Heart of the City Archives

My 1992 stand-up photo, aka The Antler Shot.
Photo by Jeanine K. Reisbig

Enjoy the buffet, I'll be here all week
by Hank Donat

Josie's Cabaret & Juice Joint was a was a hell of a place to stand on stage and tell a joke.

The intimate theatre on 16th Street in the Castro - it's now a Zao noodle restaurant - earned a national reputation for introducing ground-breaking political writers and solo performers.

This hungry i for the 1990s was the home base for renegade performers Keith Hennessey, the Pomo Afro Homos, and Justin Chin, and it was a career launching pad for comics Margaret Cho and Marga Gomez, Broadway star Lea DeLaria, and radio personality Scott Capurro. 

Whoopi Goldberg crafted her act at Josie's 1980s predecessor, the Valencia Rose, as did Supervisor Tom Ammiano, who's called "the godmother of gay comedy."

A uniquely San Franciscan phenomenon, Josie's gave underrepresented audiences from all walks of life a chance to hear stories that sounded like their own lives, told with a full breadth of emotions, but above all with humor. 

The unwritten rule at Josie's was that you could make fun of any group to which you belonged - be it gay, Latino, Jewish, Asian, you name it. 

The booker, publicist, mentor, and impresario for both Josie's and the Valencia Rose was Donald Montwill, who recently passed away from AIDS. 

At a celebration of Montwill's life at El Rio in the Mission District, the 1995 Solo Mio Award winner and founder of the Maui AIDS Foundation was remembered as a visionary who promoted diversity in the arts long before it was in vogue to do so. 

Since I was one of Donald's comics from 1992-1997, I can tell you that had he not achieved great things in the arts, Donald would deserve accolades simply for having worked with comedians for the better part of two decades. This might surprise you, but even when comedians portray their worst quirks and neuroses on stage, they are very often putting their best face forward.

If you've never had someone offer to buy you a drink and then leave the bar before the drink arrived, you haven't hung out with comedians. Capurro used to place his wallet on a table on the Josie's stage during some performances so he could keep an eye on it. "There are comics back there!" Capurro would say, "I'm not taking any chances."

The Josie's comedians' collective jealousy over Cho's rise to fame is legendary. At the El Rio event, even comedians who have since left the business took a few minutes to relive old gossip about Cho and her ambiguous sexuality during her days at Josie's. Did she only pretend to be bisexual in order to court the gay audience of Josie's? Donald's take was always, "Who cares? She's funny."

Today, stand up is either politically correct or pointlessly mean and filthy. What held the rag-tag lot of Josie's comics together for a shining while was a commitment to representing unheard voices. "Will & Grace" and openly gay movie stars were still nearly a decade away.

My own farewell performance as a comedian was at The Plush Room. I emceed a benefit for Kay Tsenin's campaign for judge. My big joke was as follows: "Jean Paul Sartre, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Bette Davis walk into a bar and there's Jesus Christ having a martini. After a moment of surprised silence, Sartre says, 'Well, it must be Jesus because there he is before our very eyes.' 'Nonsense!' says Nietzsche, 'Jesus Christ is a myth that's perpetuated to subjugate the common man.' 'Shut up,' says Bette, 'and sit down before he drinks all the gin.'"

This may explain why no one was jealous of me and my comedy career!

For many, including myself, Donald Montwill was a teacher whose insight was profound even in his failing mental health. After living with AIDS dementia for a few years, his mind had taken him, it seemed to us quite literally, over the rainbow. The world as Donald now perceived it consisted entirely of love and cigarettes. No kidding - he spoke of little else.

He could also remember Beatles songs and most of the names of the Josie's performers. He loved every impossible, irascible, difficult, brilliant one of the comedians.

Donald was cared for by the staff at the wonderful Maitri hospice on Duboce Avenue. During one of my last visits there, Donald was being fed lunch by his friend Margie Ekeberg, when a sudden coughing explosion caused Donald to shower Margie with copious portions of mac and cheese. 

While Margie left the table to clean herself, I stayed with Donald, who was both remorseful and agitated. "It's okay, Donald," I said, "With everything that goes on in the world, this is not a problem." 

Suddenly, as if a fog had lifted, Donald said, "That's not what you mean when you say that." He spoke with a lucidity I hadn't seen in him for several months.

"Oh, really?" I asked, frankly a little stunned.

"What you mean is, 'This is a problem, but not a big one.'"

"Yes," I said as I realized it, "That's true." 

"Now, gimme a cigarette," Donald said, and I knew the fog had returned. 

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Copyright 2003 Hank Donat
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