Next to video rental shops and places that do one-hour photo processing, the most thriving business in this country seems to be clones
of the Improv or Comedy Store. Christened with names like "Giggles" and "Yukks" and "Boffo's" or the word "Comedy" plus any noun in the English
language, these establishments increasingly dot the landscape. No matter where you live, there is surely one within heckling distance.
Most were founded on that most attractive of American business principles: People working for nothing.
In the seventies, the Comedy Store up on Sunset was the place to be: Everyone who was or would be anyone in the world of Comedy passed
through its portals. Everyone who was looking to hire comedians, for big money or small, went there to "discover" whoever was on stage.
The new comics came in waves: A Freddie Prinze would get a series and become a star, and a whole wave of guys around the country who
thought they were funny would descend on Los Angeles. Then, a year or so later, a Gabe Kaplan would get a series and become a star...and
another wave of guys who thought they were funny would throw their belongings in a Buick and migrate West. Eventually, they would all be
queuing up for Open Mike Night, one of the most frightening rituals I have witnessed in my life. Anyone who cared enough to sign up early
(meaning long, long waits in line) could get five minutes before a house packed mainly with other auditioners and their friends. Imagine the
worst, most amateurish, probably-drunken, incoherent exhibitionism you have ever seen by someone utterly devoid of talent at a party. Now
multiply it by fifty, add a cover charge for watery colas and you have an evening at Open Mike Night.
I once described it thusly to a friend who was exhibiting suicidal tendencies (I told him) by considering attending one. "You see
an act where a skinny woman would come out wearing parts of a homemade turkey costume and she would strut about on stage for five minutes going,
'Gobble, gobble, gobble.' Then you'd see another twenty or thirty acts and you'd find yourself saying, 'Y'know, that Turkey Lady wasn't so
I went the one time because a friend was performing. I have since decided that anyone who causes you to go to Open Mike Night is no
friend. I saw no one who looked like they could have a career proofreading M&M's, let alone in show business.
Moral of the story: Being able to stand on a stage, saying things to make people laugh is a rare skill. Doing it at all is
difficult; doing it well is doubly-difficult.
I've made this analogy before (not that it was mine to begin with) but stand-up comedy is like walking a tightrope or juggling flaming
torches: You either do it well or you die a horrible, painful, public death. When a singer does a song or an actor plays a dramatic scene, the
quality of what they've done is arguable. There is no audible, measurable vote taken on the subject.
But there is in comedy. If I get up on stage, tell a joke and silence follows...well, there ain't a whole lot of wiggle-room to
argue that the joke was funny. Especially if it happens consistently. I have long held that it is an enormous waste of time to debate
whether some comedian is funny. If they keep getting on stage and making people laugh, that kind of settles it. You can argue that the
jokes were easy or tasteless or stolen but there's no disputing "funny" when the sound of laughter is heard.
It was hardly Camelot but there was a brief, shining moment at the Comedy Store up on Sunset: The examples of Prinze, Kaplan and a few
others were occurring often enough — and the other places to perform were sparse enough — that an evening at The Store was almost
magical: Richard Pryor might suddenly dart in to do a set, completely ad-lib. Or Freddie Prinze. Or Rodney Dangerfield. All the
comedians chatting at the bar would stop as Steve Landesberg drifted up to the stage to do a very funny slow-paced monologue, his rhythm instantly
balanced by some kid from San Francisco named Robin Williams. Then, later on, there was another kid — this one from Indiana — with
reddish hair and a reddish beard named Letterman or something like that. His act — mostly stuff about nude beaches, as I recall —
wasn't that great but one could see he could improve.
In later years, things would change...not necessarily for the worse. So many of these establishments erupted — and were
making so much money — that the comics went on strike, demanding that headliners (at least) get paid for the more profitable times (at least)
and things got ugly for a while. I helped make and carry picket signs saying things like, "No money, no funny" and "No bucks, no yuks" and, in
honor of the comics who crossed the picket lines, "Catch a Rising Scab." Eventually, it all got settled and now the comedians can share in the
By that time, I had become part of the "Comedy Store Crowd," not as a performer but as a gag writer. There were a number of us
around at the time, trying to interest comics in our material but I think I was the only one who wasn't also trying to get his own act off the
ground. So many of the writers around were also stand-ups that, when one somewhat-successful comic liked and wanted to acquire a monologue I'd
written, he offered — in lieu of cash, of course — to arrange an audition for me for The Merv Griffin Show.
I said, "I don't have a stand-up act. I'm not a performer."
He looked startled. "What are you doing, hanging around here?"
"I'm a writer," I said. "I write jokes. There are a lot of guys around here who write jokes." I pointed to a few of
them over by the bar. "You buy material all the time from guys like that, right?"
"Yeah," he said. "But not for money."
