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Comedy: The Clubbing of America

The rise of comedy club chains

Comedy: The Clubbing of America

Comedy Club stage

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The club is jammed. Onstage, the headliner – in a dark suit, a string tie and red shoes – is “killing.” He looks out onto tonight’s audience: primarily freshly scrubbed undergraduates and baby boomers, all knocking back beers or nursing mixed drinks, Eighties style. If during his routine he momentarily blanks on what town he’s in, the décor won’t be much help; standard autographed glossies cover most of one wall, and the stage is a basic raised platform with two stools, a mike and a black-curtain backdrop.

A decade ago, only a weekend gig in a major American city would have packed the house. But this is 1988, and the headliner – a thirty-four-year-old long-haired Southerner calling himself Killer Beaz – is playing a Wednesday in Columbia, South Carolina, at one of the half dozen clubs in the six-year-old Punch Line chain. And Punch Line is just one example of the countless comedy franchisers that have popped up in recent years, invading America faster than Benettons, mass-distributing humor that often seems off the rack from Sears.

There are now more than 300 full-time comedy clubs in America, nearly a hundredfold increase from the early Seventies. Go into any one of them, and you will likely hear jokes about the following: 7-Eleven stores, the differences between cats and dogs (or New York and L.A.), Dr. Ruth, Robin Leach, condoms, Star Trek, PMS, televangelists, air travel, fast-food joints (especially anything that plays off McNuggets) — and, lately, Dukakis’s resemblance to Casey Kasem.

Tonight at the Punch Line, Killer Beaz is avoiding those themes; his topics range from starting a kitchen fire (he was too literal following instructions to “cover the bottom of the pan with grease”) to his antiexercise stance (“How do those shoes feel when you run in ’em? Surprised as hell!”). Some of his material is quite good, and his delivery is unusual, but he wouldn’t be where he is today without the comedy boom.

Back in 1979, Beaz was plain old Truett S. Beasley Jr., working days in a music store and playing blues guitar in redneck bars. Three years later, one of the bar owners wanted a comedian to perform, and Beasley, making a symbolic decision for his generation, laid down the guitar and picked up a shtick.

By his count, Beaz did 311 stand-up sets before he ever saw another comedian perform in person. “I worked the worst venues you can play – between sets of rock & roll or country groups,” he says. “People weren’t there to hear me. They’d stand up in the audience and yell across the room, ‘You got any rolling papers?’ One night these two cowboys run up, pulled their pants down and pointed their old butts at me. There was nothing I could do but say, ‘Look – twins!’ ” But eventually the cable channel Showtime named him the funniest man in Mississippi – in 1984, ’85 and ’86. (He has since moved to Nashville; it’s unclear where he ranks among Tennesseans.) Killer Beaz was onto something.

These days, everybody is a comedian; even audiences want to get in on the act. The New York club Caroline’s recently held open-mike auditions for stand-ups aged twelve and under. “Comedy’s kind of taken the place of rock & roll,” says veteran comic Richard Belzer. “Kids in the Fifties wanted to strap on a guitar and be Elvis; now they want to be Jay Leno or Eddie Murphy or Steve Martin or Robin Williams.” Snapping off a witty rejoinder has become a national pastime, and many of those who used to get up and dance are now content to chuckle in their seats.

And the funny business has become big business. The better clubs in major metropolitan areas are grossing between $1 million and $1.5 million a year; even those in the suburbs are taking in $600,000 and up. That’s a lot of five-to-fifteen-dollar covers and two-drink minimums.

Back in 1953, outlets for stand-up were so rare that the political-minded comic Mort Sahl broke in playing an eighty-three-seat beatnik dive in San Francisco called the hungry i. In the intervening decades, only a select few clubs reigned: Pips, in Brooklyn; Manhattan’s Improvisation and Catch a Rising Star (a.k.a. the Improv and Catch); and L.A.’s Comedy Store. (Chicago was specializing in comedy troupes like Second City.)

