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On Comedy Day, Robin Williams lives on in meadow that now bears his name

Marga Gomez performs during Comedy Day at Robin Williams Meadow in Golden Gate Park.Photo: James Tensuan, Special to The Chronicle

In the 1980s, San Francisco was one of the few cities in the country where you could make a living as a comedian. That’s all changed. But Comedy Day, now in its 38th year, almost makes you forget it.

On Sunday, Sept. 16, a few thousand people in need of a good laugh, or at the very least some free entertainment, sprawled across Robin Williams Meadow to watch dozens of comedians deliver rapid-fire wisecracks over five hours. Comedy Day is free, and has been from the start. No one pays to watch, and no one gets paid, including the performers.

The single stage is a hallowed one. Comic greats including Dave Chappelle, Ellen DeGeneres and Whoopi Goldberg have played it.

An unconventional venue such as this poses obstacles to even the most seasoned comedian. If you bomb here, the crowd’s silence reverberates from the top of Hippie Hill to the carousel.

Shade was hard to come by on Sunday, only to be found on the slope or to the left of the stage, near the portable toilets. Michael Peterson of Elk Grove (Sacramento County) planted his chair in the latter location. He came prepped for the day with a cooler that acted as both beverage holder and footrest.

A new sign honors the late Robin Williams in Golden Gate Park.Photo: James Tensuan, Special to The Chronicle

“There are great comics here,” he said, though some were a bit “reserved” for his taste. He encouraged them to “push the envelope,” noting that the audience had more dogs than kids. That’s probably for the best. Performers were asked to refrain from using curse words, but much of the subject matter edged into PG-13 territory.

Comedy Day veterans, including Will Durst, Rick Overton, Marga Gomez and Paco Romane, performed their five-minute routines in top form, while the robust roster of up-and-comers provided a refreshing change of pace. One of the most successful sets of the day, titled “Man Haters,” featured all female comics, including standouts Irene Tu, Alexandria Love and Samantha Gilweit.

One veteran performer’s absence was especially noticeable. From the start of Comedy Day, Robin Williams took turns as its headliner, surprise guest and, for many years, anonymous benefactor.

“Whenever he was in town, he would come and perform,” said Debi Durst, the producer of the nonprofit Comedy Day and president of its board.

Devastated after Williams committed suicide in 2014, Durst wondered, “What can I do? What can Comedy Day do?”

She petitioned the city to rename Sharon Meadow, because of its proximity to Sharon Art Studio, after Williams.

On Sunday, just to the right of the stage, you could spy the fruits of her labor: a brand-new sign with the words “Robin Williams Meadow” painted in fresh white lettering.

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