise-deserted block, hidden up a flight of insect-infested stairs, where locals who've seen the kitchen advise against trying the food? In a word: magic.
"Rooms have vibes and spirits, man," Chappelle said. "And that room has a warm vibe and a very profound spirit. Great, great jokes, legendary nights of comedy have happened there at the Punch Line."
The club's history dates back to 1978, when San Francisco was otherwise a much different place. Reminiscing at one of the small tables in front of the stage, comedians Will and Debi Durst pointed out San Francisco has always been a place where change happens, and a place where people complain about it.
"My parents complained about the Transamerica building," Debi Durst said. "Oh, how can they put that up? That's so crazy!"
But somehow, things at the Punch Line haven't changed so much in all that time. Sure, there's now a crazy backdrop with a not-to-scale mural of the city, and a few more autographed photos on the side walls, but the club's place in the pecking order of stand-up comedy has remained:
"When you worked the Punch Line, it was a graduation," Will Durst said. "This was the professional room."
"It meant you were a real, working comedian," his wife added. "You want Punch Line on your résumé."
But long before booking the club as a headliner, a featured act or an emcee, comics spent countless hours lined up along the back bar at the club on Sunday nights. The San Francisco Comedy Showcase, known to some as "comedy church," has been a rite of passage for two generations of stand-up hopefuls.
"This is where we'd spend our ten months to a year, waiting to go up on a Sunday," said comedian Chris Garcia, giving a tour of the place before his own stand-up show. "You kind of know what you're gonna do, I mean, at the beginning: 'This is my best 7 minutes, or 5 minutes or whatever,' that you've been working on this whole time, with this goal in mind."
Opening for Garcia that night, comedian Dave Thomason recalled his time spent eyeing the stage from the back of the room.
"When I was just starting stand-up, this was my whole life," he said. "Getting onstage here was THE goal."
But for all that the young'uns salivate over a chance to set foot on that stage, many seasoned veterans say they actually prefer it to bigger clubs like Cobb's, another Live Nation venue right up the street.
"You can do close-up comedy," at the Punch Line, said comedian Greg Proops. "I can raise an eyebrow, I can cast a glance, I can do something very subtle and small, and it'll play to every seat in the room."
The Dursts, who laid eyes on each other for the first time at the Punch Line, tend to think the room's acoustics have something to do with it.
"The laughs of the audience would bounce off that brick," Will Durst said.
"Ricochet through the room," Debi interjected.
"So the audience thought they were having a much better time than they actually were," Will Durst concluded.
Those who've been around long enough all have stories of the times Robin Williams would show up at the club unannounced. Proops told of the time he found his head in Williams' sweaty armpit during an improv scene, and Garcia was getting ready for his first show headlining the club when Williams appeared and offered to open for him.
"I was blessed by the comedy god," Garcia recalls of the hug Williams gave him after the show.
The Punch Line's lease is set to expire in August. Renewal will depend on negotiations between Live Nation and its landlord, Morgan Stanley subsidiary One Maritime Plaza, and also Peskin's proposed legislation, which would temporarily prohibit using the space for anything other than an entertainment venue.
Echoing the sentiments of his peers and mentors, Garcia summed it up: "We just have to save this place."