.Comic Relief

Bay Area standup Brian Copeland mines the Trump era for laughs, empathy

MAKING LEMONADE: Brian Copeland, right, and Charlie Varon pull sweet levity out of a sour political climate.

When Brian Copeland moved from Birmingham, Ala. to San Leandro, Calif. at age 8 in the early 1970s, the town, which borders Oakland, was 99 percent white. Copeland, who’s black, experienced racial profiling and affronts from his white landlords, neighbors, schoolmates and police.

After surviving childhood and finding his voice through theater, comedy and talk radio, Copeland experienced another affront—this time from African-American audience members or radio listeners who accused him of not being a “genuine black man.”

It’s a story he shares with audiences in his acclaimed one-man-show Not a Genuine Black Man, which premiered in San Francisco 15 years ago, and which Copeland still regularly performs to sold-out crowds.

Not a Genuine Black Man is one of several hit one-man-plays Copeland has written and performed in the last two decades that address personal and political issues. His latest is The Great American Sh*t Show with Charlie Varon, which comes to the Tabard Theater on Aug. 15.

In fifth grade, Copeland was introduced to theater, and he began performing in the school musical every year. The plan was for him to become a lawyer when he graduated from high school, but fate intervened when Tommy Thomas, better known as Tommy T, opened the original Tommy T’s Comedy Club about a mile from Copeland’s house.

Copeland was already a fan of comedy—using a fake ID to get into clubs in San Francisco—and he approached Thomas about performing at an open mic.

“He said, ‘I’ve got a comic who’s sick tonight, can you do 15 minutes?’ And I go, ‘Sure,'” Copeland says. “Because I was 18 and stupid enough to think I could do anything.”

Still, he got laughs and walked off the stage hooked.

“I gave myself one year with comedy,” says Copeland, who took a leave of absence from school and quit his day job when he was 20 years old. “I never went back.”

He worked his way up through the Bay Area comedy scene to become a headliner, and often hit the road to open for performers like Aretha Franklin, Dionne Warwick, Ray Charles, Natalie Cole and other legendary artists.

At the same time, Copeland made a name for himself on the radio, turning guest spots on KGO into a regular weekend program, The Brian Copeland Show, which debuted in 1994 and was for years the most listened-to radio show in its time slot. In the mid-2000s, Copeland also did a weekly commentary feature for the station called Copeland’s Corner.

In The Great American Sh*t Show, Copeland and actor-writer Charlie Varon trade monologues about their experiences over the last three years.

Varon and Copeland first met in 2004, when Copeland was working on Not a Genuine Black Man. “There’s this fascinating moment when an artist discovers something, finds some new truth, some new way of speaking about reality,” says Varon. “For Brian, it’s both personal and political. He’s got this incredible cocktail of standup comedy, personal storytelling and a sensibility that is his and his alone. He’s able to encapsulate pain and absurdity in the same breath.”

Varon calls The Great American Sh*t Show a complete accident, which came about after he heard Copeland tell a story onstage about being called the n-word for the first time in years, the day after the 2016 election—the epithet flew from the mouth of a guy driving a Prius. “An environmentalist and a racist,” Varon laughs. “All I know is, I left the theater a different person after hearing Brian’s monologue.” He approached Copeland about collaborating on a full show about life in the Age of Trump, and the two developed the show to say all the things they’ve been feeling since November 2016.

While The Great American Sh*t Show also touches on topics ranging from the #MeToo movement to the separation of families at the border, it’s not all about despair. The show is cathartic. “The show brings people together to acknowledge what we’re living through (and) how unprecedented it is, and to affirm that we can take action and work to change the situation,” Varon says.

The Great American Sh*t Show
Aug 15, 8pm, $32+
Tabard Theatre, San Jose


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