There has been a Blob-like proliferation of comedy chains, including Coconuts, Bob Zany’s Comedy Outlets (not to be confused with Zanies Comedy Nite Clubs), Comic Strips, Comedy Houses, Laff Stops, Funny Bones, Laughs Unlimiteds, Charlie Goodnights, Comedy Works, Last Laughs and Punch Lines. Not to mention innumerable places scattered across the country that host one-nighters – from rock clubs to bowling alleys.

It seems that for every comedy club that opens up, a rock club closes down. Catch a Rising Star chairman and CEO Richard Fields, who used to manage rock bands, produce theater and do political consulting, says, “The folks who were going to rock concerts ten years ago don’t want to go to big arenas for a music show and be thrown up on and hassled. Comedy clubs are accessible, economical and intimate.”

And top-of-the-line clubs like Catch have been franchising that happy formula. The club opened in 1972; until two years ago, New York was its sole location. Now there are five of them, and Fields plans to have twenty-one by late 1989, as well as a record label and numerous television projects. There are also now three Comedy Stores and nine Improvs.

What caused the boom? Cable television — and simple economics. When Home Box Office started, in November 1972, with 365 subscribers, it was a showcase for recent, uncut Hollywood movies. But in the early Eighties, as VCR sales and tape rentals soared, subscribers had little reason to renew. The cable networks, needing to stake out new territory – and without the resources or time to develop full-fledged series – reached out to stand-up comics, who came with a prewritten, inexpensively produced show. “They were looking to fill up the time slot,” says Fields, “and they backed into a great idea – and a very cheap idea.”

The comedians, who longed for more than the five PG minutes afforded by talk shows, responded – and thanks to the new exposure, comedy became a bigger draw, thus creating a market for more clubs. As twelve-year stand-up veteran Jerry Seinfeld puts it, “The guy who last week had a go-cart track, he says, ‘You know, all I gotta do is pave this thing and put in a microphone, and I’m in show business!'”

Stand-up has raised its profile to unprecedented heights. The Improv and Catch have put on their own cable shows. One-third of HBO’s original programming is now devoted to comedy; in September, HBO introduced a three-month series of regular Saturday-night comedy specials. The networks have belatedly discovered how easy it is to televise people pacing the stage with a microphone. In September and early October, ABC aired a series called The First Decathlon of Comedy to compete with the Olympics, including The Best of SCTV and The Comedy Club Special, which spotlighted gigs from all over the country. And NBC just presented The Comedy Store 15th Year Class Reunion Special, featuring David Letterman, Robin Williams and Richard Pryor. On the movie front, Columbia Pictures offers a behind-the-scenes peek at stand-up with Punchline, depicting a failed medical student (Tom Hanks) and a housewife (Sally Field) struggling to land that elusive Carson appearance.

Punchline’s screenwriter-director, David Seltzer, researched and wrote the original script ten years ago; by the time he got the go-ahead, he had to overhaul the screenplay because the scene had changed so drastically. Whereas comedians were once antiestablishment, these days, as one gleeful advertiser told The New York Times, they are “the intellectual spokesmen for their generation.” Many are doing fifteen-second Quick Schtick routines between TV commercials, or even endorsing products: Gilbert Gottfried promotes chicken nuggets; Jay Leno, corn chips; Elayne Boosler, antiperspirant.

There is also a bevy of thriving support industries. Stand-ups are now in demand as book authors, and club tables are covered with publications devoted to comedy, like Comedy USA, Just for Laughs and Rave (a sister publication of music’s RockBill). Acts can be heard on a syndicated radio show called The Comedy Hour and seen on home videos – although videos will probably fare as poorly as comedy albums.

