Comedian and comedy producer Samson Koletkar was in the middle of this interview when he was interrupted by a phone call from his day job.
“Good, how are you,” he said to the caller, before launching into a conversation about data. “I sent that email,” he continued, furrowing his brow.
The call came, ironically, while he was describing how tough it is to make a living as a comedian in the high-rent, high-expense world of the Bay Area — unless you have another way to make ends meet.
“Even if you do comedy, you want to make money,” said Koletkar, whose website bills him as the “world’s only Indian Jewish stand-up comedian.”
Like most artists, Jewish comedians in the Bay Area are driven by a passion for something that is more a calling than a job. But passion doesn’t put food on the table.
“There’s no shame in working a job or something else while you’re pursuing your dream,” said Jeff Applebaum, a former New Yorker now living in the South Bay who has been doing comedy for 20 years.
Whether it’s a day job in tech, like Koletkar, or making money as a consultant, like Applebaum, comedians have to get creative.
Applebaum, a former engineer, headlines local clubs and does stand-up at events like the recent “Latkes and Laughs” at Temple Emanu-El in San Jose, supplementing his performing income by consulting for tech companies and working in promotion.
He said young comedians just starting out, without kids or mortgages, are more able to have an “anytime, anywhere” mentality, traveling across the country from gig to gig and working for peanuts. But older people with families, like him, are more likely to turn down those underpaid and time-consuming gigs.
“I’ve also got four other people I have to be responsible for,” Applebaum said.
Comedy has always been a tough way to make a living. Lisa Geduldig has been producing her Christmas week Jewish comedy show, Kung Pao Kosher Comedy, for 26 years now. She says it’s always been challenging — that’s nothing new.
“I think it’s just continuously difficult,” she said. “I think a lot of us do piecemeal or have day jobs.”
Geduldig makes ends meet by doing PR for arts and health organizations, and also runs the monthly S.F. event Comedy Returns to El Rio!
“When people ask me what I do, it’s not just one word,” she said.
It’s not that there aren’t enough places to perform locally. According to many stand-up comedians, there are plenty of venues in the Bay Area. There’s the Punch Line and Cobb’s in San Francisco, Tommy T’s in Pleasanton, Rooster T. Feathers in Sunnyvale and the San Jose Improv, plus other venues that have regular comedy nights and bars and and restaurants that feature comedy. Famous names come through often, taking advantage of what they consider the region’s great, and smart, audiences. Stand-ups such as Mort Sahl, Lenny Bruce, Steve Martin, Sandra Bernhard, Dave Chappelle and Anthony Jeselnik all have recorded albums or comedy specials in San Francisco.
But many gigs for lesser-known comedians are paid poorly — or not at all. And that’s not OK, said Geduldig.
“You ask an artist to perform for free, but you don’t ask your dentist to drill for free,” she said.
Producing shows, as both Geduldig and Koletkar do, is one way that stand-up comedians can make a little bit of money — not a lot, but more than they’d get just performing.
That’s how the Santa Cruz-based comedian named DNA gets the bills paid. “If you’re getting into comedy for the money, stay in school,” he joked.
DNA runs a weekly comedy show and yearly stand-up festival in Santa Cruz, as well as one in Chico, and has been a comedy promoter for two decades. His plan for early 2019 is to open a theater of his own in Santa Cruz called DNA’s Comedy Lab. He sees these shows as a way to keep working in the business while bringing in some money.
“I’m not going to pay my rent being a performer,” he said. “And I know that.”
But it’s hard, he said, to balance his life as a producer with his life as a comic.
“It’s a real juggling act,” he said.
While a performer is focused on the act and audience, a producer is focused on everything else — from tickets to lighting to sound to making sure there’s an audience in the house. And then there’s website upkeep, promotion and booking. It’s tricky to balance everything. But in return, setting up one’s own show also gives up-and-coming comics a place to perform. That’s part of the reason Koletkar started Comedy Oakland, a weekend club in a restaurant space, in 2009.
“I figured, let me start my own show, create myself some stage time,” he said.
Five years later, Koletkar also founded the Desi Comedy Fest, which is held at different venues, primarily catering to the large South Asian community in the Bay Area. But maintaining all of that while still performing and developing new material (on top of having a day job) was burning him out. So in 2015 Koletkar quit his tech job. It was a decision that was a long time coming.
“I think it was just sheer frustration of not having done it yet,” he said.
Coincidentally, his wife, who had her own career aspirations she wanted to pursue, also quit. Two nonworking adults with children in the Bay Area was a daunting reality.
