The Substitute

Local comic Brent Weinbach mines racial quirks and elementary school classrooms for his sidesplitting material.

Comedian Brent Weinbach runs his finger down the long list of milk teas at San Francisco’s Bubble Zone and debates whether to get avocado or green bean flavor. “Is it nasty?” he asks. “I’m into that.” He finally chooses avocado, and watches raptly as the barista mashes the plump green fruit in a blender, stirs in a few squirts of bottle-green syrup, and pours the mixture over a viscous cluster of tapioca balls. “I like nasty stuff,” he reiterates, poking a giant pink straw through the cup’s plastic lid.

Bubble Zone is one of those hypermodern, Hong Kong-style milk tea joints where each table is equipped with matching accoutrements: a set of daisy-covered salt and pepper shakers and a sloped chair with three triangles carved into the back. Weinbach sits next to the oxygen bar, where he can easily watch the music videos being broadcast from a small TV on the ceiling: pop stars skipping through Jolly-Rancher-colored landscapes, Tinker Bell teleporting her human lover to the land of fairies, a hip-hop star doing martial arts moves with one pant leg rolled up. Weinbach stares googly-eyed at the television until something else catches his attention: A waitress is gliding across the restaurant, balancing a tray carrying two Cokes and a huge bowl of vanilla ice cream about the size of a soup tureen. “What the hell is that?” he exclaims. “Dang, it looks like a mountain!”

If you’ve seen Weinbach perform stand-up, you might expect him to add, in a voice honed from two years of working in East Bay elementary schools, “Oh hell, nah. She doin’ too much.” Since he got into the substitute-teaching racket, he says, words like “dang” and “hell nah” have been permanently inscribed in his vocabulary. In fact, East Bay classrooms provide a lot of the grist for his comedy. It’s not every day you hear a skinny, square-looking guy in a cable-knit sweater rock the same slang as a fourthgrader from Oakland Unified. Dang.

Weinbach says he has always been into comedy, and that he used to do impressions of his friends’ parents in elementary school, which he later refined for the stages of Mingles, Kimball’s East, and the Stork Club. Apparently, his parodies of the mother of his childhood friend Max Livshits — a Russian émigré who always answers the phone “as though she’s in the middle of a very intense bowel movement” — had their genesis in a preteen’s sideways mind. After graduating from UC Berkeley’s film studies department in 2002, Weinbach began performing at San Francisco open mics like Brain Wash and the Java Source. He started off with some offbeat material about sexual frustration, which freaked people out and eventually got him banned from Mingles.

In any case, Weinbach decided to step up his game by trading the sex stuff for some skits he’d written about his adventures in substitute teaching. The new shtick worked: SOMA boho crowds loved it — probably because a few of them had dabbled in substitute teaching themselves. Weinbach’s impersonations of urban fourth-graders also found favor with mostly black crowds in Oakland. When he wormed his way back into a comedy showcase at Mingles just two weeks after getting the boot, the substitute teaching bits totally killed. “At first, the owner was really pissed to see me there, but when I got offstage that night, he shook my hand,” Weinbach recalls.

It’s the contrast between Weinbach’s stiff comedian persona and his hyperactive elementary school characters that give the substitute teaching jokes so much mileage. His album, Tales from the Brown Side, opens with a classroom skit in which he’s being heckled by a kid named Jamonica (pronounced Joe Monica): “Mr. Wein-back, Kevon said he gon’ stab me. Dang! You got hecka gray hairs!” Weinbach plays both the irascible fourth-grader and the dismissive, tight-assed sub — a burlesque caricature of who he is, in real life: It’s actually pronounced Wein-Bach, he responds. In German, it means ‘stream of wine.’

“You wouldn’t expect the voice of that kid to come out of this creepy, weird-looking person,” Weinbach says, adding that he generates a lot of material from eavesdropping on kids and trying to imitate their voices, while driving home from work, or gabbing on the phone later with his friend Scott. In fact, some of the funniest bits on Tales from the Brown Side are cribbed from real-life playground dialogues.

