If you were plugged into the stand-up comedy scene in the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1980s and 1990s, then you most likely remember The Alex Bennett Radio Show, where nearly all of the comics of the day appeared to promote their gigs.
If the name Alex Bennett does not ring a bell, you still may be interested in reading on — provided you have a passion for radio or interest in stand-up comedy.
The Alex Bennett Morning Show aired from 1980-1997 in various incarnations across several stations. For me, it remains my favorite radio show of all time.
Bennett had a successful career in New York radio for many years before hitting the San Francisco radio market in 1980, when he became the morning man on the rock station, “The Camel” (KMEL).
Between then and 1997, his show came on and off the air as he periodically switched ration stations. After KMEL, Bennett’s show aired on the short-lived but much beloved new wave station, “The Quake” (KQAK) followed by two different stints on “Live 105” (KITS).
At its peak, The Alex Bennett Show was one of the top-rated morning radio programs in San Francisco, and the media dubbed Bennett as the “King of Comedy” in recognition of his influence on the local comedy scene.
I first stumbled across Bennett in middle school around the time he started at KMEL, and I listened to him religiously all the way until the end of his run at Live 105 in 1997. Right from the start, I recognized I was hearing something different from the inane banter on the typical “morning zoo” radio program. In a very loose and often spontaneous format, Bennett would take calls from listeners, chat with his newsman (Joe Regelski), and interview guests, many of whom were local stand-up comics.
My earliest recollection of the show was hearing a voice like none I’d ever encountered before. The voice was abrasive and gravelly, with a New York accent and acerbic attitude. It belonged to a mile-a-minute motormouth — a young and bitingly funny comic … named Bobby Slayton (who is now considered one of the greatest club comics of all time).
Hearing Bennett and Slayton sparring together on the air, I was immediately hooked and became a daily addict — um, I mean listener.
Live Studio Audience
One of the hallmarks and unique aspects of The Alex Bennett Show was that Bennett performed the program in front of a live studio audience every day. Some of the studios Bennett worked in were tiny, but nonetheless, the station would cram in as many chairs as possible inside. Anyone was welcome to walk in off the street and watch the show. Often times, the studio was jam-packed with standing room only.
The show started at 6:00 AM, and at least half a dozen times over the years, I woke up in the wee hours of the morning to attend the show in person. My first visit may have been to The Quake, but I definitely watched the show at the Live 105 studio numerous times.
Sitting in the live studio audience was a total blast. On a typical day, as many as three comics might appear on the show (separately or together) along with any other interview guests who might happen to be on the schedule. The comics would riff with Bennett about the news of the day, talk to callers, and interact with audience members both during the show and over commercial breaks. It was as good or better as having a front-row seat at a comedy club.
Here are a couple of anecdotes I remember vividly from my visits to the studio, both of which happen to involve Slayton.
- My friend, Nico, had come along one morning, and he had picked up breakfast at McDonald’s. At a commercial break, Nico was eating his hash browns which were rectangular and said something like, “Food should not have a shape.” Slayton, just a few feet away, replied in his New York accent, “That’s funny, kid. You mind if I use that?” We never heard this bit in a routine, but I’d like to think he used the idea at some point.
- On another visit, where Nico and I had specifically visited the studio because Slayton was scheduled to be the featured guest, we were sorely disappointed to learn that he could attend only the first hour of the show (which ran four hours). Poor us, we would have to console ourselves with the secondary guest — some new, up and coming comic named … Dana Carvey. I don’t remember much of that show, but I am pretty sure our disappointment evaporated quickly and that we had a great time. (For anyone unaware, Carvey is a comedy genius who went on to find great fame on Saturday Night Live and in the movies.)
After getting to know comics on Bennett’s show, I would often go to comedy clubs with my friends to see our favorites. This was in the heyday of the comedy scene so shows were happening all the time, not only in San Francisco but throughout the Bay Area. To this day, not even the funniest Netflix comedy special can live up to my memories of the best shows we saw.
