"Look out! Here comes a herd of whales!" a student exclaims, and the entire class falls to the floor, flapping imaginary fins as they pull themselves across the studio floor to an outlandish chorus of groans.
Brian Crall opened the Sacramento Comedy Spot in 2005 as a stage for his own brand of comedy. It has grown from a handful of friends into a community of over 100 performers and countless students. (Sacramento State/Jessica Vernone)
The scene in Shasta Hall is part of a recent improvisation exercise led by Brian Crall, the founder and owner of the Sacramento Comedy Spot, who is guest speaking at a Sacramento State theater and dance class. In just over half an hour, Crall has the students impersonating animals, juggling imaginary babies, and cracking up at themselves and one another.
The Sacramento State theater graduate has made a living teaching and making people laugh, but this is no joke: Crall's world is the center of the Northern California comedy universe. Through his singular vision and determination, Crall has put Sacramento on the map as a destination for comedy, creating a vibrant scene that in the past decade has started to rival major markets like Chicago and Los Angeles.
Before Crall, Sacramento's comedy scene was all but nonexistent. The city's two venues had little stage time for local talent, favoring larger, national acts, and were exclusively stand-up clubs. There was no market, little interest, and no place for Crall's vision in early 2000s Sacramento.
"The only way that we could do what we wanted to do was to create our own stage," Crall says.
The entrepreneur and comedian studied improv with some of the most renowned performers in America, but when it comes to Sacramento comedy, the conversation starts with Crall.
The Sacramento Comedy Spot, which opened in 2005, is the first and largest comedy school in Northern California. Crall also founded the popular Sac Comedy Fest and a number of annual events, including a national stand-up competition. In addition, Crall's Sacramento Comedy Foundation, which he started in 2014, focuses on outreach and youth programs to expose kids to comedy and performing early in their lives.
In the Comedy Spot's early days, Crall struggled to get a handful of people to take a class; today, he teaches four of the school's five classes, each filled to capacity almost every week. Coupled with 13 years teaching improv with Sacramento State's Academic Talent Search programs, Crall has personally inspired and mentored hundreds of students of all ages.
"Brian's known me my entire adult life," says Comedy Spot cast member Michelle Daubner, who auditioned for Crall's first comedy outfit, the Free Hooch Comedy Troupe, when she was a high school senior. "So I look at Brian as sort of the older brother who's really cool but actually wants you to hang out with him."
What started as a collection of friends has grown into so much more in the past decade.
"What's funny is that all I wanted to do was create a space where we could experiment and do this kind of comedy that we wanted to do, but the best side effect was that we ended up building this huge community of performers and talent," Crall says. "The most important part of the Comedy Spot is bringing together all these people that normally wouldn't come together.
"People always say we're the cheapest therapy in town."
Brian Crall's vision came to life with a mixture of entrepreneurship and performance savvy, both of which he gained during his time at Sacramento State.
As a guest speaker in Professor Michelle Felton's Voice + Movement I class at Sacramento State, Brian Crall holds up an imaginary knife as he demonstrates an improv exercise to students. (Sacramento State/Jessica Vernone)
Crall was born in Ohio but moved to Sacramento as a kid. After high school, he enrolled at Sac State as a business major.
But in business, things never really clicked for him, and he took a semester off to do some soul-searching, reading books about everything from NASA moon missions to Charlie Chaplin. He then decided he wanted to be an astronaut; when that idea fizzled, he decided to re-enroll as a theater arts major, and that is when everything fell into place for the aspiring young performer.
"Then I had that college experience that I always wanted," Crall says. "When I was there, I was really close to a lot of professors. I made up for lost time; I auditioned for every play I could. I really jumped into everything Sac State at that point."
He became president of the Dramatist Society and started the club's own scholarship, raising money through various events including a "24-Hour Act-A-Thon" and "Chumba for Charity," during which Crall raised more than $2,000 by listening to '90s rock band Chumbawumba for 24 hours straight.
One particularly inspirational moment came during a class with Professor Emeritus Doniel Soto, who showed Crall a tape from one of his productions of Hamlet. In the video, students were leaping from 8-foot risers and fighting airborne battles before being caught by their peers below. Crall was captivated.
"That was a big moment," Crall says. "Everybody needs to have that moment in their life where they find something where it doesn't matter how much money you make, all that matters is that you're passionate about that thing, more passionate than you've ever been. For me, that was one of those moments: I realized, man, we could fly."
