There are no overnight successes in comedy. The grind is real. Open mic nights in front of seven people serve as on-the-job training. Bomb or kill, there’s always the next night to perfect the craft and hopefully perform in front of larger audiences, go on tour and maybe even get that sitcom deal. But before fame and fortune, there are stops at Luna’s Café on 16th Street, Vince’s Ristorante in West Sacramento and maybe an opener or middle spot on a Thursday lineup at either Laughs Unlimited or Punch Line.
Before COVID-19 hit hard in 2020, Sacramento had a thriving comedy scene, and rising comics took advantage. The venues are slowly shaking off the dust on the microphones, readjusting the spotlights and opening the stages, and there’s never been more to talk and laugh—about than right here in the Cap City.
“Before COVID, you could go to the Comedy Spot on Sunday, Luna’s on Tuesday and Wednesday, Vince’s on Thursday. You could do stand-up every day of the week,” says Ruby Setnik, a young comedian on tour with fellow Sacramento stand-up JR De Guzman. “It’s awesome to be an amateur comedian in Sacramento. There’s always an audience that wants to listen to you. There’s a lot of places to work, but it’s not oversaturated. It’s kind of a secret great place for comedy.”
Sacramento has a strong, diverse scene that produces popular comics. JR De Guzman sold out the 900-seat Crest Theatre in October. He won the 2016 StandUp NBC competition, and Mike E. Winfield won it in 2019. Kiry Shabazz won the competition in 2017. The annual competition searches for comics from diverse backgrounds and signs the winner to a talent development contract. Winfield was a finalist on this season’s “America’s Got Talent.”
Jack Gallagher has been a staple of the Sacramento comedy scene for decades. He returns to stand-up for a show at The Sofia on Dec. 10.
“This will be the first time I’ve done stand-up in 15 to 20 years,” Gallagher says. “It’s not scary. I’ve been doing comedy for 45 years. My one-man shows—I’ve written eight of them—are built to be a roller coaster. They go from funny to dramatic and back and bring a varying degree of emotions. They are thematic and theatrical. But with stand-up, you’re just a joke teller, per se, and not a storyteller. It’s more free-form. I’ll do 90 minutes about getting older, my family. It’s all new material, and I’ll be trying to get a laugh all of the time.”
JR De Guzman got plenty of laughs at his triumphant return to Sacramento in front of his largest headliner crowd to date. De Guzman graduated from Jesuit High School and later from UC Davis with a degree in psychology. The former music teacher combines funny songs with bits based on current events and his ethnicity. De Guzman was born in the Philippines.
“It was amazing, so fun,” De Guzman says of his recent show at the Crest. “I got the chance to bring my family up on stage and had Jimmy Earl and Ruby (Setnik) open for me. Jimmy nurtured me as a young comic.”
In 2012, De Guzman took an improv and sketch comedy class at the Comedy Spot in 2012; the graduation “ceremony” was to perform at an open mic night. He bombed.
“I was scared out of my mind and forgot a lot of my jokes,” De Guzman says. “Back then, I didn’t perform with my guitar, so I didn’t have anything to fall back on.”
De Guzman said he’s still adjusting from clubs to larger theaters and needs to become more animated and command the stage. It’s a nice problem to have.
“I’m grateful I started in Sacramento and, especially when I started, there were multiple open mics,” De Guzman says. “There was just so much stage time when I started, and so many different styles. There were examples of pathways into the business. Guys such as Mike E. Winfield were already on the road. I saw that I could do this full time. I saw that I could take risks because at a bar in Roseville, for instance, audiences are a perfect blend. You can have conservatives and liberals, there’s a mixed demographic and you learn how to play to different rooms. When I was middling, I would do a few songs to gauge the room. If they were looser, I’d do some of my darker stuff.”
Compared to some other comedians, De Guzman’s dark stuff is not all that dark, and Mike E. Winfield is squeaky clean by today’s standards. Sacramento comics aren’t known for working blue, the industry term for using off-color jokes and profanities, but the content may stray that way depending on the mood of the comic and of the audience on a particular night.
Winfield got his start at an open mic night at Laughs Unlimited in 1999 and bombed so badly, he says, it took him years to get the courage to return to the stage.
“I prepared something like three jokes, and I didn’t know you were actually supposed to write comedy,” Winfield says. “I got up there and froze. People paid $5 but wanted late-night-TV quality. I quit after that. It was a disaster. I came back a couple of years later as Winfield McNamara. It was not a stellar set, but better.”
“It depends on who you are,” Winfield says of a comic’s decision to work blue or not. “I push sometimes. But every time I think I’m pushing boundaries, there’s someone telling me, ‘Nah, Mike, you ain’t pushing nothing.’ That’s why (“America’s Got Talent”) fit me so well. When I’m working on a bit, sometimes vulgarity works, but I like topical comedy. Life is so rich, man, there’s not much need for me to go after dark stuff or work blue. I’ll talk about being a Little League coach or taking edibles by mistake.”