That said, I felt most comics were FUNNIER on the Alex Bennett Show (whether you were in the studio or listening on the radio) than they were in comedy clubs performing their standard sets. The freewheeling spontaneity of the show, with comics riffing off of each other (and Bennett acting as ringleader), was a recipe for comedy gold.
Breakfast with Bennett
About once a quarter or so on a Friday morning, Bennett would host a much larger “Breakfast with Bennett” show. Instead of doing the program as usual from the station, he would take the show on the road and do it at a comedy club or theater. The “Breakfast with Bennett” editions of the program were essentially big variety shows, with a live house band, comics doing 10-minute stand-up sets, and rock bands performing live.
I attended at least one of these shows in person, and they were great fun, although not quite the same high as being in the small radio studio for a “normal” show.
In any case, I doubt many other mainstream morning radio shows have regularly mounted such elaborate productions.
More comics than I could ever hope to remember were regular guests on The Alex Bennett Show.
Here were some of my favorites:
The 3 Bobs
Funnily enough, perhaps the three most popular comics in the show’s history were all named … Bob.
As far as I recall, Bobby Slayton was the first comic to appear on Bennett’s morning show in Francisco (on KMEL) … and arguably the funniest (or at least the most consistent). Slayton, who quickly became a popular headliner at local clubs, had an incredibly quick wit, which was well-suited to the free-form format of the show as well as to interacting with audiences at comedy clubs.
“The Pitbull of Comedy” (as he is often called) was famous for picking on audience members at clubs. If you were in one of the front rows, you had a big bulls-eye on your head and a pretty good chance at being the target of his jabs.
Sometimes, Slayton would get so distracted by “crowd work” that he wouldn’t do much of his actual comedy routine, which was a shame because his material was razor-sharp and often howlingly funny. I remember attending at least one show (probably at the Punchline) where he got so fixated on someone in the audience that he spent his entire set insulting them.
In the balance, however, you knew you were in for a treat if Slayton was scheduled to be on the radio show or the headliner at a club.
Before he went on to become a comic actor in movies like the “Police Academy” series and later an esteemed writer and director, Bobcat Goldthwait was a superstar in the San Francisco comedy scene. As far as I know, similar to many comics from that time, Goldthwait’s exposure on The Alex Bennett Show was a key to his success in the SF market.
Goldthwait had manic energy, and he screamed his material at the audience for much of his act. He was a force of nature on stage, and his shows were a wild ride. The only drawback was that, in my opinion, he had a signal to noise ratio problem. His material was really funny, but I usually wanted less yelling and more content from him (i.e. his act bordered on style over substance).
Bob Rubin (“The Old Rube”)
One of the hallmarks of the San Francisco comedy scene in the 1980s and 1990s was that cookie-cutter comedians were unlikely to break through and find success. Instead, the scene favored eccentric personalities with unique personas. Bob Rubin was perhaps the best example of this phenomenon. A hulking hillbilly of a man, with a mullet and a bushy beard, Rubin had off-kilter material and an idiosyncratic perspective. He was a true original.
Like Goldthwait, he was completely unpredictable and absolutely manic on stage but with a better balance of personality and material. When Rubin was at his best, I don’t know if I ever laughed harder at a comic.
Bubs and Feldo
Larry “Bubbles” Brown and David Feldman (known as “Feldo the Clown” in his early days) were quirky personalities and also best friends who often appeared together on air or on stage.
Bubbles took on a (possibly true to life) lovable loser persona and specialized in self-deprecating humor. His dark comedic style stood out from the crowd. Bennett liked him enough to make him the daily, in-studio traffic reporter towards the end of the show’s history. Brown is one of the comics featured in the documentary, 3 Still Standing, along with fellow Alex Bennett Show regulars, Will Durst and Johnny Steele.
