So many famous comedians got their start on San Francisco's comedy circuit. Phyllis Diller, Bob Newhart, and Robin Williams all honed their crafts at legendary SF spots like The Purple Onion and The Other, a comedy club that once stood in what's now Cole Valley. It seems San Francisco is a breeding ground for comedy royalty, and the laughs just keep coming. From the legendary clubs of North Beach to the newest Tenderloin hot spots, here are our picks for San Francisco's 10 best comedy troops, venues, and events.
A long-running San Francisco favorite, Cobb's first opened in the city's Marina District in 1982. It later moved to Fisherman's Wharf before settling into its current home in North Beach: a 400-seat venue with a full bar and your standard two-drink minimum. There's plenty to snack on (think chicken-topped nachos and pulled pork sandwiches) while you get your laughs, often from big-name headliners like Russell Peters and SF native Ali Wong.
Cobb's is also known for its newer Drag Diva Brunch, an occasional Sunday all-ages show with themes ranging from "Let's Go to the Movies" to "Sex and the City," in which the divas dress up like Carrie Bradshaw and her squad and put on a performance for the ages.
The folks at Cheaper Than Therapy—a stand-up comedy showcase that takes place at Union Square's Shelton Theater—are well aware that belly laughs are a prime cure for mental health, so they take their work seriously (er, as seriously as a comedian can). There's no drink minimum at this intimate venue, where 18-and-over shows run approximately 70-90 minutes. Consisting of a handful of scheduled comedians (past lineups have included SNL's Michael Che and "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend" regular Emma Willmann) and the occasional drop-in, performers often hang out for a few drinks at the theater's bar post-show; if you're of drinking age, here's your chance to imbibe with comedy gold.
The smaller sister venue of Cobb's Comedy Club, Punch Line has been making San Francisco laugh since 1979. Facing closure in August 2019, Dave Chappelle—who has been a performer at this iconic North Beach venue since the early 1990s—led a charge to save the historic space. Ellen DeGeneres, Robin Williams, Chris Rock, and Wanda Sykes also performed here early on in their careers, and current names in comedy like John Mulaney and Margaret Cho make regular appearances. There's a two-drink minimum, but with speciality cocktails like the Drug Mule (a mix of cannabis-infused vodka and ginger beer) and the rum-based Blue Hawaiian, you'll easily find something to suit you.
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For years, the Purple Onion in North Beach was San Francisco's laugh-line. Some of the genre's top performers got their start there, including Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, and Phyllis Diller, who made her stand-up debut at the rollicking venue in 1955. For many, The Purple Onion is a part of comedy legend; while the original North Beach space is now closed, its name lives on at Kells, an Irish pub and restaurant that's been hosting "The Purple Onion at Kell's" on select weekday nights since late 2012. This intimate, underground setting plays host to everyone from new names in comedy to seasoned professionals. Call ahead for performances.
Pack into the low-lit underground lounge of Ales Unlimited: Beer Basement—in the city's Little Saigon/Tenderloin neighborhood—to catch stand-up comedians who've appeared on HBO, Showtime, and Comedy Central. Hosted by Richard Sarvate and Abhay Nadkarni, The Setup takes place in the former green room of Blackhawk, a legendary mid-20th century SF jazz club where the likes of Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday, and John Coltrane played. Today's performers include Colby Dant, Julie Ash, and Ivy Vasquez—all big names in their own right who come from around the country as well as the Bay Area's own backyard. All shows are 21 and over and require a one-drink minimum.
Secret Improv Society
If you're a fan of the TV show "Whose Line Is It Anyway?" you're guaranteed to enjoy the quick-thinking and fast-paced interactive comedy of the Secret Improv Society. Open to all ages, their shows take place weekends in a cozy space at Union Square's Shelton Theater. The best part? There is no drink requirement and there are free Oreo cookies to munch on. Expect plenty of creativity and lots of laughs—and if you're lucky, local jazz musicians may even treat you to their own impromptu performance afterward.
Embark on an enchanting evening of entertainment with magician and comedian Jay Alexander, who's done shows for everyone from Robin Williams to the Rolling Stones. From the moment you enter the Oasis Lounge of the Marrakech Magic Theater, you'll be whisked away from reality. Catch Alexander’s own slight-of-hand pre-show and order up food and bevies that highlight the theater's West African theme (like the shish kabab platter and the Sultan's Martini). Then it's on to the main show: a mix of mentalism, comedy, and plenty of magic.
Laugh along with Bay Area comedians as you indulge in dishes like chicken and waffles and Filipino-inspired silog breakfast burritos. Local funny girl Annette Mullaney hosts the show, which takes place at Trademark & Copyright in the SOMA neighborhood on the fourth Saturday of every month. The kitchen opens at 11 a.m., and comedians like Justin Lucas—a Killing My Lobster comedy troupe regular—and Liz Stone take to the stage an hour later. In addition to some powerful belly laughs, boozy milkshakes and brunch cocktails are the perfect cures for your Friday-night antics.
A buzzing Tenderloin bar with multiple theater spaces, PianoFight's indie comedy bits range from Wednesday evening performances of hilarious Missed Connections to free Open Improv in which the entire audience gets to participate. It's an all-ages venue, with plenty of food and drink (think nacho tostadas, fried chicken sandwiches, and both alcohol and virgin cocktails) available before and after the shows.
Sketchfest is one of the best things about San Francisco in January. First started in 2002, this 18-day comedy festival takes place at some of the city's top venues—including the Castro Theatre, Cafe du Nord, and the Alamo Drafthouse at the New Mission—and features some of some of the most incredible comedians around. Shows range from cast reunions (like the 20th anniversary of Christopher Guest and Eugene Levy's "Best in Show") to tribute performances by SF's own drag queen Peaches Christ and her entourage. Jon Hamm, Busy Phillips, Neil Patrick Harris, and even the legendary Dick Cavett have all made recent Sketchfest appearances. The big names help sell out shows early, so get your tickets quick.