So how many working comedians are riding this wave? It’s hard to tabulate. The five-year-old Professional Comedians Association – which provides members with information, medical insurance and legal services – has a membership of over 500. “In 1978, if you were a comedian, you knew everyone in the business,” says comic Barry Weintraub, who edits Comedy USA. Since then, he says, “the growth has been geometric. It’s safe to say there are about 1500 people now earning a comfortable living as comedians. But that’s just ballpark: every day new names cross my desk.”

The down side of the frenzy is obvious: any wiseacre who gets twenty or thirty minutes together can make a living doing comedy. Richard Belzer says, “There is a diluting, a bastardization, an assembly-line mentality. When you get that many in a creative field, you’re going to get a lot of lesser models. Even if there’s 20,000 comics, there are still only going to be 10 or 12 great comedians.”

Ten years ago, what drew Punchline’s David Seltzer to write about the world of comedy was the nature of the performers. He says, “I couldn’t do better for dramatic clay: these people had it all. They were enormously intelligent, articulate, neurotic, ambivalent, contradictory. It was like walking into a very specific subculture which had its own unique values, wardrobe and language; they even carried drink tokens, which was like their own currency.”

Back then, comics felt compelled to perform; these days, Jerry Seinfeld says, “people don’t want to work at it. Ninety-nine percent of working comedians want to get into a movie, get in on a TV series. The dedication is not ‘How good can I get at this?’ but ‘What can I get from this?'”

Hey, have you heard the one about Jerry Seinfeld’s hell gigs last year? At one Florida chain club, he “sweat blood” trying to get the crowd to laugh, only to discover afterward that his P.A. had been set at two instead of eight. And then there was the time he was supposed to be onstage for an Ohio concert but the promoter forgot to pick him up at his hotel; then, after being rushed over and pushed through the curtain to meet 1800 expectant faces, Seinfeld looked around the stage and realized there wasn’t any mike set up. Oh, and after a college gig in Maryland, this student was driving him to the airport in the rain. A half-hour goes by, and the student says, “I have a confession to make — I have no idea where the airport is.” So Seinfeld takes out a map; the student tries to pull the car off the road, goes into a spin and skids down an embankment. “I end up standing in the rain with my bags, trying to hitchhike,” says Seinfeld. “That’s show business.”

A comic’s life on the road requires not only grace under pressure but tremendous stamina. “Comedy is like an athletic experience,” Seinfeld says. “If you take a few nights off, you can feel you’ve lost half a step…. I can’t take a vacation.” Whenever he’s home in L.A. with nothing booked, Seinfeld still does spots at the Improv to stay in shape. But the free nights are few; this year, he’ll be on the road seventy-five percent of the time. His itinerary looks roughly like this: two week-long club runs (plus a few one-or two-nighters), twenty colleges (including a pep rally before 70,000 people), twenty large halls, thirty conventions, thirty to forty nights in Vegas, Tahoe and Atlantic City and a handful of TV appearances.

Comics travel light; overhead is low, and the grosses can be phenomenal. The clubs they play generally fall into two categories: a few are showcases, featuring a string of comics doing abbreviated sets, but most are headliner clubs, presenting an opening act (who doubles as MC), a middle act and a headliner. At the better chains, middle acts earn a weekly salary of $600 and up; headliners, anywhere from $2000 to $10,000, plus air fare and lodging – usually at the club’s “comedy condo” in town. (Accommodations at these condos can vary; sometimes clubs try to house all three acts in the same unit, regardless of gender; they’ve long been the butt of jokes.)

The chief variable is drawing power, based on accumulated TV and movie credits. Carson and Letterman hold the keys; even though an appearance on one of their shows pays only the $676 AFTRA minimum, it alters a comic’s billing and pay scale forever. At the Atlanta-based Punch Line chain, according to a club coowner, Ron DiNunzio, a first such spot can boost the weekly salary by $1000. Fred Greenlee, a former rock singer who’s now an adventuresome comic – he did a bit about suicide on his Carson debut – says his money doubled in many rooms after his first Tonight Show spot.

