New Comedy Album Rifs on Techies, Mixed-Race Couples and the New San Francisco
Earlier this month, San Francisco native Kaseem Bentley released his debut stand-up album, Lakeview via Blonde Medicine, a Petaluma-based comedy entertainment company.
On Lakeview, we get to hear the high-energy storytelling of Kaseem, riffing on the crowd of mixed race couples, techies, and a couple who have been married for 30 years. Using his sly observations and honesty, Kaseem pulls no punches as he gets to know the crowd during the comedy album, which dropped May 3.
The 42-year-old San Franciscan chatted with me a week before the Lakeview album released to discuss his childhood growing up in San Francisco, his hatred for rich people, his embarrassment while working in social services, and -- of course -- his comedy.
“I would see people in my neighborhood who were Samoans and Alaskans and people from Yugoslavia,” Kaseem told the Courier via telephone. “Black people from different religions. I never saw that in other neighborhoods.”
There’s a gloominess to the people and with that, Kaseem says, you find comedy.
On top of a hill, Kaseem lived in the middle of Lakeview. To the left, he says, you were near the Cosby kids side, and to the other, you were in the projects. When he got outside of Lakeview, past Stonestown, he noticed how the other half of kids in society lived.
That was where his first introduction to racism happened, on the border of his neighborhood. The first time he felt more than “different” was when he transferred to Lakeshore Alternative School near Park Merced.
“Going to the pool outside of Lakeview was more for people who lived near Stern Grove,” Kaseem says. “There was something very different about Lakeview. The people felt different because they lived in the hood, but their parents owned a house. Lakeview is like where the world drops off. In this popular zeitgeist, it was staleness and grayness.”
Kaseem remembers people saying, “There’s nothing to do in Lakeview,” and it wasn’t until he aged closer to double digits that he realized it.
“[In Lakeview,] you don’t have to deal with all the trappings of a neighborhood closer to downtown,” he says. “There’s more time to think and talk and contemplate. My grandparents were funny, my dad is funny. My mom, too. Driving around Lakeview, it’s not colorful. The void of color gave more emphasis on thought and conversation. I’m so happy to be from that neighborhood and will always represent it.”
For the last decade, Kaseem has honed his comic skills at San Francisco’s open mics rowdy bar shows. While working as a high school educational advisor, Kaseem was also hanging around comedy club shows.
At age 30 he got started at the Brainwash Cafe, a laundromat, eatery, and event space (popular for its open mic nights) that shuttered in 2017 after serving San Francisco for 30 years.
“Thursday night was this popular comedy night that ran for three, almost four hours,” Kaseem said. Tony Sparks, who San Francisco Chronicle named the godfather of S.F. open mics in 2017, saw Kaseem joking around with people at Brainwash Cafe, and according to Kaseem, Sparks told him, “If you don’t do [comedy] you gotta stop coming around here.”
It was like a real show, Kaseem recalls, because Sparks was a host and a ring master and a roaster.
“He’s a great figure in my life and career,” Kaseem adds. “Any success I have, a sizable amount is attributed to him and his motivation. He took me around to these places.”
Of the many venues he’s performed in, Kaseem remembers a tiny African shop inside of a theater -- “It looked like a scam, like a storage room for a larger African shop” -- where he performed regularly.
Il Pirata, a Potrero Hill bar and restaurant, is where he got his teeth cut and really “dug into” his performance style. It’s one of the reasons why San Francisco comedy is so great, Kaseem says, calling it “a marker of your career.”
“That’s where I really started to gain fans and test out my style about jokes and crowdwork.”
Everyone comes on Friday nights, Kaseem says of Il Pirata. Government workers, thugs, UPS workers, techies. “You go there and it’s like 150 to 200 people and I’m just crushing. I would get up there a lot. Over time I thought I had reached my limit, so I started doing shows at [the now closed] Pissed off Pete’s. That was amazing because I would take what I learn at showcases and do shows in hard rooms.”
Kaseem admits the crowds were hard. “Those people want comedy,” he says.
“If you’re African American and performing in a Black room, they get it,” says Kaseem. “With Black folks, you have to show out and perform and also be honest. [Performing in] Excelsior, you’d see an aging wigger, wiggerette, and wigger baby just sit there. [There were] Samoans. Everyone there knows how to fix their own car. It’s not like when you go to Hayes Valley, the guy knows how to fix a Vespa poorly.”
He says shows in Excelsior were the kind where a fight would break out with a “cholo-lipped white woman and a Samoan woman who could’ve been a man or a women -- no disrespect to the community. One stabbed the other with a sharpened eyeliner pencil and I still kept performing.”
Kaseem has also performed at places like the Battery in Financial District because, he says, of the utter hatred of the rich.
“I had to control myself because I realized, performing shows like that, I can’t let my biases have a direct impact on my comedy. I want them to understand that these are jokes. Something about performing for these people, they’re glutton for punishment. They want to be abused because they’re ruining the city. It’s like when you’re getting a massage and the masseuse is really digging in. I was [performing] at the Battery and I was just like having sex and also wanting them to all die in a fire.”
Before starting in comedy, he would watch stand up specials of Rosie O’Donnell and shows like Evening at the Improv, a comedy series that aired from the early eighties to mid-nineties. He’s a fan of Richard Pryor thanks to his mother who, during Kaseem’s youth, listened to comedy albums in the car.
His first showcase was at Little Boxes Theater. Kaseem recalls Tony Sparks bringing him around “like he had found a unicorn that could talk.”
When he got started, Kaseem was embarrassed because he worked in social services.
“I’m the community ripping kids out of their homes, putting people in drug treatment, then going to the stage at night.” he says. “I didn’t wanna get confused and say, ‘I know you don’t have food, but you can have my drink tickets and nachos.’ I was embarrassed.”
Now, the only clubs he won’t do are out of “pure laziness”, like Tommy T’s Comedy Club in Pleasanton.
“I just go as far as I wanna go: the City or East Bay,” he says. “In the City, there is a goal to see how your material works in your own community. Tommy T’s is notorious for not paying people the right amount [of money]. I have a Verizon bill. If I was on Metro PCS, I would be at Tommy T’s every weekend.”
More recently, Kaseem has appeared on Comedy Central, Viceland, Nerdist, and Seeso. He’s also served as a staff-writer on Problematic with Moshe Kasher for Comedy Central and worked on the first season of Comedy Central’s The New Negroes.
The album Lakeview is available now on iTunes.