Five minutes before showtime, in a large dark room in Palo Alto last Saturday, a black and white poster of a woman shushing with a finger over her lips stared down a crowd of 75 people. This was Don’t Tell Comedy South Bay, the local chapter of a young nationwide group that aims to change the way that people get their dose of standup comedy.
The premise of Don’t Tell Comedy is simple: Expensive comedy clubs, which often require two-drink minimum purchases and are impersonal, are not the best place to watch or perform standup. The mind behind Don’t Tell, Kyle KA, found a rather Airbnb-esque workaround: They would host comedy shows in people’s apartments and small businesses. These smaller, intimate venues provide a more pleasant experience for both the comedians and audience. Combine that with an inexpensive ticket and the tantalizing element of secrecy (you don’t know who’s performing until you arrive), and you get one great night out.
Before the second show of the night, the comics sat in the green room, discussing Don’t Tell Comedy and its unique venue selections. Joey Avery, listed in the SF Chronicle’s Bay Area Comics to Catch, mentioned that although comedians traditionally prefer rooms that are “dark, with low ceilings, and [that] look cool,” Don’t Tell goes above and beyond that. Aviva Siegel, a comic from Oakland recently featured in SF Sketchfest, agreed with Avery, but followed up with her favorite Don’t Tell location: the backyard of a Palo Alto mansion. Oftentimes, the most memorable shows happen in the most bizarre of settings.
Siegel and Avery agreed that the first show of the night was terrific. Ballmer walked into the green room and mentioned that all the “shows in Palo Alto have been great, generally there isn’t a ton going on in town at night, so crowds are generally super excited about the shows and come ready to laugh.” Before the innovation of Don’t Tell, it was hard to put on comedy shows in places that weren’t big cities. Without much nightlife, Palo Alto is prime location for this format of show. “Originally we were just going to have a 7 p.m. show, but we sold out over a month in advance, so the guys in LA suggested we add another. That sold out, too.”
Finally, it was time for the late show. The fantastic lineup of six comedians emerged from the green room and took turns on stage in an empty TV studio near the Googleplex. The first comedian to open the night was Peter Ballmer, Stanford ‘16, a regular in the Bay Area comedy scene. Beyond performing, he was also the host and producer of the show. A year ago, he met Kyle KA at a show, and the two agreed to test out the Palo Alto area. After many successes, Ballmer is now in charge of all Don’t Tell Comedy shows in the South Bay.
Ballmer opened the show riffing on how video games have changed. He joked that the new video games are too real — he recently killed a villain in a game just to have the villain’s son emerge from the next room and cry over his father’s body: “I’m not trying to get PTSD from a video game.” Next up was Avery, who had a killer bit on how arriving to the club in a limo was old news. Instead, he “rolls up in an ambulance. That’s 10 grand each way.” This probably hit too close to home for the Stanford students in the crowd who had been transported before. Up third was Siegel, who brought the house down on a joke about her childhood bully, who had cancer. She joked that most bullies only made fun of other kids because they had bullies themselves, and that for her bully, “His was God.”
Besides Ballmer, Avery and Siegel, all of whom are Bay Area residents, Don’t Tell also brought up three comics from LA. One, Matt Curry, started his set by convincing a heckler that his “cartoon villain” mustache was real. Once the heckler calmed down, he was able to slide into his deadpan but hilariously funny routine on how he, as a vaper, is constantly disrespected. One particular issue that grinded his gears was how the media lambasts vaping companies for making flavors that target kids, such as strawberry or blueberry. He joked that those flavors appealed to everyone, and asked what “adult vaping flavors are. Roast beef?”
The next comic from LA was Kelly McInerney, who delivered an amazing set, covering many topics, but mainly focusing on her relationship status. In one of her bits, she joked that her expectations of a romantic partner have lowered since she was a child. Instead of a “prince,” all she’s looking for now is someone “who’ll text [her] ‘hey’ during the daytime.”
Finally, the headliner of the show emerged: JC Currais was recently a main figure in the Amazon Studio’s documentary series “Inside Jokes,” which followed top rising comedians as they attempt to make it to the Just For Laughs comedy festival in Montreal. For over 30 minutes, JC had the crowd at his mercy, using physicality and funny voices to make people laugh until no sound came out.
One story that JC told was when a fellow passenger on a plane brought an emotional support parrot, or as JC described it, “an art school pigeon.” Apparently, the bird freaked out the entire five-hour flight, to the point where “even the babies on the flight wanted the bird to shut up.”
After the show, the comedians went outside to say goodnight to and take pictures with the guests. I spoke with Ballmer, who reminisced on his time at Stanford. He used to produce shows on campus and in Palo Alto, and had even booked Joey Avery to come to his fraternity one time. The two joked about that show, and how the crowd exploded in applause when Avery mentioned that he, too, was a Sigma Chi in college. Overall, Ballmer is optimistic for the future of Don’t Tell, and plans to host many more shows in Palo Alto. As students in a university often criticized for “being in a bubble,” Don’t Tell offers an exciting off-campus excursion where you can connect with both the audience and the performers.
If you have any interest in hosting a comedy show in your house or dorm, you can email Peter Ballmer at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Contact Jack Greenberg at jackbg ‘at’ stanford.edu.
Editor’s Note: This article has been edited for clarity.