S.F. comics sate columnist's stand-up comedy needs

MY HERITAGE led me to the stage and made me a ham; my mother used to judge plays, and my father is a Hindu priest and an inveterate punster. So I memorized jokes from the Reader's Digest and told them at school talent shows.

Once I got to college, I'd seen enough "Seinfeld" episodes to know that what I'd done in sixth grade wasn't really stand-up comedy. The breakthrough happened my second semester, when a smart, handsome and funny graduate student instructor used incisive metaphors and lots of Simpsons jokes to explain comparative politics. His British accent and wit are arguably the reasons I became a political science major. And my discovery that he'd honed his performance skills in the stand-up comedy clubs led me to local open-mikes where I did the same.

I tried to find the right balance among observational ("Did you ever notice..."), raunchy and cerebral styles of humor. I watched and enjoyed the smart stand-up of Bay Area comics Greg Proops and Brian Malow.

My moment in the spotlight took place at the annual famously tough competition sponsored by the Apollo Theater, where I competed with singers and dancers to entertain thousands of people. I only got a few punchlines in before much of the audience started booing me, as is common in the shows. I laughed off the experience and kept up my open-mike appearances until I moved away from the local coffeehouse.

It seemed that all the stand-up I saw was the same: bitter men making jokes about genitalia and airplanes and booing Bush to general acclaim.

But then I saw Berkeley monologuist Josh Kornbluth intertwining surreal anecdotes with arguments on money, philosophy and history. (Sadly, Kornbluth isn't playing the Bay Area this summer.) And I saw Heather Gold.

Heather Gold's show "I Look Like An Egg, but I Identify As A Cookie," which she performs each Sunday and Monday, ends its six-month run on Tuesday. (It's at 8 p.m. at the Hotel Rex, 562 Sutter St., San Francisco. Tickets are $11 for students and $31 general admission. Visit www.subvert.com [http://www.subvert.com].)

I started helping out with Gold's show, in which she bakes cookies onstage while discussing transformations in her cultural and sexual identity. The 90-minute length allows for a range of styles: She does wordplay, talks with the audience a bit, illustrates her anecdotes through playacting and discourses in asides and extended meditations on topics that change nightly.

My role as volunteer stage manager to Gold re-inspired me to look for good stand-up. And, among a bunch of dreck at a Mission Street showcase, I found a comic closer to that English grad student's sensibilities: Will Franken.

This Friday and Saturday you can see the Will Franken Fringe Benefit shows, fund-raisers to send Franken to the New York City Fringe Festival. The shows are at 10 p.m. at The Dark Room Theatre, 2263 Mission St. (between 18th and 19th streets ). Tickets are $10. Visit www.willfranken.com [http://www.willfranken.com].

Franken does a one-man sketch troupe routine, taking everyday contradictions to their logical conclusions and tossing off references to Romantic poets. Quite simply, he does the smartest comedy I've ever seen. I laughed so hard when I discovered his act that my ribs couldn't contain it all.

A few months later, after Gold's show had piqued my interest in combinations of food and comedy, I heard about Scot Nery. His show, "Crash Course," ends its half-year run with shows tonight, Friday and Saturday. Shows are at 8 p.m. at the Climate Theater, 285 Ninth St. at Folsom, in San Francisco. Tickets are $15 each. Visit www.crashcourseshow.com [http://www.crashcourseshow.com].

Nery also makes food onstage, but eschews narrative for gross-out humor, absurd conversations with experts and other comics and juggling. I laughed and felt joy and childlike wonder at "Crash Course," reminding me of my own sixth-grade attempts at the form, except that his sly wit embeds delayed barbs in even the goofy gags.

Gold, Franken and Nery make it worth going to San Francisco before this month runs out. Their shows have, by providing me with fantastic, knee-slapping comedy, almost completely eradicated my desire to perform on my own. And a grateful world salutes them.

Sumana Harihareswara writes for Bay Area Living each Thursday. You can e-mail her at sumana@crummy.com.