Having tried at least a little of most every kind of writing at which a body can make a buck, I can tell you that writing jokes for
stand-up comedians is one of the toughest, least-lucrative fields there is. There are no established rates, so you find yourself forever
haggling with comics who have little or no money. And even when you agree on what little they'll pay you, actually getting the cash is
Eventually, I was so sick of the Finance surrounding it all, I came up with a novel approach: Jokes for free. I didn't
I could afford it: I had enough other income from my writing. And it was so much easier not to clutter things up with money,
especially the piddling amounts that most beginning comics could afford to pay...or, at least, promise to pay. By not charging, I also freed
myself from dealing with the comedians I didn't like.
In the long run, it was worth it, just for the good will and favors owed. Years later, I "redeemed" one of those favors for many
times what I would have made charging for jokes. Plus, when I went in to audition for my first TV writing jobs, I was able to say —
truthfully — that I had written for comedians who'd been on The Johnny Carson Show, The Merv Griffin Show, Mike Douglas, etc.
But, more than that, it was educational. You can learn a lot writing jokes, not the least of which is that something can read
like a dream, fresh from your typewriter or word processor, but fail completely in its intended purpose. (A batting average of .250 —
meaning that only 75% of what you write has to be thrown away — is pretty good. For the writer who thinks his every word is gold, it can
be a very sobering experience. You may have thought it was hysterical, but when the audience doesn't laugh, you quickly learn otherwise.)
I approached it with no expectation of making money and, indeed, I didn't: I wrote for some comedians for free, others for almost
nothing, and one even paid me in video equipment. But, given all that I learned about phrasing and cutting and being willing to tear up work
that doesn't play, it was among the most profitable money I never made.
One night — call it 1975 — I had nothing better to do so I went up to The Store, just to hang out and hear the gossip.
There I was, the only non-customer in the place without a stand-up act, hanging out with the comics, sipping a 7-Up by the bar or
ambling out back where comedians clustered. I enjoyed the company of comedians and have always been fascinated to hear the anecdotes...to learn
what it takes to get up there in front of a mike and amuse a bunch of drunks. I sure couldn't do it.
At one point, I was approached by some guy who worked at the Store. For no visible reason, he told me that he was having trouble
starting his Mercury and asked if I'd take a look at it. "Me?"
Asking me to fix your car is like asking Larry Fine to take out your appendix. I wouldn't say I'm naïve about automobiles
but I once tried to look at my engine by peeking through the ignition keyhole.
(Years later, I purchased my '57 Thunderbird, fabled in song and story, and I had to learn a little about cars. But I have 7500
miles on my other car, a Lexus, and I've yet to open its hood.)
That night at the Store, I was still a total automotive ninny and I told the guy that. He argued, trying to convince me I could
fix a Mazzerati with one wrench tied behind my back. I demurred and he stomped off, angry that I wouldn't help him.
I told the comics within earshot what had happened and one of them finally guessed what it all meant: The guy had mistaken me for a
comedian who was proficient at fixing cars and who did look vaguely like me if you were Quincy Magoo and there was a total eclipse in progress.
They told me about the guy — he was fresh from Boston, hustling about to clubs with a work ethic that would have killed a lesser
man. In later weeks, I saw him work and he sure made me laugh. Others, I thought, were laughing too...but, in the months that followed,
as I tracked his career from afar and with no small measure of interest, his future seemed open to question. Other comics — less
deserving ones, it seemed to me — were being snatched up by talk shows and situation comedies and cable specials.
For a year or two, I couldn't go to the Comedy Store, The Improv or any of several other clubs without seeing him. This meant
that he worked hard but it also meant that no one was hiring him for any "real" jobs. His material seemed sharp and fresh and I couldn't
understand why he seemed to be going nowhere faster than any comedian I'd seen.
Another comic explained it to me: Yeah, the guy was funny but there was nothing special about him. And he was just too nice for
his own good. Yeah, he worked hard...too hard, some said. He was always off, playing every little dive and joint that would let him do
five minutes. "You don't build a career playing joints where they don't pay and the talent bookers don't go," the comic explained to me.
Other comedians liked him. No, I take that back: Other comedians loved him. Some loved his jokes enough to do them without
his presence. But the general consensus on him was that his career was stalled permanently in neutral.
He'd done the Carson Show. This was back when the Stepping Stone to comedy stardom was a shot on The Tonight Show Starring
Johnny Carson. That was where careers were made; it was so important that comics who'd done Merv Griffin's show three times and then done
Johnny's still spoke of their Tonight spot as their "TV debut." One comedian I knew did the show, scored well and, the next morning had
two solid years' worth of bookings at top dollar.
But when the kid from Boston did the show, it didn't go well and word was that he wouldn't be back. And if he couldn't get on
Carson again, he might as well go back to fixing Volvos in Beantown. "He'll never make it," I heard more than one comic say.
I missed a chance then to make a lot of money...because they'd have given me great odds that the guy would never again get a
five-minute shot on The Tonight Show, let alone take over the host's job.
Oh, did I forget to mention his name? Sorry. It was Jay Leno.
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