By Mat Weir
If there’s one thing local comedian, writer and entrepreneur, DNA, isn’t it’s a quitter.
So when he announced on Christmas Eve through Facebook that his experimental theater, DNA’s Comedy Lab, will be closing at their current Front Street location, many knew it wouldn’t be his last stand.
Along with the expected messages of condolences, fans and friends also posted comments like “We will be waiting and ready to support what’s next” and “You’ve done a hero’s work.” But really, he says his involvement is a little more serious than honorable.
“I have an addiction to putting on shows,” he exclaims with his usual witty demeanor before soberly remarking that the closure is still “all very shocking.”
That’s because the club had only been open for a year prior to the start of the pandemic. Despite its fledgling status it was a year chock full of shows, 288 to be exact.
DNA’s addiction to promoting led the Lab to a regular schedule of four shows a week until March 2020. More than just comedy, DNA wanted the Lab to be an experimental theater hosting open mics, storytelling hours, children’s shows, music, TED talks and so much more.
“Something for everyone,” he asserts.
They also rented the rooms out for large, private events thrown by Bookshop Santa Cruz and UC Santa Cruz. In fact, things were going so well they were able to pay rent for the next three months, a feat unknown to many starting businesses.
“It was like, ‘We’re gonna make it!” he remembers with a chuckle. “And then we closed.”
“March was going to be our best month to date,” explains Comedy Lab co-owner, Mike Pappas.
Pappas tells Event Santa Cruz they had done extensive plumbing and remodeling on the old movie theater turned comedy club. His wife, Susan, had set up the kitchen–complete vegan snacks–and was about to launch a new menu. They even had just purchased a brand new marquee for announcing all the upcoming shows on the books.
“We had several sold-out shows lined up, and had booked up the rooms for private events, then Covid hit,” Pappas sighs.
A self-described germaphobe, DNA was anxiously watching the growing news about the coronavirus when it first began making headlines across the globe. As it spread from Asia through Europe and eventually on U.S. soil, he became increasingly aware and evermore uneasy. On March 12, he decided to be the first entertainment venue in the county to close ahead of any government lockdowns. It’s a feeling he says he not only has experienced before, but–like the disaster itself–something his ESP(N) predicted way back in 1985 when he left his home state of New Jersey.
That first time was in 2001, after he acquired his debut theater in Chico. One month later, America was attacked on September 11.
“I told all my friends when I left: ‘I’m moving to California, I’m gonna make it, and when I do the whole world is going to go sideways,” he says more earnestly than in jest.
“It was a very hard decision to make but looking back it was definitely the right thing to do,” declares Pappas.
However, just like his namesake, DNA’s story is one about adaptation, mutation and survival. Afterall, we’re talking about a person who has written plays, founded music zines, followed the Grateful Dead, opened two theaters, has hosted over 3,000 shows and even ran for mayor of Chico on four separate occasions.
One week after announcing pauses on performances in the Lab, DNA put comedians on video conference social media app, Zoom. Since then, the Lab’s feed has hosted over 120 gigs from their weeklys–Wednesday night’s Blind Tiger open mic and Thursday’s Sloth Storytelling Show–to headliners like Carmen Lynch and the Puterbaugh Sisters.
And these early sessions in the beginning weeks were truly experimental.
The entire country was gripped by incessantly breaking news and many of us were in the grips of fear, confusion and uncertainty about what would happen next. As humans we need laughter to get us through the good and especially the bad. Of course, comedians are only human as well. If necessity is the mother of invention, then comedians are the black sheep cousins of humanity.
“The Puterbaugh Sisters decided to do the show from their inflatable swimming pool,” DNA remembers, adding Lynch was one of the thousands of Americans who initially was stuck away from home when the lockdown hit.
“She was at her boyfriend’s house in the Northeast somewhere and she did her set from her car,” he declares. “And it was like therapy.”
Of course, Covid-19 wasn’t the only major event to spread across Santa Cruz last year.
The CZU Lightning Complex Fire destroyed more than 80,000 acres, 1,480 buildings and displaced an incredible 60,000 individuals. Living in Ben Lomond, DNA and his wife were two of those people who had to evacuate their home, wondering if they were ever going to see it again. Because of the heroic bravery and tireless work put forth by CalFire, local firemen and fire volunteers, Ben Lomond was saved along with their home. It was an effort not forgotten by the promoter. So when it was time for him to throw his annual Santa Cruz Comedy Festival in October, he decided to donate proceeds to the Ben Lomond Fire Department.
True to the 2020 brand, the seventh annual festival was anything but normal.
Remember, by October there were zero operating entertainment venues in the county. With traditionally alternative venues like bars also closed for entertainment–and on again, off again outdoor dining–it was up to the Lab to once more transform to the times.
“I always say it was like The Great Nothing. All these familiar things were disappearing,” states DNA.
With the help of the Downtown Association and the City of Santa Cruz, the Lab was able to obtain the correct permits to build a stage in the Saturn Cafe parking lot and hosted the festival as a drive-in. Audience members could safely socially distance themselves in their cars, and applaud with an alarming cacophony of honking car horns.
“It’s so disconcerting and strange and yet comedians had to accelerate and lean into this new way of doing comedy,” he says.
Now, he and Pappas once again mold with the times as they prepare to close the doors of the Front Street theater.
Despite qualifying for the Payment Protection Program and the Economic Injury Disaster Loan, the fact that they had to remain locked down almost as long as they had been open did not allow the loans to stretch as far as needed.
Old flyers for past shows–some never destined to occur– still adorn on the walls. Boxes of old memorabilia are stacked throughout the closed lobby as DNA digs through them to show off everything from the old zines he published in Chico to promo shots of punk rockers long since dead. Signed movie posters lean against the wall. Part personal collection, part historical record–what he refers to as his archives–of a man and his dream. But also so much more than that.
‘It’s never just about me. I have friends who lost their businesses downtown,” DNA sighs remorsefully.
Friends like Pappas, who also owns speciality olive oil company, The True Olive Connection. Once located downtown off Lincoln Street they transitioned online in order to stay open, cutting the overhead expenses a brick and mortar store entails. And while Pappas, DNA and their other two silent partners are sad to let go of the ex-movie theater, it’s not a set-back that’ll keep them down. The Lab will live in a more intimate, traditional, comedy club setting.
“It will be a smaller, more quaint and personal venue,” Pappas explains. He adds it’s too early to know exactly where it will be but they are currently exploring locations.
If one thing is for sure, it’s that the future is unwritten. Nobody knows for sure what will happen next with Covid-19 or how many lockdowns may lay ahead, or for how long they will last. When society does begin to safely re-open, more uncertainty surrounds at what capacity venues will be allowed to operate at.
For anyone else these questions could possibly be so daunting they would shrivel in defeat. But to DNA’s Comedy Lab and its owners, they’re just another step in the average day of this long, strange, trip of a life.
Or as DNA summarizes it in a sentence that could easily be his mantra:
“It’s evolve or perish.”
DNA’s Comedy Lab still needs financial help during this time! Interested patrons can donate directly through their GoFundMe