Comedy, Loose and Jangly
Don’t tell Will Durst that political satire is dead
By Gretchen Giles
It’s the rainy end to the San Francisco mayoral race, and political comic Will Durst is having the last laugh. Having run for mayor of the city himself in 1987, Durst knows what it feels like. “I got 2 percent of the vote, came in fourth out of 11, and spent $1,200,” Durst chuckles. “The three guys who beat me spent a million dollars apiece, so on a dollar per vote basis, I am the mayor of San Francisco.”
Would he ever consider doing it again? “Never, ever, ever,” he avers. “I wanted to walk a mile in their shoes, and I found out that their shoes, well, they have to step in a lot of crap, and you have to change shoes every night, and I’m not willing to do that.
“Nobody who can be elected should be,” he adds, in characteristic style.
As for Willie Brown’s recent victory, Durst shrugs, “Well, it was kind of obvious. It was a photo finish. [Incumbent Frank Jordan] got a picture of himself taken in the shower, and he’s finished.
“Most politicians are figureheads; Jordan was a hood ornament.”
For the past 11 years, Durst has been a pivotal figure on the San Francisco stand-up comedy scene, sending off zingers such as “If God wanted us to vote, he would have given us candidates.” He laughs at his own joke as it is read to him over the phone. “I like that one,” he quips.
He has been making himself and others laugh at themselves and their politicians at concert halls and Bay Area comedy clubs–including the landmark Holy City Zoo, which he once owned. He muses wickedly about national and local politics, intersperses football metaphors into his copy, and just generally picks on soft-jazzer Michael Bolton.
“It’s very unfair of me, I know,” he sighs half-seriously. “He’s so easy. But there’s something that really bothers me about him. A friend has David Copperfield. I have Michael Bolton. We all have our guy.”
With monthly columns in The Progressive and Funny Times magazines, a daily column–“Daily Dose of Durst”– for Working Assets on the Internet, and a nationally syndicated radio show, and as the host of the PBS labor journal “We Do the Work,” Will Durst is a busy man. “I’m still in high school,” he jokes. “Unless it’s due Monday morning, I don’t start it until Sunday evening after the Sullivan show.”
Taking a break from these daily-grind gigs, Durst likes to limber up in the clubs. He’ll bring his stand-up routine to a pre-New Year’s bash at the Raven Theater on Dec. 28.
Coming of age in San Francisco in the nervy days of comedy–at the same time as Robin Williams, Bobby Slayton, and other leaders of the ’80s stand-up revival–Durst is one of the few purists who remain in the area. Unlike those who have left their home for the more lucrative comedy killing fields of the Los Angeles nightclub scene, Durst–a Midwesterner by birth–has remained adamantly attached to his adopted home and chosen profession.
“I just really like getting on a stage and trying to make people laugh out loud on purpose against their will.”
But don’t get him started on what he terms the “watered-down sweater-comic pretty-boy hack thieves who are using stand-up as a greased chute to a sitcom gig as the wacky neighbor next door on ‘Who’s the Dufus?'”
One senses that Durst has an opinion.
“When I started out,” he says, serious now, “comics did comedy because they had to. There was no money in it. I mean, people gravitated toward it just like they gravitated toward California. You know, the plates shifted, and everything loose and jangly kind of fell into comedy. We were outcasts, and misfits, and round pegs in square holes, and we had to do comedy. It was our only outlet.
“When it became very successful, everybody saw it as a shortcut to getting cast in a sitcom, and I think that a lot of the soul went out of comedy. I think a lot of it was replicate. So I think that the shakeout is not that bad,” he says, referring to the current stand-up comedy backlash.
“Things aren’t getting better, but I think that a lot of people are leaving comedy for other fields that more befit their talents, like squeeze-molding and fork-lift driving.”
Comedian Will Durst, with his wife, Debbie, and her partner, Mike, and comic Steven Kravitz will appear on Thursday, Dec. 28, at 8 p.m., at the Raven Film Center, 115 North St., Healdsburg. $10. 433-5448.
From the Dec. 21-27, 1995 issue of the Sonoma Independent
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