Richard Stockton brings Planet Cruz to the Rio Saturday.
Richard Stockton remembers the night he had his worldview re-adjusted by the late, great comedian Bill Hicks. This was the 80s, and Stockton was already touring his stand-up act. This particular night he was in Houston, where Hicks got his start.
“Here’s how I met Bill Hicks,” he says. “I was headlining at the Comedy Annex, and they had a little open mic room on the side of the building. During my set, whenever they would quiet down, I would hear something screaming, just screaming at the top of his lungs. I said ‘Does anybody know what that this?’ And the entire audience goes, ‘Oh, that’s Bill Hicks!’”
After his own set, he went over to the smaller room, where he found a packed-in crowd hanging on Hicks’ every word.
“After every joke, he would take the paper it was written on and burn it. And he would go: ‘that joke no longer exists.’ And everybody would applaud.”
Stockton and Hicks ended up hanging out all night, with Stockton—like that crowd—absorbing everything he could from the now-legendary outsider comic.
“That night in Houston had a lot to do with waking me up,” says Stockton. “I said: ‘you know what, you gotta say what you think.’”
Perhaps it’s no surprise that he would bring his well-outside-the-mainstream comic sensibility to Santa Cruz and found the Planet Cruz comedy series, which takes a huge leap this weekend from its former Kuumbwa digs to the Rio for its biggest show ever—one that will kick off its bi-monthly events there.
Stockton had first come here in 1968 to attend UCSC—then dropped out the next year. In the ’80s, he would always get booked into the Crow’s Nest when on tour.
“I always took the gig, no matter what the pay, because I love Santa Cruz,” he says. “I’ve loved it all my life.”
He finally moved here for good in 2003, after touring in support of his book Fondle the Fear. A gig of his at the Pacific Cultural Center had been taped and run on TV, and suddenly he had a big following here.
He’s now been a comic for 30 years, and the unexpected success of his Planet Cruz shows—which mix a slate of stand-up comedians with music and other assorted weirdness into what has become this area’s most impressive regular comedy event—has allowed him to build his own community of talent he draws from for each show.
The comics he brings to Planet Cruz—some local, some national touring comedians—tend to share his offbeat views on comedy. Karen Rontowski has one of the best female comic deliveries going: “The other night, I went out with a guy who said he didn’t like women who are fragile or vulnerable…so I stabbed him.” Michael Meehan, another Planet Cruz regular, is a madman.
“The guy is so fresh and so bizarre,” says Stockton. “It’s a combination of George Carlin and a Fellini film.”
He also still surrounds himself with comics who deeply affect and inspire him, like local Sven Davis, whom he calls “a fountain of creativity” for his unwillingness to repeat his own material even once—though he doesn’t burn the jokes, there’s an echo of Hicks there.
The secret to Planet Cruz’s success is Stockton’s ability to bring in these like-minded people and then let them spin off in their own directions. He wants substantive material, not trendy or lowest-common-denominator drivel.
“I want comics who make you laugh so hard, and when you get to that space you can’t breathe, hope slips into your body,” he says.
“Cruz” is in the name because Stockton strives to create a show that could only be done here, and he’s often the one who keeps the show the most grounded in its namesake in his sets.
“I continue to be thrilled by how supportive Santa Cruz is of something new,” he says. “That’s why it’s cool here. They’re ready, at least my audience, they want you to get out there.”
The move to the Rio led to his plotting of a new, epic feel for Planet Cruz.
“With a bigger venue, we have to have our show be bigger and faster,” he says.
“We’re packing it more. The comedians will do a little less time, and there will be more of them. All of my comic buddies are on board. They love Planet Cruz. They love Santa Cruz.”
Planet Cruz kicks off a new bimonthly series Nov. 17 at the Rio.