In real life, Feldman leans to the far left politically, but he would get up on stage and blast the audience with absolutely politically incorrect jokes about politics, women and anything topical at the time. Anyone not in on the joke probably found his act appalling. But for anyone who realized that Feldman was adopting a persona, his routines could be pretty hilarious.
Tomcat & Proops
Tom Kenny was a good friend of Bobcat Goldthwait, and (if memory serves) they knew each other from the Boston comedy scene. Goldthwait introduced Kenny to The Alex Bennett Show where he first appeared under the nickname “Tomcat.” I don’t recall much of his material, but I do remember Kenny had a sharp wit and was one of my favorites at the time. You may know him better as the voice of SpongeBob SquarePants.
Greg Proops was an extremely popular comic on The Alex Bennett Show, and I remember him for his hipster humor and intellectual material. Most people probably know Proops as one of the regulars on the TV show Whose Line Is It, Anyway?
Bennett featured plenty of female comics as regulars on the show. I remember liking many of them, but they don’t stand out as much in my memory — perhaps because, sadly, not as many of them were headliners.
Here are a few of the names I do remember: Sue Murphy, Laurie Kilmartin, Sabrina Matthews, and Debi Durst. I also remember seeing Janeane Garofalo on stage during that era, so I suspect she also appeared on the radio show. By the way, Garofalo’s stand-up was awful at that time, so I was surprised at how much I grew to like her later in her career as a comic actress in movies and on TV. I’m also pretty sure Ellen DeGeneres appeared numerous times … and I remember seeing her perform as a newbie comic at La Val’s Pizza in Berkeley.
According to a quick Wikipedia search, Whoopi Goldberg and Margaret Cho also were guests on the show.
What About Robin?
Oddly enough, I don’t have any vivid memories of Robin Williams appearing on the program. However, a Google search dug up a YouTube video with a photo and audio from one of his appearances on The Alex Bennett Show.
When I was a regular comedy club patron in San Francisco, Williams was famous for dropping in unannounced at clubs (e.g. The Holy City Zoo) and doing guest sets. I always hoped that one day I would get lucky and catch him this way, but — sadly — I never won that lottery. I think the only time I saw Williams live on stage was at Comedy Day in Golden Gate Park.
Steven Pearl was cut from the same cloth as Robin Williams, and some people considered Pearl to be Williams’ equal. He had a mind which raced a million miles an hour, and it could be hard to keep up with him. Pearl’s IMDb biography compares him to “a tornado on amphetamines” — which sounds about right.
Warren Thomas (who died prematurely in 2005) was another fixture of The Alex Bennett Show and a reliably funny comic with his own unique spirit and humor. He won the San Francisco International Comedy Competition in 1987 and influenced a great many comics during his life.
Scott Capurro was one of the few openly-gay comics on Bennett’s show, and he had a special chemistry with Bennett. I seem to remember them constantly bickering back and forth (for the sake of laughs). Capurro went on to become very popular in the U.K. In recent years I’ve stumbled across him as a recurring guest on the Sarah & Vinnie’s Morning Show on Alice (KLLC).
A few regulars who were not stand-up comics stand out in my mind.
Mark Thompson was the weatherman on the local NBC affiliate, and he was a surprisingly engaging personality (with a great radio voice).
Ann Fraser and Ross McGowan, the hosts of the local “People Are Talking” TV show, had a light repartee with Bennett, and their appearances were always fun.
Penn Jillette (of Penn & Teller fame) was not only a regular (and larger than life) guest on The Alex Bennett Show, he was also — for many years — the guest host of the show when Bennett was on vacation. Nobody could fully replace Bennett as the conductor of the madcap orchestra, but Jillette was a great stand-in and brought incredible energy to the show.
Bennett also had a wide variety of guests from other fields (actors, directors, musicians, politicians, and even porn stars) on his program. Even without guests, Bennett was an engaging and compelling personality, whether he was talking about the news, movies, his romantic woes, or the latest technology he was adopting (mostly for his videography hobby).