Thanks in part to being one of the few comics who play both Carson and Letterman regularly, Jerry Seinfeld was paid a whopping $30,000 to open Chicago’s Catch a Rising Star. (Seinfeld labels himself “the most successful total unknown in show business.”)

Still, although the road is clearly where the money is, it’s not necessarily where the action is; many comics based in New York or L.A. will stay home periodically to play the less lucrative showcase clubs frequented by talent scouts. Because, ultimately, the goal of most comics is to transcend the club circuit altogether, moving on to 5000-seaters at rock-show prices, cable specials, Caddyshack sequels and sitcoms. Such comedy takeovers are now happening faster than ever, which doesn’t encourage stand-ups to develop much more than a persona that can be packaged and sold.

It’s early August at the year-old Irvine, California, Improv, and onstage, in front of the trademark red-brick wall, the headlining comic segues into a bit about a dyslexic theater group performing Annie Get Your Nug. He’s the second comedian in three days at this club to use the seemingly obscure line – and neither one of them was its originator.

If comedy is indeed the rock & roll of the Eighties, then a lot of touring comedians are not much more than cover bands, stealing riffs here and jokes there and patching together a set. Stealing is as old as comedy itself, and it’s practiced by the best of them; many aspiring comics refuse to go on if they see Robin Williams in the room.

But the new breed seems to be borrowing with new abandon. One comic – known unofficially as the king of thieves – reportedly once watched The Tonight Show in a club’s green room before his set, then went onstage and delivered most of Carson’s monologue. He’s been known to approach fellow comics and tell them, “Your joke is going over great in my act.”

Often it’s a question of whoever gets there first. “Comics look at life, and they see bits,” says stand-up comedian and talk-show host Arsenio Hall. “I remember one day in 1982, Richard Pryor took a bunch of us young comics and writers to breakfast in a Chinese restaurant, and there was a waiter that stuttered. He got on Richard’s nerves and Richard said, ‘Motherfucker, just bring some soup. Just stop talking to me.'” The comics looked at one another, knowing this would make a great routine for any of them. And, Hall says, “Richard says, ‘Fuck you, motherfuckers, I’m on Carson tomorrow.’ And the stuttering Chinese waiter became one of his classic bits.”

Of course, with so many people writing material on familiar subjects, inevitably more than one comic will innocently arrive at the same line. But even if a comic is good enough to actually say something original during his time in the spotlight, he must learn to deal with the new, increasingly problematic comedy audiences – and the new clubs that don’t know how to handle them.

To keep the crowd entertained before shows, the new Savannah, Georgia, Comedy House projects video clips of Laurel and Hardy on a screen that lowers in front of the chain’s neon Grouchoesque logo. On the dozens of tiny round tables in the clean room sit menus with the warning ANY ACTION DISRUPTING THE SHOW WILL RESULT IN EJECTION – WITHOUT REFUND. But the show one July night proves this false.

After marginal sets by the opening and middle acts, the night’s headliner bounds onstage, telegraphing his amped-out demeanor by announcing, “I’m Evan Davis, and I’ve been up since New Year’s.” Davis – an eight-year veteran and a 1986 finalist on the TV show Star Search whose income this year will be around $100,000 – usually projects the stage persona of someone suffering from sensory overload. But tonight Davis is suffering from heckling overload.

A hefty guy sitting with three friends in the back of the room is interrupting nearly every setup and punch line with shouted comments, to the point where a clearly exasperated Davis can only shrug and say, “The doorman’s hiding from this guy.” At any well-run club, the heckler would have been booted early on, but here he completely overshadows the comedy.

Afterward, sitting outside and pulling on a cigarette, Davis seems less angry than philosophical about the ruined gig. “I wonder which parent neglected that guy,” Davis says. “It’s usually emotional neglect in their lives, some dysfunction. It’s not my job to throw him out; my job is to investigate his dysfunction and make light of it. I have to keep the laughs coming.”