So much of Weinbach’s comedy is about poaching characters from real life and inhabiting them that you forget who you’re watching onstage. “I try to put enough passion into each voice that I become the character I’m imitating,” he says. By suspending the audience’s disbelief, Weinbach allows the character to take on a life of its own. In one of his bits, a swishy gay guy impersonates an even swishier gay guy; in another, a black comedian caricatures a nerdy white guy making an order at McDonald’s, and the nerdy white guy imitates a blithely oversexed black guy: Whenever a white person goes to McDonald’s, his order is simple, and to the point. Every time a black person goes to McDonald’s he’s all, ‘Uugggh! It smells like pussy up in here! Dang, girl, your pussy stank!’

“Yeah, it’s uh — kind of postmodern, huh?” the comedian offers.

Broken down to its components, every joke is virtually the same: a setup followed by a punchline and expanded with a “tag.” But comedians like Arj Barker go farther, taking their premise to absurd levels. Weinbach tries this tack in a lot of his bits — like, for instance, his “Student of Color” joke: The setup is that he’s visiting the UC Berkeley campus, and sees a Latino guy with a T-shirt that reads “Caution: Highly Educated Student of Color.” The punch line is that he misinterprets the message, wondering what’s so dangerous about someone who knows a lot about color. Weinbach then builds up the momentum by adding a one-liner — the tag — in which he quips: “I’m really into brown, but it’s never made me want to shank someone.” Then he elaborates even further, inventing outlandish situations: First, the student’s investigation of color drives him into a murderous rage (‘Sup, foo, watchu know ’bout purple?). But flash-forward a couple years, and the industrious Cal grad impresses a prospective employer with his knowledge of colors:

It says here on your résumé that you graduated from UC Berkeley with a degree in color.

Yeah yeah, you know, like, I did my thesis on orange, and lavender, and whatnot — feel me?

Well, it seems to me that you’re more than qualified for the position. Welcome to Crayola.

The coolest thing about the student of color joke — like the swishy gay guy joke, and the bit about Max Livshits’ mother always sounding as if she’s taking a dump — is that it lends itself so well to physical comedy. By acting out the part of the surly, knife-wielding grad student, and contrasting him with the fusty CEO of Crayola, Weinbach creates a humorous effect even for someone who might not see the relationship between an Educated Student of Color T-shirt and the diversity credo at Cal. This visual element — “the part of comedy that taps into your senses, but not your linguistic sense,” he says — is what’s lacking on his CD. Structured like a radio show, with Weinbach playing five different characters and plunking loungeish keyboard interludes between skits — incidentally, he’s also a professional jazz pianist — Tales from the Brown Side is done in a style that harks back to Joe Frank’s Tales from the Urban Jungle on KPFA. Like Frank, Weinbach speaks in a low, brooding voice that makes some jokes — particularly the ones about sexual frustration, defecation, or random gross-out biological functions — sound dark or acerbic, even though they’re funny when performed live.

Thus, despite the title’s not-so-subtle allusion to poop, Weinbach’s album has a pretty adult sensibility, which he finds a little disconcerting. “I think that adults like humor that’s smart, well written, and textual — what I mean by ‘textual’ is that if they read it, they would laugh,” he says. But the problem with those jokes is they require a learned brain, and there’s always a chance of someone not getting the setup and the punch line. “The comedy I write is geared more toward an audio and visual experience,” he says, adding that he likes to use accents or weird noises that are funny without having to be explained, or “jokes that take absurd turns and lead nowhere.”

Weinbach calls it “intellectual toilet humor.” After all, this comedian’s favorite jokes are the ones that require no explanation; he could kick them down for fourth- and fifth-graders in Oakland, and have the kids in stitches. One of Weinbach’s most memorable bits consisted of repeating the word “Prego” over and over, “until it became this blob. It just sounded funny,” he says.

In fact, the best joke happens when there is no joke: You don’t have to get it; you laugh anyway. To Weinbach, that’s comedy in its purest form.

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