REVIEW + INTERVIEW: PACO ROMANE’S “SHAPED LIKE A THUMB”
Paco seems distracted. This was to be his fond farewell from San Francisco, but his ex had other plans (with her Salsa instructor). To mitigate the fear of the unknown, we naturally steel ourselves in acceptance. Whatever change gon’ come, it’s as real as it feels committed to, tangible in expectation. When that’s no longer the case, and changes change, there’s a necessary grieving period, to put to bed what might have been. Paco’s clearly in this state, his set either directly reminding him of his woes or evoking accidentally. Odd time to record a comedy album, but, then again, when is it not. There’s untold unmentionables and personal turmoil inherent and often inconspicuous with a comic onstage; some truthteller, confessional types’ veneer is paper thin, others strictly relay ideas behind a steel curtain. Paco Romane speaks a little from both.
Courting Comedy: Your at-the-time-recent break up reflected heavily in your album. What material would you have performed if that event hadn’t occurred.
Paco Romane: Yes it did. I know she listens to Pandora and I am hoping that someday she’ll be getting down with a dude and then my album will start playing. So basically my album was just a revenge plot.
A few days after we broke up I did a set at Nightlife On Mars (at Murphy’s Pub in SF) and had one [of] “those” kinds of sets. It was an epiphany for me. My mind just exploded on stage and let it all out. I don’t even remember a lot of what I talked about and only later comedians that were there reminded me. I realized that I could just go on stage and improvise and let the stories and emotions take over and not worry about “failing”. Just give myself 100% permission to either do well or fail. My friend and comedian once told me ‘never be afraid to show emotion on stage’. That sentiment had for the most part eluded me for my entire career up to this point.
Shaped Like A Thumb was recorded a year later and it was still very fresh for me and most of that material was only a year or less old. I would have used a lot of my older material that I wanted to get “out there” but this stuff was fresher and frankly better because it was from a real place and hopefully funnier.
Most of the earlier material I used to do I deliberately kept off the album because I’ve just moved on from it. And honestly some of it I really just forgot while on stage. Sometimes my memory is a one-eyed bitch goddess.
Shaped Like A Thumb is a brisk 32 minutes of traditional, meat-and-potatoes comedy. Romane is a natural entertainer: jokes spun with a casual reveal; or an inviting, baiting rhetorical; a lively act out; or a winking callback. Municipal crack smokers, Michigan roots, brimstone preachers, dating, television, addressed with classic, American patter and intonation. Paco Romane is a masterfully effective effacer. His style leans heavily on his stockiness, with frequently and punchy jabs at the man in the mirror “I have a peasant’s build…I was made to pick up a rock and move it to another area,” one of his many metaphors on his everymanliness. “I’ve got the body of an alligator that ate a deer,” the performer claims in contrast to his ex’s new beau. Again, distracted.
CC: What led you recording Shaped Like A Thumb? Did you accomplish what you wanted to accomplish?
Paco: I just felt like it was time to get my set recorded so that I could move on from that set and start over. It just made sense to me. The other forms of comedy I do were all documented and I really did feel it was time.
I guess I accomplished what I wanted to accomplish because I wanted to record my set but that doesn’t mean I am 100% happy with my performance that night. I am notoriously hard on myself. I guess I’ll just let my recording speak for itself.
CC: Where did you record this album?
Paco: I recorded Shaped Like A Thumb at Doc’s Lab in San Francisco: The place formerly known as the Purple Onion. I had considered recording it at The Punch Line because it’s the freakin’ Punch Line but I wanted a little more of an intimate place. Not to mention the history of that name. So many giants of comedy have recorded comedy albums there including: Zach Galifianakis, The Smother Brothers, Phyllis Diller, Bob Newhart to name a few. I was just hoping there were still some comedy ghosts still haunting the place that could help me out.
Weirdly, as admirable as Shaped Like A Thumb is, it feels like a bit of a disservice for its star and scribe. Paco Romane is much more versatile than the release encapsulates. He’s collectively an award-winning actor, writer, producer, emcee, podcaster, and steadfast example of hard-working chutzpah. The Romane Event ran successfully for ten years! Killing My Lobster, the sketch group he helped develop, has been the pinnacle in its field for a decade! Paco won 2005’s Best Comedian with character work, a talent entirely absent from Thumb.
