A Eulogy for Brainwash Cafe

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It must have been 2009 that I first braved the line at The Brainwash. I remember it was cold, and I remember going with my friend from college who had never been to an open mic. I had been to mics before, but this one felt different. There was a clout behind it that had been built up by all of the people who, when asked where we should try to get stage time, all deferred to the laundromat on the corner of Folsom and Langton. I was something like the 40th comic to go up that night, after several hours of nervously drinking outside amongst the regulars, the old-timers, and the other young and hopefuls.

The guest host, who was filling in for “God-father of San Francisco comedy” Tony Sparks that night, told me that they were way over time, and after waiting nearly three hours I could only tell one joke. In the months (see: years) that followed, I spent nearly every Thursday night waiting for my name to be called. I watched people who had been at it for years continue to grind with unbelievable fortitude. I watched young bucks like myself cut their teeth on what was one of the most reliable rooms in town, open mic or otherwise. I watched weirdos and dirtbags and sometimes celebrities and future celebrities and forgotten celebrities and teenagers and senior citizens and friends share an art space attached to a laundromat that had beer on tap and rock solid cheese fries, which is maybe the most San Francisco sentence ever written. At least the most “Old” San Francisco sentence.

“God-father of San Francisco comedy” Tony Sparks at the Brainwash 18th Anniversary Party

The most “New” San Francisco sentence that I can write is the unfortunate truth: Local landmark and community hub is run out of business by a luxury real estate structure. This is exactly what happened to Brainwash this week. After nearly thirty years, they have closed their doors permanently. Business has been driven away by the drawn-out construction of 99 Rausch, a luxury apartment building on the same block. It was not a ceremonious death. There were no protests or rallies or crowdfunding campaigns; it, like the careers of so many comedians that graced the mic there, simply bled until there was nothing left. Now, the Brainwash is just another casualty on the list of San Francisco bars, landmarks and hangouts being pushed out in favor of the new and extravagant. It’s a sad story, and it’s one we hear all too often these days.

Brainwash Stage

I haven’t done comedy regularly for some time now, and it’s been years since I went to a mic at Brainwash, but the impact it left on the San Francisco comedy scene is still felt far and wide, and will not soon be forgotten. Some of my dearest friendships were forged in the hushed riffing shared in the light of the pinball machine in the back. If you know anyone from the SF comedy scene, your social media is likely peppered with folks fondly remembering the formative nights of their comedy careers. Those nights waiting for our name to be called were long and sometimes exhausting, but they felt exciting and weirdly important. And now, they are just a footnote in San Francisco’s new history books. At some point this week, pour one out for the immortal Brainwash Cafe.

Tile in Brainwash Cafe and Laundromat bathroom, San Francisco, CA
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Jesse McGrath

Jesse McGrath

Jesse McGrath is a writer, comedian, educator and all-around sweetheart. Born and raised in the Bay Area and educated at San Francisco State, he recently migrated out east to Brooklyn. English teacher during the day, full-time delinquent every time else.