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April 27, 2017
Photo via The Committee: A Secret History of American Comedy

The History Behind San Francisco's Underground Comedy Group That Influenced the Summer of Love

The gods of laughter are descending on San Francisco June 2-4, 2017 for Clusterfest. It might seem unusual that Jerry Seinfeld and friends are heading to the bay for the Outside Lands of stand-up comedy (three days, five stages, 50-plus comedians), but San Francisco has a long, influential history with groundbreaking comedic performance. It all started with the Committee, the greatest sketch comedy group you don't know.

The Beginning

Before the iconic Summer of Love, members of Second City, Chicago's legendary improv comedy group, came out west looking for a city that would allow them to do politically-charged improv, rather than the observational humor that was the Chicago collective's forte. That's how they discovered San Francisco. Intending to stay for just one summer, they ended up staying for nine years and the Committee was born.

Growing Popularity

Led by Alan Meyerson, the group of five comics made the rounds of the Bay Area intellectual elite. Soon they found financial backing from some investors at UC Berkeley and a home at 622 Broadway, the Bocce Ball, a former Italian club in North Beach. Word spread as the group's political pointedness melded with the feeling of the times. As their popularity grew, the group did 13 shows a week. Very much like jazz, the group riffed on several themes from audience suggestions and other prepared skits.

The politics of the group extended beyond the venue. When Anti-Vietnam rallies came together at Berkeley, the members of the Committee took their rightful place alongside musician Joan Baez and comedian Dick Gregory.

By the mid-60s, their influence spread. The Committee opened up a club in Los Angeles and toured to places including Berlin, Austin, and even a brief run in New York City. At the end of the decade, they conquered TV with appearances on shows like The Flip Wilson Show and The Dick Cavett Show. During its run, the Committee performed live in front of an estimated five million people.

Demise and Legacy

In the 1970s, political satire became harder and harder to pull off in a tumultuous world, and the group started to lose money. By 1973, audiences had declined, improv as an art form seemed stale, and the Committee disbanded. After its demise, Committee continued to make contributions to the world of comedy. Famous alumni include Rob Reiner; Larry Hankin (Friends, Breaking Bad); Gary Austin, founder of the Groundlings in Los Angeles; and Carl Gottlieb, who went on to pen Jaws and The Jerk. And while many members have connections to Saturday Night Live, none have a bigger influence on it than former member Del Close. After leaving the Committee, Del moved back to Chicago and, in the years that followed, coached such comedy heavyweights as Bill Murray, Tina Fey, Mike Myers, Stephen Colbert and Gilda Radner.

While the Committee is long gone, their spirit still lives on at comedy clubs and organizations like the Punch Line, Cobb's Comedy Club, PianoFight, and BATS Improv and the annual comedy festival, SF Sketchfest.

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