CC: Why did you stop the Romane Event? Do you miss it? Do think its legacy is preserved? What is its legacy?
Paco: Man…this is a sore spot. The reason I stopped the Romane Event is two-fold. First and foremost I was planning on moving back to Michigan to be with my girlfriend and her kids but she broke up with me 2 weeks before my final show!
It was also just time to move on because after 10 years of producing/hosting The Romane Event and then producing/hosting The Killing My Lobster Kabaret for 2 years before that I was burnt out. That’s 12 years for those people keeping score at home. Also I didn’t get into comedy to be a booker or producer.
To be honest I don’t really miss it. It was a lot of fun and beneficial but also a lot of work and I enjoy just being a comedian. Also there’s this thing called “the bookers curse” and this is real. Other comedians will see you first as a booker/producer before they see you as a comedian.
I think the legacy behind The Romane Event is varied and it’s really amazing to even think there is a legacy. I always made sure my line-ups were multicultural and multi-gendered. I also wanted multi-talents as well. I would have stand-ups, musicians, yo-yo champions, magicians, films, bands, storytellers etc…I was always “audience first”. After every show I would personally go up to each member of the audience to thank them for coming out and asked that they come back and spread the word. The Romane Event eventually became a show that comedians would check off their “success ladder” list. And that is extremely cool.
CC: Did you get any push back for winning a “Best Comedian” award? Did you feel or experience any resentment?
Paco: Push back? A little because that’s the nature of this business but mostly just from myself. I remember meeting Kaseem Bentley for the first time and he asked me if I was rich. Ha! The perception of me at the time was that I was a comic back in the day in SF, moved to LA, got a good comedy gig, made some money and returned to my roots in SF.
I had been producing comedy videos online since 1997 and doing a lot of underground comedy in SF. I also just started my own show The Romane Event Comedy Show that year in 2005. That show was getting a lot of attention and eventually became a popular comedy show in SF.
So I get this award and people started showing up to see me do stand-up at The Romane Event but I didn’t do stand-up. I used to host the show as different characters and would improvise my comedy. Plus I would show my videos and perform improvised songs on guitar or piano.
Afterwards, I started getting headline offers and turned them all down because I knew I wasn’t ready to headline a show and would be horrible…I was really quite shocked and embarrassed by it all and tried to hide it as much as I could…I started my standup career as “the best” and quickly proved that was I was not!
When I was voted Best Comedian in the San Francisco Bay Guardian in 2005 I was told at the “award ceremony” that the previous 18 years Robin Williams had been voted Best Comedian. Damn.
CC: What does Robin Williams mean to you? How has his passing affected how you feel about comedy and/or life?
Paco: Jesus. This is some deep stuff. Robin Williams was my idol. Completely. From my childhood to today as I write this from my apartment he was the kind of comedian and actor I always wanted to be. I’ve always loved his tenacity, energy and obvious genius. I love fast wit. My family is some of the fastest people I know and in order to keep up you had to learn to just “go”.
I got to meet Robin before I was a professional comedian. He used to come into the bookstore I worked at on Haight Street. Just being in his presence and talking to him was something that would make my day, week, month, and year. Cracking a joke and seeing him laugh was just too much. He was so kind and real.
I once told him I wanted to be a professional actor and comedian and he immediately told me to “just dive into the deep end” and do it. I took his advice and am thankful I did. His death affected me a great deal. I was actually recording some voice over when I heard about his death. This is going to sound corny as hell but after he died I realized that I had been holding back on [improvising] in my sets because as the stakes get higher I didn’t want to take too many chances. My dream is to someday have a nice balance between a having written jokes and improvisation.
CC: How’d you get involved with Killing My Lobster? What were you roles? Was KML ever in peril or was it always sustainable?
Paco: I started at KML in 2003, hosting and producing the Killing My Lobster Kabaret. I think I wore as many hats as you could at KML. I was an actor, writer, head-writer, director, producer, musician, teacher, managing director and filmmaker. There wasn’t much that I didn’t do and am really proud of the work that I did there.