But Koletkar wanted to give himself a chance to pay attention to all the work that goes into maintaining a career in the arts.
That’s on Joe Nguyen’s mind, as well, these days.
“This is a really interesting time to be having this conversation with you,” Nguyen told J. in a recent interview.
Nguyen, an S.F.-based comic who commutes to Palo Alto to work as a software developer, said he was about to quit his job and go freelance to devote more time to comedy.
“What’s exciting and scary is it’s all up to me,” said Nguyen, who is Vietnamese and whose website is VietJew.com.
At 35, Nguyen already has put in his time in the clubs, following the traditional path of working himself up the ladder at the Punch Line, and he gets gigs like this year’s Kung Pao Kosher Comedy. Along with Koletkar and others, Nguyen tours with a show called “You’re Funny, But You Don’t Look Jewish,” and he also has turned to producing his own shows, all while keeping his day job.
“I do think of it as a career,” he said of stand-up comedy. “But it’s still not my full-time job.”
He hopes getting rid of his commute will give him time to work on his act, to get more into comedy writing, to handle basic things such as updating his website and to stay on top of the shows he runs: Nightlife on Mars (a weekly show at a bar in San Francisco) and GOAT$.
How to make life as a comedian work is something that Geneva Rust-Orta, who describes herself as a “baby comic,” is just starting to figure out. The 23-year-old lives with her parents and works at Temple Sinai in Oakland and Congregation Sha’ar Zahav in San Francisco to supplement her income while trying to work her way up the Bay Area comedy ladder.
It’s not easy. One of her first goals was to get on stage at the Punch Line. In order to do that, she went to the club every Sunday … for a year and a half. Eventually, a few months ago, she was given stage time by the club’s booker: five minutes.
“It went well,” she said modestly.
DNA, who is a fan of Rust-Orta and has booked her before, said that process is normal.
“You do what you need to get the approval of the gatekeepers,” he said.
Rust-Orta said it could take years to get where she wants to be, which is performing longer sets at clubs. She’d just like to be able to move out on her own at some point, and eventually work her way up to getting booked for 20 minutes.
“Probably priority No. 1 is to be living not with my mother, and be doing comedy,” she said.
But making comedy her full-time job is not something she’s expecting — not if she wants to support herself.
“I know a few comics who do it full time who have food stamps and Medicare,” she said.
And then there’s location. For young and hungry comedians with ambitions, the gravitational pull of the Los Angeles entertainment scene is strong. The Bay Area isn’t Hollywood, nor does it have a comedy or theater scene like New York’s. So, many ambitious performers move.
That’s what happened to a lot of Alicia Dattner’s friends from the “comedy condo,” a San Francisco apartment she once lived in that was shared by aspiring comedians.
“A round [of people] would move down to L.A. and [another] round would move in,” she said.
Dattner, an award-winner performer whose has had success with solo shows titled “The Oy of Sex” and “One Life Stand,” said she starting out doing what young comedians often do — chasing gig after gig, traveling around the country to take whatever work she could. But eventually it wore her out.
“I couldn’t handle it,” she said. “It wasn’t emotionally sustainable for me.”
Now she makes her living by performing as well as teaching storytelling workshops and doing individual coaching for speakers.
“I consider it a point of pride to have a day job and pay my bills,” she said.
Still, Dattner feels the pull of Los Angeles. After all, she is working on material she hopes can make it on television.
“I’ve thought about it since I’ve started,” she said. “The Bay [Area] isn’t really a viable place to become a famous comedian.”
But it is, she agreed, a good place to create. Dattner said remaining here has allowed her to carve out a more individualistic career path, while DNA said that the Bay Area comedy scene is friendly and respectful. You don’t see the “pay to perform” gigs that you find in New York, he said, which take advantage of young comics’ desire for stage time.
“In the Bay Area, we abhor that,” he said. “The last model that will come to the Bay Area and be successful is the ‘pay to play’ model.”
Even so, you can’t pay the electricity bill with a joke. Koletkar managed without a day job — for a while. After leaving his job in 2015, he was back working full-time by 2017, as a director of product management at tech company. But he says it was worth it.
“I don’t regret a minute of it, even though I struggled financially,” he said..
Nor is he going to ease up on the comedy just because he’s working a day job.
“Listen, I’ve done this before,” he said. “I know I can do both together.”
Like most comedians, Koletkar is too in love with stand-up to give it up. And he’s willing to work a double shift — day job and comedy — to keep doing what he loves.
“You don’t have to quit your job to do what you want to do,” he said.