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Class Clowns

Meet Seven East Bay Natives Who Made It Big by Being Funny


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They’ve graduated from being cutups in East Bay schools to getting big laughs in the entertainment business. You’ve seen them on Comedy Central, Saturday Night Live, and the silver screen. They’ve also landed great gigs behind the scenes, writing for late-night talk shows and prime-time sitcoms. These comic clowns are tops in their class.

Andy Samberg

Don’t expect andy samberg to be remembered as a one-hit wonder. The Berkeley High graduate’s techno-savvy brand of humor has made a big splash at Saturday Night Live, and he’s just getting started.

Samberg, 27, catapulted into the pop culture zeitgeist with Lazy Sunday, an SNL rap video that aired in December. The video, set to thumping beats that sound like vintage Beastie Boys or Run-DMC, shows two fellows spending an afternoon eating cupcakes and sneaking candy and soda into a matinee of The Chronicles of Narnia. Samberg and costar Chris Parnell’s hard-core posturing is hilarious, especially as they rap with clueless bravado about dropping $10 bills (“It’s all about the Hamiltons, baby!”) to pay for their Narnia tickets. “Lazy Sunday” was an instant smash, and the video link was forwarded around the Internet.

Samberg and cowriters Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone (friends since their days at Berkeley’s Willard Junior High) became SNL’s hottest commodity, although their “overnight” acclaim came after a lot of hard work.

“We had been working crappy temp jobs in L.A. while writing comedy for the past three years,” says Samberg. The trio borrowed digital video cameras and hacked editing programs to create a website (www.thelonelyisland.com) full of comedy films. The clever shorts included White Power, the story of one man’s addiction to tooth whitener, and The ’Bu (short for Malibu), a spoof of prime-time soaps like The OC and Beverly Hills, 90210. The website generated enough interest to land the trio an agent and a development deal at Comedy Central. Saturday Night Live called in August, hiring all three friends as writers for the new season.

“We had to move in four days,” says Samberg, who was also cast as a featured player. “We sold our cars and shipped some of our stuff, and put the rest out on the street.”

Soon after arriving in Manhattan, Samberg found himself on SNL’s “Weekend Update” doing a purposefully lame Jack Nicholson impression. Not surprisingly, the whirlwind of TV success has been a bit disorienting for the easygoing East Bay native.

“I’m working on a show where it’s our job to be aware of everything that’s going on in politics, in popular culture. Ironically, the job itself takes so much time and energy, it keeps you isolated from what’s going on in the world,” he says. “It’s intense—a lot of hours, a big cast, and a lot of writers. I will also say that it’s really fun—easily as fun as I expected it to be.”

Kyle Gass

When Kyle Gass was voted class clown during his senior year at Las Lomas High in Walnut Creek, he accepted the award like a badge of honor.

“I think I was the only one to run,” says Gass, 45. “I was always being the funny guy in class and in school plays. I realized, ‘These might be my only skills. Let’s see if they can pay the bills.’ ”

Along with his cohort in comedy, actor Jack Black, Gass is currently in Hollywood putting the finishing touches on the soundtrack for Tenacious D in The Pick of Destiny. The feature film, due out in November, chronicles the adventures of the rock duo Tenacious D (think heavy metal Abbott and Costello with heaps of potty humor) that Gass and Black created for HBO in 1999. The series of short films developed a cult following for the then unknown actors.

“When the first short was on, they showed it at midnight. I thought, ‘I wonder how many people saw that—probably not many,’ ” Gass recalls. “But the next morning I went out for a walk, and there was this one jogger on the trail. As he jogged by, he stopped and said, ‘Weren’t you on that HBO thing last night?’ ”

Building on the success of the shorts, Tenacious D’s live concerts drew crowds at venues like San Francisco’s Warfield Theatre. Its self-titled 2001 CD was a smash, as was the DVD Tenacious D: The Complete Masterworks, which features an entire concert at London’s Brixton Academy Theater. Gass and Black rock the historic house with numbers like “Wonderboy,” “Kielbasa,” and, ahem, “F*** Her Gently” as a packed house of delirious Brits sing along to every word.

