Do you like your entertainers funny or smart? Marin resident Bob Ayres likes it best when he can find them together, which he was able to do often as former proprietor of The Other Cafe, one of San Francisco’s landmark early comedy clubs, in the stand-up heyday of the 1980s. Starting with owning a Haight-Ashbury ice cream store in the ’70s that didn’t actually make any ice cream, Ayres has led a colorful but mostly quiet existence just out of the spotlight of the Bay Area comedy, dance and lecture scenes. More comfortable backstage, he reluctantly agreed to be put in the spotlight this month.
1. When did The Other Cafe open? It was a coffeehouse with one night of folk music a week when I bought it in 1976. At that time, I had quit college and opened an ice cream store in the Haight. When the owner asked, “Would you ever want to buy this place?” I said, “Yeah, I think I would.”
2. When did comedy start to come into the lineup? Within a few weeks of owning the cafe, I went to look for a band at The Palms on Polk Street. Before the band played, this guy, Mark Miller, was doing comedy and no one was listening to him. I thought he was funny. So I told him I had a little coffeehouse and he asked me if I’d like to do a comedy night. He knew who the comedians were in town at that time, and it included Robin (Williams) and Dana (Carvey), (Bob) Sarlatte, Lorenzo (Matawaran) and Gil Christner.
3. Dana Carvey was always an Other guy. What do you remember about him from those early years? When he first moved to San Francisco, I had to promise him that we would hire him enough to make his $750-a-month rent. He had just won the [San Francisco International Stand-Up] Comedy Competition and it was a real surprise because he was such a kid. And he looked like he was 12.
4. Any favorite memories about being a club owner? My favorite thing about owning a comedy club back in the day was standing at the exit on a sold-out, packed night. And I would thank everybody for coming and I would say, “If you like what you saw tonight, in three weeks we have somebody you’re going to dig because just vibe-wise and attitude wise, it’s a very similar show.” You had to do that because there was no Internet. But they would come back because they trusted us and it was great.
5. Did you lose any clients to bigger agents? I have a good story on that one. We signed Whoopi Goldberg to do a one-woman show based on her characterization of Moms Mabley. She goes to L.A. She gets hot. We get a call from some big-shot agency. “You’re not going to be representing Whoopi anymore.” Forget the contract we had; their team of lawyers were ready to crush us. Despite our friendship, Whoopi never called us to close the loop by saying, “I got signed by a big agency — they can do way more for me. So, of course, I had to do that. I’m sorry. I’ll make it up to you.” There was none of that.
6. Post comedy boom? I struggled at first. Then I started throwing these salons at my house. I basically would ask my favorite people to invite two or three of their favorite people — beloved friends of beloved friends. It was fabulous. I didn’t know what else to do other than invite really interesting, cool people to my house for a cocktail party. It was called Last Saturdays and it was held on the last Saturday of the month. Ziff Davis eventually funded it as a lecture series for three years. This eventually led to me being a licensee for TEDx with TEDxMarin.
7. Where do you live in Marin? I have a lovely home in the hills of Fairfax and I have a beautiful dog I love more than life itself. I came back here about six or seven years ago.
8. What do you like best about it? Marin is different than Fairfax. Fairfax I love because it’s like a hippie town but without the attitude or the ungroundedness of a Haight-Ashbury. I like Marin because it’s so open and progressive in its politics. And it’s beautiful here — there’s that. And that’s not nothing.