Comedy is king for Elderhostel program director in S.F.

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David Kleinberg knows better than most the white-hot glare that makes comedians sweat bullets. He has faced the toughest, roughest, most discerning audience possible — audience members so thoroughly weaned on comic traditions that they feel it in their very bones.

He has faced the seniors in the Elderhostel program.

Well, vicariously, anyway.

Kleinberg is co-director, along with his wife, Pat, of Bay Area Classic Learning, which provides local programming for Elderhostel, a nonprofit worldwide provider of learning adventures for people age 55 and older.

He’s operated Bay Area Classic Learning in San Francisco for a dozen years and has been involved with the local standup scene for the past five.

During that time, he has seen some of the hottest young comics test their mettle against an audience that’s been in the business of heckling since the heyday of the Catskills.

Sometimes, comedy ain’t pretty.

“This Jewish guy who made the semifinals in the San Francisco Comedy Competition came to the BACL one time not too long ago,” Kleinberg recalled during a recent interview. “He was a young, cutting-edge, in-your-face type of guy. Real good stage presence.

“Halfway through his act, this [elderly] woman in a wheelchair shouted, ‘You actually use this material somewhere else!?’

“The comic never forgot that, even months later,” Kleinberg said, laughing.

What’s less of a laughing matter for Kleinberg is figuring out how to bridge the generational divide between “hostelers” in their 70s and 80s, and those of the baby boom generation.

In fact, the 63-year-old Kleinberg might be considered an archetype for the generation Edlerhostel is trying to reach.

“Well, these classes haven’t quite clicked in with baby boomers yet, partially because this generation is going to take a little while to get older,” he said, chuckling.

Kleinberg, himself, seems to epitomize that paradigm, as he recently returned from a hiking trip through the Himalayas (“We’re talking about a very spiritual place — God’s country in every sense of the word”) — one of many adventures he’s taken since leaving his job as a writer and editor at the San Francisco Chronicle.

The San Francisco native, who recalled growing up in the golden age of San Francisco’s comedy scene, when performers such as Bill Cosby, Mort Sahl and Jonathan Winters performed in landmarks such as The Hungry i and the Purple Onion, got bitten by the comedy bug about a decade ago and decided to take the plunge himself.

“It’s hard to say when, exactly, I crossed the line. But I did, and there’s no looking back. Since I come from a writing background, the material isn’t really the issue … It’s the stage jitters I get. I’m better now, but I used to get scared to death up there.”

In fact, Kleinberg has fashioned the curriculum of Bay Area Classic Learning partially as an homage to the art of comedy and its practitioners. “The guys that drive all the way to Oregon and back for a hundred bucks … that’s the type of courage and respect for comedy that I appreciate,” said Kleinberg. “That’s the tradition we try to encourage at the BACL.

“We’ve brought some great comics in, like Doug Ferrari, who opened up for Bob Hope. And we have a great class on Jewish comics run by [former Chronicle entertainment writer and editor] John Stanley, who isn’t Jewish, but laughs every time he hears the jokes — and he’s done well over a hundred courses.”

The BACL, which offers courses in Burlingame, Tiburon, San Rafael and Napa, offers a broad range of electives, ranging in scope from politics to music. Kleinberg points out that some of the favored courses are “sets” that can be taken in threes — such as a comedy class, a class on the Middle East conflict (“one of our most popular”) and big-band jazz. John Rothmann, a local radio talk show host, frequently anchors the political science/current events classes.

Although it’s hard to gauge how many of Elderhostel attendees are Jewish, (“We don’t take polls,” Kleinberg deadpanned) the number is certainly very high. And the curriculum reflects that. Although there aren’t any classes on expressly religious matters such as Midrash, there are offerings like “Laugh Until It Hurts” in San Rafael, which covers the Jewish contribution to comedy, and a similar course in Burlingame, “Fantastic Comedy: Loads of Laughs.”

Coming this December is “Bay Area Jewish Holiday,” which dabbles in such topics as klezmer and Kaballah, and includes an outing to “Kung Pao Kosher Comedy.” Like many Elderhostel programs, the four-night, five-day course includes a mix of class time and field trips.

But it’s probably the comedy courses that give Kleinberg the biggest thrill, not to mention an outlet for a passion that he now has the luxury to pursue.

“You know, all the things that the young kids are killing themselves for today, I already have. I have a great wife, great kids, wonderful grandchildren and financial security.

“So, I do comedy for the sheer joy of creativity and giving laughter to other people.”

Information on Bay Area Classic Learning Elderhostel is available on the Web at www.bacl.com, or by calling (415) 566-3444. To learn more about Elderhostel, visit www.elderhostel.org/ or call (800) 454-5768.