Pop-Up Comedy Series Offers Stand-Up at Secret Sonoma County Locations

The shows, now happening in 90 cities across North America and England, feature a mix of local talent and nationally known comedians.

If you’re anything like me, chances are you’ve stumbled across an ad of late on Facebook or Instagram for a comedy show billed as semi-secret — and bound for a Sonoma County venue.

“Don’t Tell Comedy show near you,” the ad beckons.

I’m a sucker for anything with a little mystery, especially a comedy show, so I was curious enough to swipe on the ad — one of the few that I’d ever click on.

I came across more details that make this show unique: The comedians are kept a surprise and the same goes for the location, which isn’t announced until noon on the day of the show after you’ve purchased your ticket. That makes it much like a pop-up, meaning shows might take place, say, in your local gym, candy store or a house of worship.

The tickets are $21.99 a piece. Many venues are bring-your-own-beverage.

Santa Rosa is one of about 90 cities in North America and England now hosting the Don’t Tell Comedy shows, and I’m here to tell you about one I attended Feb. 9.

The preceding Santa Rosa show featured comedians Peter Ballmer, Marcus Howard, Sureni Weerasekera, James Mwaura and Butch Escobar. However, that didn’t guarantee the same lineup for my night.

Don’t Tell Comedy is based in Los Angeles and is now in its seventh year. The series’ producers aim to introduce new talent and bring in comedians with national recognition. Their names are a secret until they take the stage.

About noon on the day of the show, a Don’t Tell Comedy email arrived in my inbox, announcing the local venue was Santa Rosa’s Flamingo Resort, which got a makeover during the pandemic.

Don’t Tell Comedy didn’t have any flashy indication of its presence, maintaining the mysterious allure.

At the door, the security team asked for my name, which had been placed on the guest list after my ticket purchase. Queue the pleasant VIP atmosphere of a still-affordable and inclusive comedy show.

The performances took place in the resort’s 150-seat Vintage Space Lounge, designed with a retro appearance, with space-themed cocktails and mocktails. I recommend arriving early to give yourself time to order a drink, maybe the Cosmonaut, which comes with a flavored vapor-bubble atop the martini glass.

If you want to snag a front-row seat, there are plenty of small tables to choose from, along with high-top tables and outer booths. Wherever you sit, be forewarned: You could be called out during crowd work by the comedians.

As showtime approached, about 60 guests were on hand, ranging from couples to friends and co-workers. About 8:15 p.m., the music faded and the show began.

First to take the stage was the host, Jordan Thewlis, an Oakland-based comedian, who earned laughs from the crowd throughout the night.

After he broke the ice, he introduced the first performer: Peter Ballmer, who doubles as Don’t Tell Comedy’s producer for the San Francisco region.

He dove right into crowd work, starting off with baldness.

“My hair is thinning,” Ballmer began. “Anybody else?”

A few members of the crowd cheered. He scanned the tops of the assembled heads, however, and surmised that there were some liars in the crowd.

Laughter erupted and his set was underway.

Next up was San Jose’s David Nguyen, who joked about being a new father and his “exceptionally cute biracial baby;” about being a child of immigrants; and about the woes of modern dating.

The headliner of the night was Emily Van Dyke, originally from the Midwest, but now living in San Francisco, which helped her open the set.

“When I moved out here 15 years ago, I was a little bit shocked,” Van Dyke said. “I didn’t realize when I moved out here to San Francisco how much I was going to miss masculinity.”

The show wrapped up with applause at about the 90-minute mark. Thewlis invited the crowd to return to see another show, with the promise of a different lineup.

“I had never heard of Don’t Tell Comedy, so I didn’t really know what to expect but I really liked the setting and how intimate it was,” said audience member Luis Canseco. “It might have been the beer talking, but I thought every comedian was hilarious, and I think what made the show special was how relatable a lot of their material was.

“Overall, it was a lot of fun with a great selection of drinks and a great lineup of comics,” Canseco said. “I would definitely go to the next one.”

After the show, Ballmer shared with me his experience and background in standup, which stretches back to 2017. He joined Don’t Tell Comedy as a producer the following year.

“So I was running shows in the South Bay, and then I started running shows in San Francisco in 2021,” Ballmer said. Sonoma County shows began around September 2022 as a biweekly occurrence. They now have become weekly.

“I think the longer that we do these shows, the more word gets out, we definitely expect to see more growth over time,” Ballmer said.

The series’ advertising comes from Instagram and Facebook, but word-of-mouth also is a major force, Ballmer said. On its YouTube channel, the company has over 945,000 subscribers, and over 217,000 Instagram followers.

Founder and CEO Kyle Kazanjian-Amory is from Boston but attended college in California and began his career here. His time in the accounting field was short-lived, however.

Comedy was calling.

“I’d always had a passion for stand-up and for comedy, and was obsessed with watching it, so I started doing stand-up,” Kazanjian-Amory said. “I started just going to open mics and performing in any place I could.”

At the time, he lived in Orange County, but moved to Los Angeles after a few months to throw himself into the comedy scene. He began with volunteering at shows and soon after began to run his own as a way to create stage time for himself.

“One thing I noticed when I moved to LA, I would go to comedy clubs, and it was very expensive,” Kazanjian-Amory said. “So I’d go to the comedy club and there’d be a two-drink minimum, and the drinks were crazy expensive.

“I was 23 at the time, and it felt unrealistic for someone who loved comedy to go (often),” he said. In turn, he decided to attend pop-up comedy shows that his new friends in the area were putting on — in people’s backyards.

“I thought it was such a fun and different experience, it felt more like a house party meets a comedy show,” Kazanjian-Amory said. “I felt like there was a space in stand-up to create a brand around making these types of shows more accessible, making stand-up more accessible by bringing it to different neighborhoods, and making it more affordable.”

Don’t Tell Comedy was born in March 2017, in a friend’s Los Angeles backyard, where about 30 attended the first free show.

Host cities now stretch between Vancouver, British Columbia, and London.

“It became clear that we could have a comedian of each city running our shows locally and create kind of the infrastructure to support the shows and selling out the shows with their marketing, which is the hardest part,” Kazanjian-Amory said.

In addition to its ever-growing list of live shows, Don’t Tell Comedy has made efforts to create quality digital content. Its YouTube channel is home to short-form comedy specials, which range from 8 to 12 minutes in length.

Kazanjian-Amory anticipates continuing to grow the show as a whole, while maintaining its accessible qualities, with plans to host a festival later this year, as well as at least 2,000 shows in 2023.

And here’s a hot tip: According to organizers, shows in Sonoma County, at least for now, are here to stay.

You can reach intern Lonnie Hayes at lonnie.hayes@pressdemocrat.com.