Larry “Bubbles” Brown is a San Francisco-based stand-up comedian who holds the record of appearing on David Letterman’s Late Show twice – 20 years apart. Some call this longevity while others have labeled it as “pathetically hanging on.”
Either way, Bubbles is a local comedy icon, one of the old-timers who has survived in a tough game for almost 30 years. He has worked Bay Area comedy clubs, one-nighters and Las Vegas high-paying gigs with other great San Francisco comedians like Rob Schneider, Bobby Slaton and Dana Carvey.
Brown has appeared on over 25 TV shows, several times on the San Francisco-based show Trauma, and was also in the 2007 movie The Kite Runner. He performs in clubs mainly in California and Las Vegas because flying terrifies him even though he was a certified glider pilot before doing stand-up.
We sat down with “Bubs” recently to pick his brain about living on the edge of fame for so long. Although we invited him to lunch several times, he nicely but firmly declined, saying he never eats in restaurants and chairs in most public places are a breeding ground for major diseases.
Northside S.F.: How did you get into the stand-up comedy game?
Brown: If it’s a game, I’m losing! I always wanted to be a comic, but I didn’t know how to get into it. I used to watch Carson all the time, and I was fascinated by stand-up, and I loved Jonathan Winters, and was very influenced by local comics like Bobby Slayton and Jeremy Kramer. And then I almost got on the Carsonshow after doing stand-up for three years. One of Carson’s people saw me performing at Comedy Day in 1984. He liked me, so they brought me down to L.A. I took a meeting at NBC and Ed McMahon stuck his head in the door. I was going through my set, and it went really well. But when I did my final run through, I bombed, and that killed it. Back in those days, if you could get on that show, it could change your career rather quickly. I really wanted to do it, but I wasn’t ready.
Northside S.F.: How did you get your first shot on Letterman?
Brown: They had a big audition at the old Cobb’s on Chestnut Street. I remember I was working at the Punchline that night, so I had to run over between shows to audition, and the crowd was wild, and I did very well. I did the audition in ’85, but it took two years before they put me on the show. It was a draining process. Rob Becker was the only one who made the show from that audition. Steven Pearl, Rick Reynolds, Monty Hoffman, and Dr. Gonzo auditioned but didn’t get on the show.
Northside S.F.: When do you think comedy really became huge in San Francisco?
Brown: Bob Goldthwait came to town in 1983, and the next year the Chronicle did a cover story in the pink section about him, and between that article and the emergence of Alex Bennett with his radio show featuring comics, that kind of jump-started the comedy scene in San Francisco. In March 1984, Goldthwait did a show at Cobb’s, and there were two sold-out shows with people lined up around the block. I opened for him that night, and all of a sudden we started making money, and that’s when things took off. Bobcat and Bennett were the forefathers, I believe.
Northside S.F.: So you got to the point where it was a career?
Brown: If you call it that. In 1984, I was able to quit my day job, and I haven’t really worked since. I was making a decent living, so it was good. I was hoping things were going to break after Letterman, but it never happened. There were a lot more comics doing Letterman back then, so it really didn’t open doors like Carson could have. The mistake I made back then is that I should have moved to L.A. after Letterman, but I stayed here. I don’t like to fly, so I stayed local, and that might have hindered my progress. Everyone who was doing well up here eventually moved down there because [of] TV and movies. Nothing happens up here.
Northside S.F.: I’ve heard some strange stuff about you over the years. Is it true you can tell people the day of the week they were born?
Brown: What’s your birthday?
Northside S.F.: August 31, 1958
Brown: It’s a Sunday.
(Writer’s note: I checked it out later, and he was correct!)
Northside S.F.: Is it true you eat the same thing every day?
Brown: Who told you that? I admit, I do have a very limited diet. I eat veggie burgers, a little pasta, and I wash it down with gallons of Diet Pepsi. That’s about it.
Northside S.F.: How come you don’t get scurvy?
Brown:There is a surprising amount of Vitamin C in the Diet Pepsi.
Northside S.F.: And you never eat at restaurants because you’re germ phobic? And you recently told me you don’t sit down in a public place, either.
Brown: True. The last place I ate at was the Brazen Head in the Marina, which I frequented back in the eighties. It’s very close to my apartment, so the drill was take a girl to the Brazen Head and then walk back to my place to watch a tape of the first Letterman appearance. That was my seduction technique, and it worked more then you’d imagine. And I don’t sit in public. Those seats are petri dishes for so many diseases – so I stand.
Northside S.F.: So between the two appearances on Letterman, how much time did you perform total?
Brown: The first one was four minutes, forty seconds, and the second one was six minutes, so if I look at it that way, I have four minutes, twenty seconds left of my fifteen minutes of fame. Unless you count the thirty seconds I was on the screen during the film [The] Kite Runner.
Northside S.F.: What was your worst gig in nearly three decades on stage?
Brown: One time I did a show at a restaurant called Jeremiah’s in Santa Rosa and they had comedy in the basement, which is usually a bad sign. Right before I got onstage, someone came down and said, “Don’t panic, but there’s a small fire upstairs.” I literally hurdled over the guy to get out of that basement, and we all stood outside of the place while it burned to the ground. The show was pretty much done at that point.
Northside S.F.: Who is your favorite up-and-coming comic, and what would you say to people who are thinking of getting into stand-up comedy?
Brown: There’s a kid in town named Andrew Norelli, and he will be a star one day, so watch for him. Advice to fledgling comedians? Flee in horror!
Northside S.F.: What are your long-term goals?
Brown: I’m not qualified to do anything else at this point except maybe be a greeter at Walmart, so I’ll guess I’ll keep punching away at the jokes.
Bubbles performs at the Punchline Comedy Club in San Francisco with Johnny Steele and Steven Pearl on Nov. 10.