Will Durst (left) clowns around with Dan St. Paul and Richard Stockton on the stage at Kuumbwa Jazz Center.
Will Durst (left) clowns around with Dan St. Paul and Richard Stockton on the stage at Kuumbwa Jazz Center. Durst is working to rehab after a stroke in the fall of 2019.
(Handout)
The Here & Now

‘Outburst’ for a good cause: Local comics come together for San Francisco comedy icon Will Durst

Santa Cruz’s Richard Stockton headlines a benefit show July 31 at El Vaquero Winery to help Will Durst rehab after a devastating stroke. “He’s more than just a great comic,” Stockton says of the 69-year-old Durst. “He’s been a leader in lifting us all up to be the best we could be.”

Will Durst is as Bay Area as it gets.

He’s the Cliff House and the Cow Palace. He’s an It’s It ice-cream cookie. He’s El Camino Real. He’s free apples at the Fillmore.

For more than 40 years, Durst has been a nationally known standup comic, but he’s never escaped the force field of San Francisco, the perch from where he views the world. And he’s always been more 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 it “The Will & Willie Show”).

But now Durst is on the sideline. In the fall of 2019, shortly before going on to perform at a fundraiser in San Francisco, Durst suffered a devastating stroke. Almost two years later, he’s still working hard in rehab to gain control over the left side of his body.

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Comic Richard Stockton is, in many ways, Santa Cruz’s version of Will Durst. On July 31, Stockton will host an evening of comedy for his old friend titled “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 aim is to raise money to help Durst and his wife, Debi, deal with the daunting bills for his care.

“He’s a very important person in my life,” Stockton said of the 69-year-old Durst. “He’s more than just a great comic. He’s been a leader in lifting us (comics) all up to be the best we could be.”

Durst has performed in Santa Cruz countless times at various venues, and has regularly retreated to Santa Cruz (the Dream Inn is his favorite haunt) when he and Debi needed to get out of The City. He first arrived in San Francisco back in 1979 and since then, he’s been not only a popular and omnipresent standup performer, he’s also been a local newspaper columnist and radio personality.

Durst’s beat has always been politics, and he’s worked to be as equally hard at both parties and both sides of the political divide. A self-described “raging moderate,” he turned his book “The All-American Sport of Bipartisan Bashing” into a one-man stage show.

The other thing Durst is famous for in the Northern California comedy circuit is his work ethic. His wife, Debi Durst, herself a comedian, said that the October 2019 show during which he suffered the stroke was a Durst first.

“He never missed a gig in his entire career,” Debi said.
Debi reports that her husband is improving, but slowly. His cognitive functioning, she said, was unaffected by the hemorrhagic stroke. “He’s always been able to speak,” she said.

Durst spent three weeks in intensive care, but after being transferred to a rehab unit, he developed a serious infection in his brain and had to be put back into intensive care for six more weeks. He has been in assisted living in a skilled nursing facility ever since. His wife takes him to physical therapy every day as specialists help him reestablish neural connections to his left arm and left leg, with the goal to get him to stand and walk again.

“It’s been a long, slow slog,” said Debi Durst. “Given time, he will get there. He will be back.”

Stockton and Durst are friends and colleagues of long standing. Both have in fact developed shows focused on the unique cultural legacy of the baby boomers. When Stockton first started appearing on stages in San Francisco is the mid-1980s, he was playing guitar and using music as a vehicle for his comedy.

“I had this manic, over-the-top style,” said Stockton. “The club owners loved me. I was getting all kinds of work — (comedy clubs) Punchline, Zoo, Cobb’s. But to the other comics, I just wasn’t cool enough. I was a little bit too over the top.”

Durst was there to give the aspiring comic some encouragement. “He took me under his wing and said, ‘Look, do what you do, man.’ He taught me everything: how to memorize my bit list,” Stockton said. “For over 30 years, Will Durst was my teacher. And comic after comic after comic has stories like this. This one is a tough one for me.”

“Comedy Outburst for Durst” with Richard Stockton, Johnny Steele, and Dan St. Paul (with special guest DNA) takes place Saturday, July 31, at El Vaquero Winery, 2901 Freedom Blvd., Watsonville. Tickets are $20. Showtime is 5 p.m.

For more information on Will Durst and on how to contribute to his recovery, go to his GoFundMe page.

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