Gallagher says he admires comedians who are original. If a comedian works blue and they’re funny, he has no problem with it.
“There’s nothing wrong with a well-placed F-bomb,” he says. “But if you get into a hole and start throwing F-bombs to get a laugh, and to get out of the hole, then that says to me that you don’t have any good material, or any confidence in yourself.”
Curse words, Gallagher says, become like too many exclamation points in a paragraph. They lose their effectiveness, he says, noting that new comics who go right to blue are neither funny nor clever.
“As far as I’m concerned, you can push the envelope, go as far as you want, as long as you take the audience with you,” Gallagher says. “You’ll know instinctively when you have to change course. One comedian, a famous one and I’m not going to name names, he’d die out there and just keep digging. He didn’t care.”
Setnik says local comedians watch out for each other, especially the female comics.
“As a female comedian, I’m one of only a few, and it’s hard to find mentors,” she says. “It’s a boys club, but it’s how you learn how to do stand-up. It’s an extra barrier to overcome, but I’ve had nothing but support in Sacramento from comics and, especially, other female comedians. Women such as Becky Lynn, Melissa McGillicuddy and Celeste Winter have all helped me.”
Winfield says that diversity is to be celebrated and is a primary reason Sacramento comics have gained so much success and notoriety in the past five years or so.
“The Sacramento comedy scene is worldly underrated,” Winfield says. “Guys like Kiry Shabazz, Lance Woods, BT Kingsley, Ricco Da Great, Steph Garcia, Cheryl “The Soccer Mom” Anderson and Regina Givens are all great Sacramento comics. We’re all out here grinding.”
Gallagher has reached a level of fame, and an age, he admits, that he no longer has to grind for gigs. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t still work hard on his craft. If someone calls, he says, he’ll take the gig. But he’s not chasing jobs anymore.
“It takes a lot to get up on stage and grab the microphone, and Sacramento has been great to me,” says Gallagher, who recently had a recurring role on Larry David’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” “I brought up my two boys out here. We still spend about half our time (in Sacramento) and the other half on Cape Cod. I used to get recognized all the time, but I don’t anymore. If you’re under the age of 50, you don’t know who I am or what I’ve done. But I do take a lot of pride that people in Sacramento like my stuff.”
Gallagher says he stopped doing clubs a while ago, but there was a time when he was in the comedy clubs most nights, working on material and waiting for the call for a spot on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson,” which he did back in 1986. He knows exactly what De Guzman, Winfield, Setnik and the others are going through.
“Sacramento has a very active comedy scene from what I’ve heard from my students,” says Gallagher, who teaches a stand-up comedy class at The Sofi a. “There are a lot of open mic nights. But I’m at a point now where 20-, 30- or 40-year-olds don’t want to hear about me getting up four times a night to go pee. But, man, those jokes kill at Del Webbs.”
Fairy Godmother for Local Comedians
Jennifer Canfield has been called a nurturing influence on more than one Sacramento comic. She takes that to heart, she says, and will continue to watch over any comic who comes through Laughs Unlimited, her venerable Old Sacramento comedy club.
JR De Guzman credits Canfield for being a steadying influence on him both on and off the stage. Before his 2022 breakout, De Guzman was a grinder, taking slots at Laughs Unlimited whenever Canfield called.
“I’m so glad that things have worked out for him,” the Laughs Unlimited owner says of De Guzman’s rising star. “I’m super proud of him. I have home videos of him playing guitar with my daughter when he was just starting out.”
Canfield says Tony Baker is another comedian who started working at Laughs and is a national headliner now who sells out shows months ahead of time. Baker credits Laughs with giving him the confidence to become a successful comic.
“He’s become an internet sensation and is blowing up,” Canfield says. “He says that when he comes through Sacramento there’s nowhere else he’ll play than here at Laughs. That makes me feel good.”
Canfield is particularly proud that she still offers comedy workshops and open mics for those just starting out in the business.
Comics such as Bob Saget and Tom Segura are huge stars who cut their teeth at Laughs Unlimited. Saget shot a local commercial for Laughs Unlimited well before he became famous with TV shows such as “Full House” and “America’s Funniest Home Videos,” Canfield says.
Canfield says she purposefully doesn’t book big-name comedians and would rather book stage time for comics working to make a name for themselves. Gone are the days of the wild parties at the club’s downtown condo, she says, and does she have some stories. The condo is still there, but it’s more of a place for rest and reflection rather than ribald revelry.
“The 1980s were pretty wild,” says Canfield, who has worked at the club in one capacity or another for more than two decades. “But now, the comedians who come through are so much more business oriented. They have to be. They have to do so much self-promotion now through social media.”