Benicia Historical Museum’s Stone Hall Comedy series came to a very successful close on April 30, as a spirited crowd turned out to watch Bay Area native Andrew Norelli and headliner Rocky Laporte expound on life’s embarrassing and perplexing foibles in a unique and historical setting.
Ten minutes before show time, the parking lot was full to bursting, which is something of a two-fold achievement, because the Camel Barn’s hard-to-find stretch of road is a far cry from the downtown digs of most comedy clubs, a fact which didn’t elude Mr. Laporte. “Thank you for coming to our top secret location,” Laporte quipped early in his set. “Did I already tell you that this is my favorite camel barn?”
Somewhat in keeping with the historical setting, the show was distinguished by a nineteenth century draft that kept finding its way through the old doors. Thankfully, the old-timey feel didn’t extend the comedic material at hand, which was built up of glee-inducing bits of twenty-first century topicality.
It wasn’t a young crowd—I counted more white hair in that Stone Hall than in Edgar Winter’s photo album. But even if every person there under thirty was either journalist or a friend of one, it did nothing to quell the steady flow of Budweiser and red wine emerging from the barn, and neither it did it dampen the audience’s laughter at a bunch of resoundingly contemporary material.
The first performer was Andrew Norelli, a Bay Area native who’s been on Jimmy Kimmel (which is impressive) and who claims to have leveraged his sociology degree into a comedy career immediately after college (which is more impressive). During his act he touched on Bay Area real estate, marijuana, eHarmony and his uncanny resemblance to the music teacher from Glee. If any of his jokes failed to net a laugh I certainly missed it.
The show’s headliner, Rocky Laporte, mixed one-liners with semi-autobiographical storytelling and anecdotes. Laporte’s comedic persona is that of a streetwise but bumbling Chicagoan, a working stiff whose next court date forever hovers on the horizon, and whose simplistic misreading of the world around him leads to hilarious one-liners and observations: he believes, for example, that his young looks might derive from his third grade reading proficiency. Before comedy he had driven trucks and worked on the docks, and he bears the pedigree of a funny workingman who moved naturally to his calling. As he stands at the microphone his deep, mellow voice seems no more inflected for comic effect than the voice I use to inquire whether a nearby barstool is taken. Seems is the operative word in the last sentence; the legacy of his hard work is audible in every moment of his set, and in the last decade he’s really begun to see the fruits of his labor. He’s brought his skewed perspective to the Tonight Show, Comedy Central, and several overseas shows for folks in the service, and has garnered plenty of press-friendly blurbs from the likes of Tim Allen, whose Tim Taylor persona is perhaps the preeminent working schlub in American comedy.
Despite the venue’s mysterious location, he knew Benicia well enough to play to our regional biases. He bashed Martinez, and, to an outrageously unfair degree, the Oakland Zoo. Geography was at the heart of one of his choice one-liners. “I grew up in a little Italian Neighborhood…called Rome.” A proud purveyor of “clean comedy” (read: obscenity-free), Laporte nonetheless manages to sneak in some dark, wily jokes. To paraphrase one: “Some guy asked me to say something in Italian…I told him to get in the trunk.”
One of comedy’s greatest gifts is that enables people to view ordinary things in a new light—teaching us, to take one of Laporte’s examples, that stupid people don’t confuse thesauruses with dictionaries, but with dinosaurs. On that spring night, many an audience member learned that museums, far from being laughter-free zones, can house some the hardiest guffaws around, and we can only hope the Stone Hall tradition lasts. And maybe some of the audience did have their perceptions altered; for not a few asked a friend of mine how they might leave the parking lot. Her mind conditioned by wine and two hours of jokes, she responded with commendable pith. “The way you came in—but backwards.”