Goofy comedy is all well and good — where would we be without the Will Ferrells and T.J. Millers of the world? — but sometimes you need to cleanse your brain of all the potty jokes and lowbrow cracks with a healthy dose of smart humor. That's where these guys come in. Wit, cleverness, and mega-likability are the order of the day with the multilingual Clara Bijl, the happy-go-lucky Chris Cotton, and the friendly, guy-next-door Joe Zimmerman.
Bijl grew up in France and moved to the States after high school to attend the College of Charleston, which is where she first discovered her knack for making people laugh. "There was a lot of comedy going on [at CofC]," Bijl says. "My girlfriends in Charleston were pretty much my first audience." After graduation, Bijl decided to tackle a bigger and tougher audience, packing herself off to New York, where she started performing in comedy clubs and writing for a French TV show. "That was great, because I could try jokes at the clubs before sending them to the TV show," she says. "I'd try them in English and sell them in French." Translating comedy sounds like a nightmare to us, but Bijl says it's not that hard. "Some very cultural jokes don't translate, but people get up early, go to funerals, just the same. Funny is funny — if it's funny and it catches you by surprise, then it works."
Being able to deliver a set in both English and French has given Bijl some seriously cool opportunities. She's performed in Switzerland, Holland, and France, as well as throughout the U.S. She says there was just one period, after 9/11, when being French wasn't really an asset. "After September 11 when it was cool to hate the French, that was not a good time. I had a stronger French accent, so there was no hiding it. I could pretend to be from Jersey, but no one's buying it. But people forgot, French fries were delicious again, and it was fine."
Nowadays Bijl and her smart, cosmopolitan-flavored comedy have found a welcoming home in San Francisco. The only problem? "I have to be careful what I say in public," she says. "There are so many French people here I can't insult people freely anymore."
We're just going to be honest here: this guy had us laughing so hard on the phone that we almost forgot it was supposed to be an interview. If you ask us, that's a pretty good sign.
Cotton is a Philadelphia-based comic who got his start emceeing comedy shows in college. It wasn't exactly a cushy gig. "Remember in Roadhouse where Patrick Swayze went up to the bar and it's all crazy? That's what it was like," he says. Despite that, one night he decided to do a set of stand up on stage himself. "I did it and bombed. I mean I went to school with these people, they knew me and they still booed me!" Drawing on what must be supernatural powers of persistence, Cotton kept on trying, and each time he made it a little longer. "By the fourth time, I was getting good and invited my friends, and for some reason I just bombed again that night. After that we were all walking home, and my one friend just ripped into me ... he's like, 'dude, you gotta get a job,' and we were fighting all the way back. It was hilarious."
Cotton did end up getting a job, but it's one of his own making. He and a couple of other Philly comedians founded a comedy production company that helps other comedians find work in the city and produces short films on a small level. Cotton's also been hosting a weekly open mic comedy night at a club called the Raven for almost five years. To help young comedians develop and learn the ropes, he and his partner H. Foley put the seasoned comedians on early and the new ones on late. "People are expecting something — it's like when I started, you get on stage and people are like OK, where's the funny fat man? So [comedians] who don't get it yet, they have the opportunity to learn." And, hopefully, not get booed off the stage.
Joe Zimmerman's comedy career got started when he was the class clown in college — literally. "I had an English class that required so much reading I couldn't keep up, and 40 percent of the grade was participation," he says. "So I decided since I couldn't chip in with any meaningful comments, I'd try to just slip in something funny anytime I could to keep my participation grade up." Somehow, it worked. Not only did the professor give him a great participation grade, the other students loved him. "One of the guys in the class who I didn't know came up to me outside of class and said, 'Dude, you're the reason I get up in the morning and go to British Romanticism.' That had me hooked on the idea of making people laugh, which eventually led to me going to my first open mic."
His solo sets, which are good-natured, quirky, and touch on everything from failed hot air balloon proposals to Chuck Norris vs. Jesus, have gotten him noticed by Comedy Central, which named him a 2011 "Comic to Watch," and even Ricky Gervais, who picked him as one of five finalists in the Just Sayin' stand up competition.
Besides doing his own stand up, Zimmerman also puts in time as one of the four Beards of Comedy, the nationally known, hirsute sketch group that's been performing together since 2008. "It's been great," he says. "The only annoying thing is a lot of hard-core bearded gents will go, 'Hey, your beard isn't that great,' and I have to be like, 'Well, we never said we were the biggest beards of comedy.'"
Fri. Jan. 18, 9:30 p.m. Sat. Jan. 19, 10 p.m. $12.50. Lighthouse at Shem Creek