After college, a friend suggested to Brian that he try his hand at sketch comedy. As it turned out, he was pretty good at it, and he founded the Free Hooch Comedy Troupe with a handful of friends and colleagues.
Onstage at the Sacramento Comedy Spot, Brian Crall keeps the crowd laughing in between sets as host of one of the theater's monthly shows, "Comedy Mash-Up." (Sacramento State/Jessica Vernone)
While performing around town at hotels and bars, punchlines were often interrupted by noisy blenders, the incessant whirring of faux koi ponds, and any number of other distractions. The group soon realized they needed a place to call their own. In 2005, Crall put what little money he had into a small, 20-odd-seat space on Broadway with no heating or air conditioning: The Comedy Spot 1.0.
"It had a lot of character," Crall says. "We loved it; we got to experiment and figure things out. ... We learned so much because we had so much time to fail."
During those early years, Crall continued to hone his craft by visiting national comedy institutions like iO West (formerly ImprovOlympic) and by taking classes at legendary improv hub Upright Citizens Brigade in Los Angeles.
It was during those classes that Crall realized he wanted to bring the type of comedy being performed at Upright Citizens Brigade to Sacramento.
Slowly but surely, the venue raised money to paint a wall here, install a new light there. Then in 2008, a Sacramento Bee article put thousands of eyes on the venue, and soon after, Brian was in touch with the owner of the Midtown Arts Retail Restaurant Scene (MARRS) Building, negotiating a new space in one of the most popular up-and-coming parts of midtown. The 80-seat, 2,500-square-foot Comedy Spot 2.0 opened shortly thereafter on 20th Street between J and K streets.
The clean black and red interior, the wide yet intimate stage, and large black-and-white photos adorning the walls make one feel as if he or she is walking into a smoky, underground club in Chicago.
Brian's vision, it seemed, had arrived at last.
Friday night in October at the Comedy Spot is a crowded affair. The theater is packed, standing room only, with lines between shows wrapping down the outside boardwalk as passers-by pop in and out of the building's neighboring bars and restaurants.
Brian Crall has personally mentored hundreds of students in 10 years at the Comedy Spot and 13 years teaching with Sacramento State's Academic Talent Search programs. (Sacramento State/Jessica Vernone)
Inside the theater, a monthly show is in full swing: "Comedy Mash-Up," which tonight features an amalgam of sketch comedy, improv, and a host of diverse stand-up comedians. Peals of laughter cascade from the sold-out audience as the performers cycle onstage – vivacious, sometimes crude, and indelibly funny.
Tying the entire show together is Crall, who between sets introduces each act like a proud father, his eyes alight as he keeps the crowd going with a natural, charismatic rapport that belies years of experience under the brightest lights. The audience hangs on every word.
The Comedy Spot has grown from a handful of friends into a community of more than 112 performers and countless current and former students. Many regulars in the cast are former proteges of Brian's, either from ATS at Sacramento State or earlier Comedy Spot classes; many, like Daubner, have known Brian for over a decade. She says performing improv has been one of her most rewarding experiences.
"With improv, you have to rely on the people who are on your team with you, so there's this much stronger sense of community because you have to trust these people so much," Daubner says. "You have to know that if you step out, somebody's got your back, that the whole team is right behind you. ... These are my friends day in and day out."
So many students have been mentored by Crall, whose mantra, "Fail Big," is emblazoned in big block letters on the Comedy Spot's classroom wall. He has a way of making people of all walks of life feel at ease and that it is OK to make mistakes, to fail, to laugh at one's self, and to trust that your peers will catch you if you fall.
"I'm not selling future comedians, but what I am selling is just being comfortable with yourself and gaining confidence," Crall says. "Some of the best feedback has been from kids who are now adults that said that my class was the first time where they felt comfortable."
Crall teaches classes, performs in a handful of shows each month, and balances it all with raising his three children. His days start at 6:30 in the morning, when he makes the rounds to drop off his kids at their respective schools, and they often end long after 11 at night. Now more than ever, though, Crall is able to watch the scene that he helped create thrive on its own.
It's no wonder so many only half-jokingly call the Comedy Spot the cheapest therapy in town. If and when in the not-so-distant future, Sacramento is mentioned in the same breath as other renowned comedy cities, it will have Brian Crall to thank.
– John Blomster