However because you’re a non-profit comedy group in one of the most expensive cities in the world you’re always in peril. There is always a struggle, and, when you’re trying to get grants and are competing with institutions that are asking for money to help inner city kids while you’re asking for money for a blow up unicorn and a giant sized ham for a gay Jesus sketch, you’re going to lose. So you have to generate money through donations etc. Also with any creative group there are people with giant egos and not a lot talent that are always on the brink of bringing the entire house down and sometimes they succeed. Unfortunately KML isn’t what it used to be but then again neither is SF.
I’m tucked away in the corner of Il Pirata, a Portrero pizza parlor that hosts a monthly showcase of Local Folks: Tony Sparks’ voice, Kiko Briez’s vision, DJ Myke One’s wheels of steel (and an awesome video accompaniment, cutting in tandem with the turntablism). As an institution—recently celebrating ten years of party—it has featured San Francisco’s best standup comedians, at times a rest stop for talent passing through, a launch site for eventual greatness, or a boomtown for an emergent wave.
Paco Romane is featuring, performing second or third in the lineup, and he’s killing! Arguably the best performance of the night. What’s most noteworthy is his means: highly improvised and and interactive, calling for DJ Snake drops—”I’ve been turned down for what before”—and working the crowd. Il Pirata has always attracted the best audiences, people unafraid by the lack of glam or irony. I call it the “last bastion of Old San Francisco”, how I’d imagine the San Francisco comedy scene was before the working, middle class was priced out of the City. This is premium Paco: free and engaging the down to earth and appreciative. To get the full experience, like with most comedians, you have to see Paco live.
CC: You’re very character and improvisational based in your stand-up. Do you think that translates well in your album? How do you plan to capture that aspect of your legacy/style in future iterations.
Paco: I am trying to really go after my love of improvising and doing characters in my stand up set. Does it translate? Who knows? I hope it does. I do know that there is a moment when I am “acting out” our pastor that you can’t hear anything because I was dancing but other than that I think it works. With adlibs or improvising most of the time the audience thinks you’ve written it down and rehearsed beforehand anyway. Lately I have been attempting to perform completely improvised set and I know from people I talked to after the show that some people think its pre-written.
I’m not sure how I will manage to capture that aspect of my act. Maybe the next thing for me is to film a DVD. I actually did a 2 camera shoot for Shaped Like A Thumb but I’m just not sure yet what I’m going to do with it. I guess by just keeping at it. To be honest I feel like it’s the better part of any of my sets when I am just improvising in the moment. At least I like it better. I like writing jokes but I feel like my brain edits out material I would have made too precious or clever if I had written it.
CC: When do you plan on recording/releasing a new album or special?
Paco: Right now I have no plans on releasing another stand up album. Gotta see how this one does first. I am however working on a sketch comedy album. There will be a through line and I will hopefully have many of my friends that are talented character actors and comedians on it!
I’ve always admired Paco’s work ethic and promotional self confidence. He get’s shit done and strives to get press about it. It’s in part why I’m writing about him now. He wouldn’t be shy about not being shy to ask for this consideration. Paco wasn’t a jerk about it, he just presented the idea and made himself available, which is an increasingly welcomed way to generate this blog. So, we’ll close with an exchange about Paco’s renowned spark.
CC: What made you so media/press savvy? Did you naturally pick up how to make people aware of your projects? Why do you think comedians are so bad at promoting themselves?
Paco: I think it’s nice that you think I’m media/press savvy. I guess I learned that kind of stuff at a very early age. In high school I would always try to get into my local newspaper by doing stupid comedy stuff.
Fake it ‘til you make it! I feel like sometimes no one knows what they are doing and if you take a lead on anything people will seek you out, but you also need to work hard and have a plan. If you have a goal with no plan you just have a wish. I think that’s how that saying goes. So one day I just sat down and was like: what’s my color scheme going to be? What font am I going to use? What is going to be my “brand”? How do I want to be perceived? All of that stuff. I had a lot of time on my hands because I could never keep a day job. I got fired from everything but my work ethic wouldn’t allow me to just sit around playing video games.
I think essentially comedians and artists in general can be lazy and often times just plain depressed. They are also cheap bastards that don’t realize that you have to invest in your future. Take classes, get headshots, buy a car…what little money you have use it to invest in yourself, because no one else will. I have a saying that the kind of business I am interested in is a “factory that makes computers that makes factories that makes computers”. It’s all about duplicating yourself and investing in yourself and having the confidence to let people know.
thanks for reading
– oj | Patreon