“Surreal is a good word for it,” Gass says of his rock stardom. “You just feel like you’re the guy from Walnut Creek who got let in the back door.

”Tenacious D has shared concert bills with rock gods like the Foo Fighters and Neil Young, and even with the Rolling Stones of comedy rock, Spinal Tap. “We put together a benefit for a rare mitochondrial disease that Jack’s sister thought she had,” he says. “But then it turned out she didn’t have it; we went ahead and did the benefit.

”While Black was becoming one of Hollywood’s hottest leading men, starring in such films as Shallow Hal, School of Rock, and King Kong, Gass created a second band, Trainwreck. “We’re 43 percent humor and 57 percent rock, with just a sprinkling of country,” he explains. “The Wreck” frequently tours music clubs when “The D” is on hiatus. “It’s just fun to play for people; [it’s] a good outlet to go out and play live.”

Gass visits his family in Alamo frequently and likes returning to his old stomping grounds. His parents get his humor, but Gass realizes that the gleeful vulgarity of Tenacious D is not for everyone. He offers this advice to the parents of today’s class cutups: “Continue avoiding The D at all costs, and just let your kids enjoy it.”

Carlos Alazraqui

Deputy James Garcia of the Reno sheriff’s department is only as funny as Carlos Alazraqui makes him. Alazraqui plays Garcia on Reno 911!, the Comedy Central spoof of Cops and other crime reality shows. The Concord-raised actor is enjoying his third season playing the overzealous deputy, who is quick to beat up mimes and harass the city’s good citizens. The show has been such a hit on cable and DVD that a feature film is in the works.

Reno 911!’s unscripted, fully improvised, documentary style is a dream gig for a comic actor. “[The show’s creator] gives us templates and scenes, but everything else comes from us,” says Alazraqui. “When all the actors get together, I feel lucky to be a part of it.”

Besides Reno 911!, Alazraqui has been seen on recent episodes of Men Behaving Badly and That ’70s Show.

Alazraqui is a 20-year veteran of stand-up and acting gigs. His big break was winning the prestigious San Francisco International Stand-Up Comedy Competition in 1993, but he’s most famous for providing the voice of the Chihuahua in the “Yo Quiero Taco Bell” ad campaign.

His Argentinean family immigrated to the U.S. in 1959 and moved to Concord in 1963. Alazraqui has always been able to make people laugh, especially with his range of funny voices. “While I am Latin, I’m not limited to just doing Latin voices,” he says. Alazraqui has voiced characters for Fox’s Family Guy, Pixar’s Finding Nemo and A Bug’s Life, and Nickelodeon’s SpongeBob SquarePants, and he’ll be heard in the November feature Happy Feet, starring Robin Williams.

Laurie Kilmartin

When Laurie Kilmartin was a student at Concord’s Catholic Carondelet High School, she didn’t consider writing jokes about taboo topics like sex to be a viable career option.

“I wasn’t having any sex, so I certainly wasn’t able to make jokes about it. Thanks to Sister Eleanor, I graduated a virgin,” says Kilmartin, 40. “I was funny with a few friends, but I was too shy and weird to try and make my classmates laugh.”

Today, the former shy virgin is a veteran stand-up comic and TV writer who makes her living by cracking jokes about sex, being a white woman in her Harlem neighborhood, and political correctness in the post-9/11 world.

“You become a comic when your brain starts analyzing things and breaking them down to make strangers laugh,” says Kilmartin, who was lured into the stand-up world by watching Dana Carvey slay audiences at San Francisco’s long-gone Other Cafe. At 22, she tried an open-mike night at Fubar’s comedy club in Pleasant Hill, where she “killed” in front of an audience packed with her friends and family. She was hooked for life.

Over the last 18 years, Kilmartin has developed a voice that balances creativity and, when called for, crudeness. Her swift, smart, and brutally honest delivery has earned her headliner status in comedy clubs across the country and on USO tours, and a performance on ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel Live. She currently writes for Nickelodeon’s Search for the Funniest Mom in America. She’s also been a writer for Comedy Central’s Tough Crowd with Colin Quinn, Too Late with Adam Carolla, and the Late, Late Show with Craig Ferguson.

