Ali Mafi and Marga Gomez, opening the first Berkeley Gay Comedy Festival on Saturday night at The Marsh. Photo: Kent Taylor

By Diana Arbas

It’s LGBT Pride Month, and downtown Berkeley’s coming out with a sense of humor.

The first ever Berkeley Gay Comedy Festival kicks off at The Marsh Berkeley on Saturday, June 11, and every adult — regardless of sexual orientation or hairstyle — is invited.

“Too often when you go to comedy nights you’re just going to see a certain demographic, certain age group, kind of just young white dudes,” said the Festival’s founder, Marga Gomez. But this festival is geared to people who like thoughtful, progressive comedy, she said.

A nationally celebrated comedian herself, Gomez is the force behind The Marsh’s 2011 stand-up comedy programming. Inclusiveness has always been her mission.

“The kind of comedy that I think people are used to seeing is … kind of very slacker, it’s hipster and it’s a trend,” she said.

Gomez tries to break that trend. “I have always aimed to make it inclusive for women comics and men comics, comics of every sexual orientation, trans comics. I just want great comics. There’s nothing like our show in the East Bay and probably anywhere,” Gomez said.

There certainly hasn’t been much comedy — trend-breaking or typical — in downtown Berkeley before. But Deborah Badhia, Operations Director at the Downtown Berkeley Association, has noticed a recent change.

“Over the past 10 years comedy hasn’t been as much on the radar, except for, of course, our live theater performances that were comedic in nature,” she said. But downtown Berkeley is beginning to offer more live comedy, open mics and now a festival. “It’s definitely a growing scene,” Badhia said.

In addition to The Marsh’s biweekly comedy nights, Saturn Café’s Space Lounge has comedy improv shows and open mics. Shattuck Down Low features “Mortified,” a monthly comedy showcase. Even Freight & Salvage has the occasional (sold out) comedy event.

It’s not just a Berkeley thing. Comedy is booming all over the country, said breakthrough Oakland-based comic Janine Brito, who will close the Berkeley Gay Comedy Festival on June 18 with fellow comedians David Hawkins and Ronn Vigh.

Brito has talked to comics in New York, Los Angeles and the Midwest, and she said they have all noticed that more people are going out to see stand-up comedy.

“When our economy’s in a recession,” Brito said, “people want to hear about these tough issues. Really good comedy comes from a hard place and pain. It’s cathartic for a comic to go onstage and tell jokes about things that aren’t the greatest, and everyone gets to laugh, sort of let go and have a release during difficult times.”

Berkeley City Councilmember Kriss Worthington said that it’s nice that comedy is coming to Berkeley.

“Oakland and Berkeley have a very large LGBT community,” Worthington said. “Frequently people leave the East Bay to go to the West Bay to see events. I think it’s wonderful when we have events right here in the East Bay.”

As for the Berkeley Gay Comedy Festival, Worthington said it is long overdue.

“Why there hasn’t been something like this in Berkeley, I don’t know,” Gomez said, “although the bastion of queer comedy has been La Peña [the community cultural center near Ashby BART]. Downtown Berkeley, not so much.”

Brito said that in her experience, progressives can be hesitant about supporting stand-up comedy.

“Everyone’s thinking Andrew Dice Clay — that kind of aggressive, really ‘aggro,’ macho idea of comedy. But now there’s a growth of really conscious comics — Jon Stewart, people who are talking about things in the vein of Dick Gregory. I think progressives are finally realizing, ‘Oh, now there’s comedy for me. There’s comedy for everyone that speaks to what I care about in a way that, even if it’s sort of edgy, it comes from a good place.”

And Gomez has been working hard to cultivate a space for inclusive, progressive comedy right here in Berkeley, at the Marsh. Every week, she performs “Marga’s Funny Mondays” and brings in other comedy talent.

Gomez sets the tone for her comedic space. “It’s not okay to go up there and make people feel bad for who they are,” she said. “In particular, doing sexist material that makes women feel bad — that’s so common at comedy clubs. Or to have a lot of guys talking about their dicks.

“I go, ‘Hey, look. Your penis is wonderful, I’m sure, but this is an audience that doesn’t go to comedy because they don’t want to hear ten minutes about your penis. So unless you have something really amazing that’s under a minute, try other stuff.’”

And these comics welcome Gomez’s feedback.

“Sometimes they’re trapped,” Gomez said, “doing a certain kind of comedy at comedy clubs where everybody’s smashed and they don’t really want to think. But comics get to be creative in my room.”

And that creativity shows. Worthington observed the diversity of the upcoming festival’s performers and the different kinds of humor they represent. “It may not be the first in the country or state,” he said, “but I think it might be one of the best.”

The Berkeley Gay Comedy Festival celebrates Pride Month with a three-night gay comedy series in The Cabaret at The Marsh Berkeley from June 11 to June 18. The laughs begin Saturday at 8:30 p.m. with Ali Mafi and Marga Gomez. La Chica Boom, “The New Gay Comedy Kids” and Marga Gomez perform on Monday, June 13 at 8 p.m. Janine Brito, David Hawkins and Ronn Vigh close the festival on Saturday, June 18 at 8:30 p.m.

For tickets, visit The Marsh website or call 415-282-3055.

Diana Arbas studies creative writing and journalism at Mills College. She is also the assistant news editor of The Campanil, the college’s student news organization. She is currently interning at Berkeleyside.

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Tracey Taylor is co-founder of Berkeleyside and co-founder and editorial director of Cityside, the nonprofit parent to Berkeleyside and The Oaklandside. Before launching Berkeleyside, Tracey wrote for...