“Hecklers are usually drunk,” says comedian Fred Greenlee. “There are two kinds of bad hecklers. One is the guy who makes no sense at all — he’s just out of control. The other is the guy with perfect timing, who says something stupid just before the punch line. Those are the ones that frustrate you the most.”

Comedians are especially vulnerable to such antics; most observers of the scene believe heckling is much more prevalent today and blame the proliferation of comedy outlets. Mark Anderson, who runs five Improvs, says that one challenge of opening a new club is trying to inculcate the chain’s firm antiheckling stance. The crowds, he says, often “think the purpose of a comedy club is to scream out. They say, ‘We were helping the show; we were heckling.’ There’s usually a three-month period where we have to train them not to yell and scream; we have to stifle them or get them out. We’ve tried to approach it as an art. A lot of people going into this business, myself included, had fantasies of being comedians, failed miserably but still have some artistic interest.”

The Improv is the chain of choice for most comedians, not only because of crowd control but also in terms of management, atmosphere, prestige and pay. Generic comics and hacks need not apply: almost every Improv headliner has done Carson or Letterman or both; to play an Improv, many comedians must drop from headliner to middle, or from middle to MC, but they do so gladly for the opportunity.

At the opposite end of the quality spectrum are the Funny Bones clubs, mostly located in the Midwest. Comics who’ve stopped playing them are nothing short of bitter about the seventeen-club chain. “They have a knack for getting headliners to work for next to nothing,” says one. “They treat you like a commodity, like a piece of meat. They give you this feeling of ‘Just come in and do your show and stay out of our hair.'”

Mitch Kutash, who owns the Funny Bones with Gerald Kubach, acknowledges that his outlook is influenced by his background: he’s a certified public accountant with a master’s degree in taxation. “I look at everything in terms of the bottom line,” says Kutash. “Anybody operating a bunch of places is going to do what we do or not make any money. We make money in every club we own, and I defy anybody in the bar business to say that about seventeen clubs.” Unfortunately, a lot of comedians can’t afford not to play the chain; it’s currently the country’s largest, and all those rooms mean several weeks of available road gigs.

In Hermosa Beach, California, stands what might well represent the last outpost of the old tradition. The Comedy and Magic Club is a classy, highly respected room that presents comics who don’t typically work clubs anymore, like Jay Leno and Garry Shandling. Owner Mike Lacey, 35, thinks one reason such performers are drawn to his club is that “it’s not a Hollywood crowd here, so it’s easier for them to judge how their material will work on television.”

Lacey, who founded the club ten years ago, has been an avid comedy fan since he was a kid, when he made deals with his parents to stay up late to watch Marx Brothers films. Though jumping aboard the chain bandwagon could prove highly lucrative, he refuses to do it. “I’ve thought a lot about it,” he says, “and my feeling is I want to do one club the best I can. If I do more clubs, the quality is going to drop.”

On a recent Sunday night Jay Leno makes a visit to Lacey’s 300-seat club. Casually attired, Leno steps onstage and starts pacing – and killing. He blazes through an hour of his best material, looking so relaxed you’d think performing stand-up was easy. He’s so comfortable with the stage and audience that he says, “I need to ask you guys a favor. I gotta host The Tonight Show tomorrow, so I wrote some jokes today. Can I try these on you?” The crowd is enthusiastic, so Leno pulls out a stack of index cards, turns on a tape recorder and runs through five minutes of new jokes, mostly about vice-presidential candidate Dan Quayle. Leno seems unconcerned with such mechanics as segues, but he’s clearly pleased that all but one elicit strong responses.

The next evening on The Tonight Show, Leno performs the same jokes in his monologue, some rewritten, some repositioned, the clinker deleted altogether. The audience eats up the road-tested material, and when he’s done, Jay Leno looks at the camera and smiles. Jerry Seinfeld: “I can’t take a vacation.”

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