Despite her success, her hometown Carondelet crowd still doesn’t “get it.” “When I started making a living doing stand-up, I was invited to speak at career day, but no one asked me any questions,” Kilmartin recalls with a laugh. “They were more interested in a community theater chick who knew some soap opera star."

Brian Copeland

Brian Copeland is the consummate communicator, finding outlets for his humor in radio, TV, magazines, and comedy clubs. Bay Area fans have known about him for years—Copeland has been doing stand-up comedy on local stages since he was 18—but his success with a poignant one-man show at San Francisco’s The Marsh Theater has brought Copeland a new level of fame.

Not a Genuine Black Man is the intimate story of Copeland’s experience growing up as a member of one of the first African American families in San Leandro. Copeland plays 31 characters, ranging from the racist landlord who harassed his family to a beloved grandmother. His performance touches on issues of race, abuse, and alienation, and has moved crowds of all racial and cultural backgrounds.

Copeland, who snuck into comedy clubs with a fake ID as a teen, rose to local celebrity status after working for years as a Mornings on 2 cohost and as a talk show host on KGO radio. Copeland wrote his one-man show after receiving a letter from an African American listener who said he was disgusted by Copeland’s voice, because Copeland wasn’t a “genuine” black man. “I am able to use all the tricks in my bag,” Copeland says. “I have been a writer all my life. I am able to use what I learned in talk radio along with my years of stand-up comedy.” The show was also influenced by advice from comedy legend Carl Reiner, who encouraged Copeland to write from his own experiences.

Not a Genuine Black Man was originally scheduled to play for six weeks in 2004, which was long enough for Copeland to score deals with HBO and Hyperion Press. Audience reaction has been so positive that the show is still playing, making it the longest running one-man show in San Francisco theater history. In May, Copeland is taking his show to New York, and he expects his collection of Bay Area tales will be just as effective on Broadway. “The show takes place here [in the East Bay],” he says, “but you don’t have to live here to get it, any more than you’d have to be from Texas to get Dallas.”

Judah and Murray Miller

Judah and Murray Miller have always made people laugh.

When they were growing up in Alamo, their venues were limited to the Stone Valley Middle School lunchroom and Monte Vista High School pep rallies. For the past five years, however, the brothers Miller (Judah is 32, Murray, 29) have been writing for television shows including the MTV Movie Awards, The Tracy Morgan Show, Committed, and their current project, the Fox comedy Stacked. The Millers put offwriting jokes for the Pamela Anderson vehicle long enough to chat with Diablo.

Do you guys remember when you first started writing comedy?

Murray: I was in fifth grade, and there was a mandatory speech contest. I think the theme was “your hero.” I wrote something ridiculous about Juan Valdez [the fictional coffee-grower from Colombian coffee commercials]. It got me pretty far in the contest—to the regionals or something. Which was amazing looking back, because it was really stupid—and probably racist.

Judah: For me, it was also the speech contest at Stone Valley. I messed up my hair and did some 10-year-old’s observational stand-up about the horrors of picture day. I made it to the final round of regionals and then looked ridiculous going up after a girl who did an emotional speech about her brother dying. I am still outraged that they don’t have a comedy category.

When did you two decide to write your first script?

M: We had both written some stuff independently and with other people, and were both thinking about TV writing. One night while I was picking something up from Judah’s apartment, he mentioned something that happened to him that he thought would be a funny story. It jibed perfectly with what they were doing on Curb Your Enthusiasm, which had just started. So we outlined the script that night and wrote it quickly over the next week. Our sensibilities just clicked for some reason—maybe because we’re related. Anyway, we sent it out, agents liked it, we signed with one and immediately got a job. That was a great two weeks.

Is one Miller the practical, structured voice and the other the zany gag guy?

M: I’d say it’s more complicated. I always think that I’m the “zany gag guy,” and Judah keeps me grounded. But then he’ll pitch something that I can’t even wrap my head around, that’s so fantastic and out of left field and just makes me laugh. But then I have to be the responsible one who goes, “We can’t write that.”

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