A former bio-med lab assistant in Cleveland, comedian and actor Sal Calanni decided to pack his bags years ago and move to San Francisco. His journey prompted him to try standup comedy and he’s been at it every since. Over the past few years he has toured the U.S. and worked with great performers including Dave Chappelle, Paul Mooney, Bill Burr and Charlie Murphy. He returns to the stage at the Purple Onion this Friday and Saturday.

We spoke with Calanni about life as a comedian, what he loves most about San Francisco and who he thinks are the funniest comedians in the industry right now.

How did you get started?
I was living in my hometown, Cleveland, got bored, moved out West with no job, no place to stay, figured things out and started doing comedy.  I took some classes, did some open mics, got addicted to the laughter and have been chasing it ever since.

What makes you get up in the morning?
My body’s inability to sleep 24 hours a day.  I guess I should say something more prophetic; if I’m creating something that day, then of course that’s what I get up to do—a film shoot, an audition, preparation for a show, but an artist’s life is filled with down time too, and to be honest with you, during that time it’s not always easy to get up.  That’s why I play basketball three times a week, it helps fill in the gaps.

What do you love about comedy?
I can say whatever I want on stage. There’s freedom there, power.  People look at you different and they love to laugh. I remember my first shitty open mic like 10 years ago, it was in a crappy art gallery in a crappy part of town.  I waited three hours to do a five-minute set and everyone left the show by time it was my turn.  Four audience members remained and I made one laugh.  That one person laughing started my desire and my addiction to comedy.

Best venues to go catch a show:
The Punch Line in San Francisco is my home club, so I’ll have to say that. Plus, it is an intimate performance space, which is always nice.  Theaters are always my favorite too.  A theater space treats comedy more like an art form—people actually pay attention, you don’t have to compete with waitresses, drink orders and drunk obnoxious people too often.  That’s why all the best stand up specials are shot in theaters.

Describe a funny moment in your life.
I’m a big fan of Bill Burr’s.  When I first walked into the club and saw him, he was talking about stuff that I’ve been trying to talk about, yet not as successfully—relationships, anger issues, tough father, race. When I saw that, I knew it was possible to make that stuff original and funny.  So a year later I finally got to work with him, I was actually a little nervous. The middle act, Todd Rex, Bill and I kept busting balls and making Goodfellas references throughout the week.

After about three shows in, I walked into the green room and Todd says, “Sal fuckin’ Calanni.”  Bill responds with, “Who the fuck is Sal Calanni?”  He was dead serious, he thought Todd was making a Goodfellas reference.  I stood there, in front of this guy I look up to, and the booker of the club who was in the room, and sheepishly raised my hand and said, um, I am.  It was a good laugh, I think he talked about it on the next show, and to this day, it’s an inside joke we have, “Who the fuck is Sal Calanni?”

What do you love/hate about SF?
I love a lot about SF—the food, the city life, the scenery, the cultural melting pot. I’m from Ohio and I didn’t have any of that. What I hate? The wind. I hate the wind here more than anything. I don’t think it gets hot here, just less windy. I also strongly dislike smug bicyclists who don’t stop at their stop signs.

Who are the funniest guys in entertainment today?
Well, funny is always subjective, but the comics who are rocking clubs and theaters still that I look up to are Dave Chappelle, Bill Burr, Louie C.K., Maria Bamford, John Caparulo, Jim Jefferies and many more.  it’s always nice to look back at classic greats too and see how they did it—Pryor, Hicks, Kinison, Murphy, Cosby and, of course, Chris Rock.

Did you have a real specific “aha” moment when you knew that this was what you wanted to focus on?
I guess my “aha” moment came about a couple of years into standup.  I was working a day job selling copiers.  I was making good money but I hated the mediocrity of a 9-5 corporate job.  I was juggling the idea of quitting, and chasing standup, but I was scared.

Sometimes I believe in signs in life.  One night I parked my car outside of my apartment on the street.  I opened the car door to get out, my feet were on the street, my ass was still on the seat, as I slowly got up, I saw a bright light in the corner of my eye.  It was a headlight attached to a giant white pickup truck.  It was a drunk driver, he slammed into my car door, smashing it like an accordion, and coming within inches of smashing me.  He swerved down the street and drove off into the distance.  I didn’t have a scratch on me.  The police never found him.  A month later I quit my day job.

A little epilogue to that tale, I grabbed a piece of the white truck off the street, and grabbed a piece of my broken car, I attached the two to a string and hung it up on my wall alongside a quote.  It reads, “I believe every human has a finite number of heartbeats, I don’t intend to waste any of mine.” -Neil Armstrong.

If you could give a piece of advice to another comedian starting out, what would it be?
Write, perform, write, perform, write, perform.  Everyone worries about starting off the correct way or something, but there is no correct way, you just have to jump in and do it.  My favorite advice is something my father gave me once: Things find a way of working themselves out.”

For more: check out Sal’s Podcast, Who The Eff?

Shaina Tsan covers all things San Francisco. Follow her at @ShainaTsan