If you could manifest the spirit of the Bay Area comedy scene into one human being, it would be Will Durst. Beloved political comedian and now at 69, elder statesmen, Durst suffered a debilitating stroke in October of 2019 and has been on the mend since then. While the rehabilitation has been excruciating, his wife of 32 years, Debi Durst (comedian, actress and Queen Bee of Comedy Day in Golden Gate Park, which is back this year on Sept. 19) is sanguine.
“Will’s recovery seems to be taking forever, but every time we go to therapy he’s progressing,” she says. “He’s been in ICU twice, and the second time he was there for six weeks. The muscles got atrophied and his knee is kind of bent, so straightening out his legs is our focus.”
On Saturday, July 31, veteran local comedian Richard Stockton is holding a comedy fundraiser for Will called Comedy Outburst for Durst. All proceeds from this event will go directly to Will Durst’s recovery fund, and El Vaquero Winery in Corralitos, which is hosting the event, is donating 10% of their sales.
“Will Durst has been my teacher for 30 years,” says Stockton. “From leading brainstorm joke-writing sessions to filling up theaters with his fame to give the rest of us the most intelligent audience ever to perform for, to showing me how to get ready in the green room before going onstage, he has been my sensei.”
And it wasn’t just onstage lessons that Stockton learned from Durst, it was also lessons on how to be a better human being. “After shows, when we felt too amped up and too full of ourselves from performing, we’d take long walks in the dead of night through a sleeping city to gently ground ourselves again.” Stockton recalls. “He wants us to be as great as we can be and still have a balanced life. He infuses us with the joy of making people laugh out loud on purpose. This is a great man. He brings out the best in us. He needs help.”
Will Durst, Larry “Bubbles” Brown and Johnny Steele are the comics at the core of the documentary 3 Still Standing by directors Robert Campos and Donna LoCicero. The film explores the wild ride of stand-up comedy in the Bay Area during the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s. According to Bay Area comedic legend Steele (who will be performing at the benefit), Will Durst is the glue that held the lauded regional comedy scene together. “Durst is the godfather of SF comedy. When others abandoned the fort, he stayed, hosting both radio and TV shows, hanging with the mayor, and regularly headlining the Punchline longer than anybody,” Steele says. “He’s got a work ethic that most comics can only dream of. I’ve actually seen him writing jokes side-stage as he’s being introduced. Talk about topical humor. And he’s also a damn fine fellow.”
One of Durst’s closest friends and comedians who will also be performing is boomer spokesman Dan St. Paul. “I met Will at the Holy City Zoo in SF in 1981. He was headlining,” says St. Paul. “I was just starting out, building an act. Because he was a political comic, he would add and subtract from his act day to day. He immediately had my respect. Even though he was way further up the career ladder, he never pulled rank. So friendly and approachable and we both loved stand-up and baseball and became quick friends.”
Known for his political savvy and razor-sharp observations, Durst has entertained Santa Cruz audiences for decades with his one-man show From LSD to OMG and his ability to earn laughs from all political denominations (he performed for both President Bill Clinton and President George H.W. Bush).
Benefit organizer Stockton promises a special afternoon of comedy and wants everyone to know that this is about helping a genuinely gracious human being regain his balance, literally, so he can once again charm and educate us from the stage. “Will took me under his wing,” Stockton says, “but Will would take anyone under his wing, he would help comics. But what Will cares about most is bringing out the best in all people.”Comedy Outburst for Durst will be held Saturday, July 31 at 5pm at El Vaquero Winery, 2901 Freedom Blvd, Corralitos. Tickets are $25 and available at Eventbrite. If you want to help out, but cannot attend, you can donate directly to gofundme.com/f/awukk-will-durst-needs-your-help.