Outburst for a Good Cause: Local Comics Unite for San Francisco Comedy Icon Will Durst
Will Durst is as Bay Area as it gets.
There is the Cliff House and the Cow Palace. It’s an It’s It frozen cookie. He is El Camino Real. He gives free apples to the Fillmore.
For more than 40 years, Durst has been a nationally recognized stand-up comedian, but he’s never escaped the San Francisco force field, the perch from which he sees the world. And he’s always been more of a regional phenomenon than a national one, able to embody a distinctly Bay Area worldview. He hosted a regular radio show with none other than Mr. San Francisco, Willie Brown (and yes, they called him “The Will & Willie Show”).
But now Durst is on the sidelines. In the fall of 2019, shortly before performing at a fundraiser in San Francisco, Durst suffered a devastating stroke. Almost two years later, he’s still working hard in rehab to regain control of the left side of his body.
The comedic Richard Stockton is, in many ways, Santa Cruz’s version of Will Durst. On July 31, Stockton will be hosting a comedy night for his old friend called “Comedy Outburst for Durst” at El Vaquero Winery in Watsonville. The evening will feature performances by Stockton and fellow comedians Dan St. Paul and Johnny Steele, each a friend and contemporary of Durst. The goal is to raise funds to help Durst and his wife, Debi, cope with the daunting bills of his care.
“He’s a very important person in my life,” Stockton said of Durst, 69. “It’s more than just a good comic. He’s been a leader in uplifting us (the comics) to be the best we can be. “
Durst has performed in Santa Cruz countless times at various venues and regularly retreated to Santa Cruz (the Dream Inn is his favorite haunt) when he and Debi needed to get out of town. He first arrived in San Francisco in 1979 and since then he’s not only been a popular and ubiquitous stand-up artist, he’s also a local newspaper columnist and radio personality.
Durst’s pace has always been political, and he has strived to be as tough in both parties and on both sides of the political divide. He describes himself as a “furious moderate”, he turned his book “The All-American Sport of Bipartisan Bashing” into a solo show.
The other thing Durst is famous for in the Northern California comedy circuit is his work ethic. His wife, Debi Durst, herself an actress, said the October 2019 show in which he suffered the stroke was a first for Durst.
“He’s never missed a gig in his entire career,” Debi said.
Debi reports that her husband is improving, but slowly. Her cognitive functioning, she said, was not affected by the hemorrhagic stroke. “He’s always been able to talk,” she says.
Durst spent three weeks in intensive care, but after being transferred to a rehabilitation unit, he developed a severe brain infection and had to be put back into intensive care for another six weeks. Since then, he has been in assisted living in a qualified nursing facility. His wife takes him to physiotherapy every day as specialists help him restore neural connections to his left arm and left leg, with the goal of getting him to stand up and walk again.
“It has been a long and slow job,” said Debi Durst. “In time, he will get there. He will be back.”
Stockton and Durst are longtime friends and colleagues. Both have indeed developed programs focused on the unique cultural heritage of baby boomers. When Stockton first began appearing on stages in San Francisco in the mid-1980s, he played guitar and used music as a vehicle for his comedy.
“I had this manic, over-the-top style,” Stockton said. “The owners of the club loved me. I had all kinds of jobs – (comedy clubs) Punchline, Zoo, Cobb’s. But for the other comics, I just wasn’t cool enough. I was a little too high.
Durst was there to encourage the comedic aspirant. “He took me under his wing and said, ‘Look, do what you do, man.’ He taught me everything: how to memorize my list of bits, ”Stockton said. “For over 30 years Will Durst has been my teacher. And comic after comic after comic has stories like this. This one is difficult for me.
“Comedy Outburst for Durst” starring Richard Stockton, Johnny Steele and Dan St. Paul (with special guest DNA) takes place on Saturday July 31 at El Vaquero Winery, 2901 Freedom Blvd., Watsonville. Tickets cost $ 20. Show time is 5 p.m.
For more information on Will Durst and how to help with his recovery, visit his GoFundMe page.