Tuesday, January 19, 2021
Arts + Culture Performance Too much turmoil? Try some 'Nice Jokes for Smart...

Too much turmoil? Try some ‘Nice Jokes for Smart People’

With a new album (and a new baby), comedian Arthur Gaus talks about his refreshingly relatable style


There’s a good chance Nice Jokes for Smart People, the first comedy album from Arthur Gaus, is one of the last live albums that will be recorded this year.

The San Francisco comic recorded the set that comprises Nice Jokes at the Setup on Hyde Street on March 6, 2020. “Then after the late show, the bar was hustling people out, which is uncommon,” he says. “Because you know, bars—they’re willing to take your money until the crack of two in the morning, usually.”

San Francisco County issued a shelter-in-place order ten days later—the same day as the birth of Gaus’s first child.

“For me it feels like I’m doing what I would be doing [otherwise],” Gaus says as the new baby wails distantly though the phone. “If there wasn’t a pandemic I’d still be taking care of the baby all the time.”

Plenty of great comedy albums gain their power from the circumstances under which they were recorded—Tig Notaro opening Live with “hello, I have cancer” four days after her diagnosis, Richard Pryor bringing the Sunset Strip to its knees during his first performance after his suicide attempt. Nice Jokes for Smart People is an unusual case in that it was recorded before a tumultuous change in the comic’s life.

Though Nice Jokes is inherently sad because it documents the calm before the storm, Gaus’s style doesn’t exactly paint a thin line between tragedy and comedy. His style is lighthearted and not especially dark or dirty, delivered in a frenetic fumble of words in which whole sentences are compressed into a couple worried syllables. 

He obsesses over America’s bizarre fixation with using football fields as a system of measurement. He uses the bumper sticker “Namaste, Bitches!” to explore a theoretical world of hidden violence under Berkeley’s sweet hippie façade.

He goes out of his way not to mention Donald Trump in his standup. He gives two reasons for this. The first: “I have 45 minutes, I could have done the Donald Trump album. Or I could talk about everything else that I think is worth ridiculing other than Donald Trump.”

The other is that—even though “if you listen to the record, you can figure out pretty easily that I think Donald Trump is like an illiterate ape”—he wouldn’t want to alienate a listener who wouldn’t give him the time of day if they knew that for sure.

“If somebody’s driving in their car in Tulsa, Oklahoma and hears me say the word Donald Trump, they’re automatically going to form an opinion about who I am,” he says. “He takes up so much oxygen.”

Gaus made Nice Jokes for Smart People with a broad audience in mind, but he describes himself as a “San Francisco comic.” This is true both of his standup routine, in which he discusses being born in the Haight and living in the Sunset with the sharp eye of a longtime local, and of the environment in which he cut his comedy teeth.

“When I was a kid, there was a show on PBS called Comedy Tonight,” Gaus says of his start. “And it was during the San Francisco ‘80s standup boom. I would watch it with my parents and I thought it looked rad, so I kind of always had it in mind that I would give it a try sometime. And then when I turned 18, I found out there were places you could do that.”

He calls himself a “go-to opener” for big comics when they come to the city, including Ed Helms, John Oliver, David Spade, and the “ultimate San Francisco comic” Will Durst.

“People used to tell me I needed to do something on my own, but I felt like there wasn’t like a whole lot of outlet for that,” Gaus says. “All my comedy friends were moving to LA, and I didn’t want move to LA because my home is San Francisco. And so I felt like I could just work and just enjoy it for its own sake.”

He dislikes touring (“I hate airports,” he says) and made Nice Jokes in part as a way to get his jokes out to the world without having to do the “road-dog thing.” He’s done a couple Zoom shows and outdoor gigs, but he finds coming up with material difficult now that the flow of interactions and everyday experiences that lead to great comedy have more or less dried up. 

“You’re supposed to be able to offer commentary on what’s happening right now, but what’s happening right now is this giant pandemic that’s kept me offstage. I haven’t been able to write or work out new material, really. So I’m kind of getting a laugh talking about a world that doesn’t exist anymore.”

Nice Jokes for Smart People is available here. Catch Arthur Gaus live Fri/27 as part of Black Friday Maniac Bowl XVIII

Daniel Bromfield
Daniel Bromfield is a San Francisco native and arts journalist whose work has appeared in the Bay Guardian, San Francisco Magazine, Resident Advisor, and various music sites. He ran the SF Rebirth blog, documenting all-ages shows in the Bay Area, from 2010 to 2013. His work can be found at danielbromfield.com

More by this author

Albums of the Year 2020: An experimental bent seized the isolating zeitgeist

Deep reggaeton, sonic healing, coatcheck ambient, hyperkinetic crust punk covers... and Ariana Grande? It was a wild ride inside

Too much turmoil? Try some ‘Nice Jokes for Smart People’

With a new album (and a new baby), comedian Arthur Gaus talks about his refreshingly relatable style

Don’t be alarmed by Squadda B’s lanky arms

Oakland rapper-producer releases a one-two punch: two smoked-out albums that reflect both sides of the pandemic

SF’s Field Medic talks Joni Mitchell, addiction, and latest album ‘Floral Prince’

Plus: Thoughts on keeping yourself company, and the vulnerability that came from cutting out the album's bangers.

Star producer Ricky Reed steps back from the mic on ‘The Room’

Grammy-winning beatmaker talks life after notorious electro project Wallpaper., and how catching up with friends morphed into new album.

Most read

Taxi drivers, disability-rights advocates oppose new Market St. traffic plan

Plus: UC Regents vote on huge new project -- and Willie Brown's Chronicle column will quietly disappear. That's The Agenda for Jan 19-26

SF COVID vaccine: Sign up to be notified when you’re eligible

Find out via email or text when you can contact your health provider (or public system) to get vaccinated.

Newsom budget hurts environmental justice programs

Shouldn't utilities -- not communities of color -- be paying for better fire prevention?

Bay View editor may take legal action against private prison company

Keith Malik Washington charges that the Federal Bureau of Prisons and the Geo Group retaliated after he contacted a reporter about a COVID outbreak in a halfway house.

You might also likeRELATED