However, the special mix of stand-up comics was the important element and unique elixir that made his show magic.
The H Word
During his reign on San Francisco radio, Bennett consistently bad-mouthed and belittled Howard Stern, claiming that Stern had copied his radio act after hearing Bennett on New York radio. (Stern grew up on Long Island.)
After Bennett was fired for the last time at Live 105, and his morning radio show came to an end, I started listening to the Howard Stern Show. Eventually, I got hooked and became a daily listener and a huge admirer of Stern as an entertainer. Stern says he never listened to Bennett, even though he does acknowledge other radio influences.
I won’t get in the middle of that disagreement too much, but I will say that, as I listened more to Stern, I did hear a lot which reminded me of the spirit and sensibility of The Alex Bennett Show.
Eventually, Bennett and Stern overlapped for a number of years at Sirius Satellite Radio. Since I was such a big fan of both radio icons, you can imagine how much I enjoyed the day on June 20, 2011, when worlds collided! That morning, Stern took a remote microphone and “crashed” the Alex Bennett Show live on air — and the “King of Comedy” finally met up with the “King of All Media.”
You can read more about it on the webpages below:
Where Are They Now?
I won’t detail their entire career histories, but here is where you will currently find some of the regulars I mentioned above.
Alex Bennett bounced around a bit but eventually landed at Sirius Satellite Radio for many years (doing left-wing political talk radio). Today, you can find him still talking away at GABnet.
David Feldman went on to a successful comedy writing career, winning multiple Emmy and WGA awards. He has a radio show on KPFK and also regularly publishes The David Feldman Show podcast. His podcast mostly features political talk, but old Alex Bennett Show favorites like Bobby Slayton and Larry Brown also appear periodically on the show (as does former Howard Stern Show sidekick, Jackie “The Jokeman” Martling).
Bobby Slayton has had a few movie roles (notably he played Joey Bishop in “The Rat Pack”), but he never got his big break in TV or film. Instead, he remained a working club comic and still performs to this day. He lives in Southern California, but still occasionally headlines at the Punchline in San Francisco. I’ve enjoyed listening to his appearances on podcasts from David Feldman and Mark Thompson (see below).
Mark Thompson moved to Southern California where he continued his TV work and established a successful voice-over career. You can listen to his infrequent but entertaining podcast at The Edge.
Larry “Bubbles” Brown still regularly performs stand-up comedy today and sometimes opens for Dana Carvey (as I learned in the “3 Still Standing” documentary). You can find his performance calendar on his website. Fun fact: Brown holds the record for the longest interval between appearances on the David Letterman Show.
In addition to the U.K. and U.S. versions of “Whose Line Is It, Anyway?”, Greg Proops has had a successful career as a voice actor in film, television and video games. He hosts a “Proopcast” called The Smartest Man in the World.
Bob Rubin has had small parts in a few movies and also went on to write on “The Roseanne Show” (in 1998). I don’t think he performs regularly anymore, but you can read more about him on RubeTime. Marc Maron interviewed Rubin on his WTF podcast in 2014, and it’s a compelling listen. By the way, Maron was a regular on The Alex Bennett Show very late in its run on Live 105, and he has interviewed several comics from this golden era of San Francisco comedy on WTF.
How to Learn More
I wrote this post mostly from memory, with minimal research from the web, as I wanted it to be more of a remembrance than an official history.
For a more comprehensive overview of Alex Bennett and his radio career, including his glory days in San Francisco, you can check out his Wikipedia page and/or listen to his excellent “audiobiography” Life In The Passing Lane (via iTunes or GABnet).
If any ambitious documentary filmmakers are looking for a juicy subject, I think Bennett’s broadcast career is long overdue for a retrospective. The rich history of his San Francisco morning show alone could fill an entire film.
If you have any of your own recollections of The Alex Bennett Show, I’d love to hear your memories in the comments. (Note to spammers: I moderate all comments.)