The truth is that since moving to the city in 1997, this longtime resident of the Haight has worked hard to develop a name for himself around SF and beyond. He made a slew of online comedy videos in the late ’90s, joined Killing My Lobster in 2003, and produced countless acts of what he calls “guerrilla comedy.” The effort paid off: Romane was voted “Best Comic” by the San Francisco Bay Guardian in 2005.
Since then, he’s hosted a weekly comedy show, started a podcast, and earned a second “Best Comic” title from the SF Weekly in 2012. He’s appeared on NPR, Nickelodeon, NBC, and Funny or Die, and worked with the likes of Dana Carvey, The Kids in the Hall, Greg Proops, and the late Robin Williams. Oh, and the San Francisco episode of Comedy Central’s Drunk History was filmed at his house.
We caught up with Romane in the Haight to talk shop about comedy, the neighborhood, and a life of perennially getting canned.
Where are you originally from?
“I grew up in Coldwater, Michigan. Very small town, like one of those blinking-red-lights kind of towns. I used to have a joke: ‘Christianity hadn’t made it yet to my hometown.’ You know, that’s how small it is. ‘It’s not the end of the world, but you can see it from where I grew up,’ that kind of shit. But yeah, it’s a small little farming town in Michigan.”
How and when did you get into comedy?
“Everything I do is backwards, so let’s just start with that. In 2005, I was voted Best Comedian in the Bay Guardian. Then I started doing stand-up. So I started as ‘the best,’ and then quickly proved that I was not.”
So how did you become the “Best Comedian” without doing stand-up?
“Good question! Because I was in this sketch comedy group, called Killing My Lobster, and I was doing a lot of comedy videos online. I started a comedy video production team in 1997, and we were putting films up online back when people were like, ‘I have dial-up, I can’t even watch this shit’. So I was doing a lot of comedy underground in San Francisco, doing a lot of theatre, doing Killing My Lobster and my videos, doing all these weird characters. We were doing what we called “anti-theatre” comedy stuff where we would do shit at the BART station or on buses and stuff.
“So I was getting known from that, and I got voted Best Comedian. But then I had my own [comedy] show, called The Romane Event, which I started in 2005, right after I won. People started to come see me do stand-up, because they figured I did stand-up. I did that show for 10 years at the Make Out Room. So people thought I was the best, but stand-up is so hard that I quickly proved that I was not a stand-up comic. So that is the ‘how.’ Did you say ‘why,’ too?”
We can do ‘why’, too!
“Or when! ‘When’ was 2005, but I’ve been basically doing comedy since I was a little kid. In third and fourth grade, I wrote comedy plays for my school to do. So I guess the ‘why’ is because I’ve just always wanted to. I’ve always had a lot of jobs, and I’ve always been fired from them. Literally: every job I’ve ever had, including temp jobs, which is very hard.”
Yeah, that takes some work.
“It does! You’ve really got to want to get fired! And so I was like, ‘Well, nobody can fire me if I do this on my own.'”
Romane performing at “The Romane Event.” (Photo: Courtesy of Paco Romane)
What makes the San Francisco comedy scene unique?
“That’s a good question. Well, first of all, the history. Looking back on the history of San Francisco comedy from the early ’80s until now, you have just geniuses after brilliant geniuses. Greg Proops, Robin Williams, Will Durst, Marga Gomez, Patton Oswalt. Now you have Moshe Kasher and Louis Katz from this generation. Two pages of bullet points, as I like to say.
“Mostly, this town forces you to be a good writer. People here are so fucking smart; the Bay Area has the highest level of intelligence out of any area in the United States, so you can’t just go and do something hacky and easy. They won’t laugh, because mostly, they sit with their arms folded and are like, ‘Whatcha got now?’ This area forces you to write really well.
“Also, you get really smart comedians as well, because they’re well-educated. A lot of them work at Apple, Google, Facebook, The Booksmith, so you get this perfect storm of really smart audiences, really smart comedians and a history that’s kind of ingrained in the DNA, almost, in this town. Some of those old cats still come around; you can go to The Punchline and see Greg Proops, or when Robin was still around, you could see him. You can go to Comedy Day and hang out with some of the legends, and you see how good they are. They pass that down generation by generation.”
Describe your relationship with the Haight.
“Jesus. I’ve lived in this neighborhood for 18 years. I hated it when I first moved here, then I loved it … it’s love-hate, man. Some days I’m walking around, and I’m just hit with this euphoric feeling of, like, ‘I live in one of the coolest neighborhoods in the world.’ I live near maybe the number-one or number-two corner destination in the world: Haight-Ashbury. There’s not many corners that are that famous in the world.
“But then some days, I’m stepping over a lot of human poop, I’m dodging a lot of rabid dogs on ropes, and tourist that are like [German accent] ‘Where’s the hippies?’ I always seem to get the German tourists.
“I’ve worked at The Booksmith, so I’ve seen a lot of Haight Street; I used to work at People’s Cafe as well. One of the coolest things about Haight Street, as you see, is that I’ve already known three people that have come in here, just in the time we’ve been here in this cafe.
“My mom came here once. We were walking down Haight Street and she was like, ‘You’re the mayor of Haight Street!’ I was like, ‘No, the mayor of Haight Street probably wears, like, a Cat in the Hat hat and has human poop on his sweats.’ But I think there is something kind of inviting about the fact that I’ve lived here so long and that I know everything about this area. It hasn’t changed much, and I don’t know if that’s good or bad.”
What are you currently working on?
“My debut album, Shaped Like A Thumb, is out now; you can find it on iTunes. It was very cool. I’ve been doing stand-up comedy for eight years, and it’s a culmination of everything I’ve learned and wanted to get on tape for the last eight years. I taped it at what used to be the Purple Onion—it’s now Doc’s Lab—where Zach Galifianakis did his [comedy album], and Phyllis Diller, and Bob Newhart, and The Smothers Brothers. That basement of a club has had so many great comedy albums come out of it. Not that mine’s on par with that, but I just want to be part of that fabric, you know?
“I have a comedy podcast called Sup Doc?, which is about documentaries. We talk to comedians, filmmakers, and musicians about their favorite documentaries, so that’s really cool. As a matter of fact, we went to Outside Lands yesterday and interviewed Dan Deacon for it. He’s great. Episode nine came out today; we talked with the director of I Am Chris Farley, a new documentary. It’s really fun.
“I’ve been writing screenplays and some scripts, and I’m trying to do more stand-up. I’ve been touring a little bit off the album, so I’ve been doing a lot of writing. I also have a one-man show I’ve been writing, called ‘Fired Up.’ It’s about me being fired from every job possible, and having to become an actor and a comedian in order to pull it off. ‘Failing Forward’ is what I like to call it.”
Who are some local comics in the Haight that folks be looking out for?
“Not only do these comics live in The Haight, but they are some of my absolute favorites: Matt Lieb, who lives right down there on Ashbury; Lydia Popovich, who lives right here in The Haight; and Kaseem Bentley, ‘The King of Mean’ and ‘The Black Don Rickles,’ as I like to call him, who also lives here in The Haight. They are some of the best comics in San Francisco.”