Before he moved to L.A. with his girlfriend last March, comedian George Chen was steeped in Oakland and San Francisco's DIY scenes. During college and afterward — from about 1999 to 2011 — he booked and promoted noise and experimental shows in underground spaces, developing Club Sandwich, an all-ages collective that hosted shows in galleries and warehouses throughout the Bay Area. He'd never been to Ghost Ship, the DIY venue where 36 people perished in a fire in early December, but was intimately familiar with the type of place and he knew multiple people who were there that night.
“I did know quite a few people in the fire,” Chen says via email about the disaster that broke out during a showcase that was being held by house music label 100% Silk. “Friends, people I'd booked shows for, even a coworker. It was pretty devastating.”
The Ghost Ship fire — which is presumed to have resulted from a faulty electrical system — broke records to become Oakland's deadliest and the deadliest in California since the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. People escaped with haunting accounts of the mayhem and failed attempts to rescue friends. In the wake of such a massive tragedy, Chen admits that the idea of telling jokes was daunting.
“I had trouble even thinking about doing standup after this incident, and I'd only done a little bit after the election,” Chen says. “It does feel like the world is getting worse, and if you go by the formula of 'comedy equals tragedy plus time,' it feels like there's no benefit of time.”
Chen and several other L.A. comedians with ties to the Bay Area — Margaret Cho, Brent Weinbach, Chris Garcia, Caitlin Gill, Emily Maya Mills, Casey Ley and Anyi Malik — are doing a night of stand-up, organized by Improv booker and former Oakland resident Jamie Flam, to raise money for people who need relief after the fire but don't qualify for Red Cross funds, from friends and family members of the victims to artists who were calling the warehouse space home. Ubiquitous dance-pop duo YACHT also perform.
Back in 2011, Chen's involvement in the DIY scene extended to his burgeoning comedy career when he helped transform an Alameda-Contra Costa Transit District bus into a mobile comedy venue. An article in the East Bay Express that year said, “Chen wanted to put on shows that required a little less setup and cleanup than live music. Comedy was sort of a no-brainer. The increasing amount of crossover between the punk and comedy scenes guaranteed that bus comedy would have an audience.”
That crossover makes a comedy show a pretty ideal way to pay tribute to the victims. It'll be hard, but it'll be cathartic, too. “For comics, this is just how we process our emotions, and doing it with a community is way less lonely,” Chen says. “I went to a private gathering the Saturday after the fire and it just felt good to be around other people. People can be nicer to each other after terrible stuff happens. Anyone who's lost someone knows it feels weird to laugh during any form of grieving, but it also feels cleansing. I also remember going to see Pineapple Express right after my grandfather passed and just needing to feel something other than what I was feeling.”
Chen adds, “If I was still making noise music I'd pay tribute to the fire victims that way; this is just what I do now, and it has a better chance of raising money for that community.”
Oakland Benefit, The Improv, 8162 Melrose Ave., Hollywood; Fri., Dec. 23, 10 p.m.; $20. facebook.com/events/868888373248206.