Early in Showtime’s new series about the Comedy Store, Neal Brennan lists a few of the heavy-hitters who called the club their home: Richard Pryor, Sam Kinison, Andrew “Dice” Clay, David Letterman, Jay Leno. “I don’t think there’s a single building in America that has affected culture more than the Store,” he says, more or less laying out the documentary’s thesis. It’s hard to argue. Over the years, the Store’s corps of regulars has included people who would become (or already were) some of American culture’s most prominent figures: not only talk show hosts (Letterman, Leno, Arsenio Hall) and comedian-statesmen (Pryor, Marc Maron, Joe Rogan), but also TV stars (Bob Saget, Roseanne Barr, Jimmie Walker, Whoopi Goldberg, Whitney Cummings, Garry Shandling), movie stars (Robin Williams, Billy Crystal, Jim Carrey, Michael Keaton), and industry power brokers like Howie Mandel, now co-owner of Just For Laughs.
That’s a lot of influence for one little club. But then, isn’t it true of all the foundational comedy venues? From the Comedy Cellar emerged Louis CK, Jon Stewart, Ray Romano, Sarah Silverman, Judy Gold, Colin Quinn. From Chicago’s improv theaters (the Annoyance, Second City, iO, and before them the Compass Players) emerged Stephen Colbert, Seth Meyers, Bill Murray, Mike Myers, Amy Sedaris, Adam McKay, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler. From the Groundlings emerged Conan O’Brien, Paul Reubens, Lisa Kudrow, Kathy Griffin. And then there’s UCB. I sometimes find it mind-boggling to consider how a few small businesses nobody really pays attention to—unless they work or see shows there—have exerted so much soft power over the shape of popular culture.
Or maybe it’s just a few people. One interesting feature of The Comedy Store is how it paints the club as emblematic of comedy’s egalitarianism (anyone can make it if they’ve got the goods!) while lavishly extolling the singular genius of its owner. This is true of most popular histories of comedy, colored as they tend to be by survivorship bias and access. You’ll often hear comedians say in the same breath that comedy is the ultimate meritocracy and that they owe everything to the one person who took a chance on them. These are obviously incompatible: chances are a finite resource, and if the playing field were truly level then a talented comedian wouldn’t need the leg up. Another popular line is that a particular gatekeeper’s virtue lies in the space they give artists to fail. Important as this is, it’s not meritocracy either. It’s an investment; it’s faith. A great many factors determine who earns it and who doesn’t.
The meritocracy myth obscures a more interesting story. For as long as it’s existed, the ground floor of the comedy industry has operated as a patchwork of independent fiefdoms, each run by its own feudal lord. I have written before that Saturday Night Live is functionally a machine that decides who gets to be rich and famous for the rest of their lives. Clubs and theaters serve the same purpose lower in the food chain, and historically have been run according to the same principles, by the same personalities. Remember Lorne Michaels’ obsession with celebrity? How about his disdain for people who leave SNL of their own accord? You may see some resemblance in Mitzi Shore, who (per a 1982 NLRB opinion) preferred her comics to stick around even when they weren’t working—
Upon the present record, which has been fully considered, but which need not be further recapitulated, determinations would clearly seem to be warranted, within my view, that Shore considers the presence of comedians "hanging out" within Comedy Store facilities desirable, since their presence generates a favorable ambience calculated to stimulate public patronage; that she considers the presence of such a coterie, therefore, good for Respondent's business; that she has—once at least—declared that she considered herself "the mother of all comedians" and that "the more of her children that hung around" the happier she felt; and, consequently that—when Shore considers particular comedians worthy—their specific reward for hanging out when not performing will be more, or more desirable, performance time allotments.
—and discouraged them from working at other clubs—
Credible testimony will, nevertheless, support a factual conclusion, within my view, that Respondent's proprietor has, sometimes, suggested that comedians should avoid certain other clubs which might solicit or welcome their services. In this connection, [Dottie] Archibald's testimony, which I credit in this particular, reveals Shore's suggestion, sometime during 1978, that she should eschew further performances at The Improvisation—concededly a competitive Los Angeles comedy club—because its proprietor, Bud[d] Friedman, was "not a nice person" and because it was "not a good place" for her to work. Further, Archibald reported Shore's advice—proffered pursuant to her (Archibald's) solicitation—that she should reject a tentative proposal pursuant to which she was promised a booking to perform at Chicago's Playboy Club, because such a booking "would be bad" for her career. The comedienne never accepted a Playboy Club booking; she did, however, continue her Improvisation performances. Her testimony reflects her professed recollection, however, that, further Improvisation appearances "prevented" her from becoming a favored Comedy Store performer, whom Shore would schedule frequently.
—and practically made a whole business model out of exploiting their devotion. I wrote last week about Shore’s penchant for sleeping with Store comics, allegedly giving desirable stage time to her favorites. (Budd Friedman, owner of the Improv, also reportedly slept with comics, employees, and patrons.) In The Comedy Store, Eleanor Kerrigan recalls how Shore once enlisted her to tend the club’s finances, even though she had no accounting experience. In We Killed: The Rise of Women in American Comedy, Lois Bromfeld recounts how she was appointed legal guardian to Shore’s children, looking after them while Shore worked. (“I was twenty-five or twenty-six.”) According to I’m Dying Up Here, a history of the Store, Shore used “her in-house labor force of comics” to build the club’s Main Room: some “scraped and hammered and painted” while others were dispatched to purchase lumber and other materials. The book also describes the all-night coke parties at Shore’s house, to which none of the club’s women were invited. One regular attendee was a teenage Mike Binder, The Comedy Store’s writer-director, whom Shore would later convince to betray his friends and cross the picket line.
“A psychologist would have had a field day with [comics’] conflicting feelings toward Shore,” William Knoedelseder writes in I’m Dying Up Here:
She was by turns their boss, their friend, their surrogate mother, their harshest critic, and their biggest fan. They flattered her to her face, made fun of her behind her back, craved her approval, and resented her dominion over their lives. They admired her and thought she was wacko. But none of them disliked her, and all felt a measure of gratitude for her patronage.
Shore’s psychological pull over her workers was a powerful weapon. As they gathered in 1979 to decide whether pay was worth fighting for, their affection for their boss clouded their judgment. An “easy consensus” that they should get paid for shows in the Main Room, which typically featured higher-caliber headliners, broke down when it came to the club’s Original Room:
Some thought it was wrong to expect to be paid in the Original Room because most of the comics performing there weren’t at a professional level yet. The workshop atmosphere allowed anyone with talent to rise at their own pace, they said. And weren’t they all proof that the system worked? Why turn it into a professional room and run the risk of fucking everything up?
Others argued that it was a professional room already because there was so much media and industry presence on any given night that some comics had stopped trying out new material for fear of, as Robin Williams put it, “going down el tubo in front of the man from Time magazine.”
Leno and Boosler floated a compromise idea borrowed from the New York Improv, where the new owners—Budd Friedman’s ex-wife Silver and her partner Chris Albrecht—were giving comics $5 to cover cab fare between clubs so they could do sets at several places a night. Mitzi could give the comics $5 a night, too, they said, but call it “gas money” instead. That way she could preserve her no-payment policy and the comics still would be able to buy breakfast.
It’s interesting to me how much these discussions foreshadow UCB, where one anti-pay argument goes (went?) that it’s fair not to compensate artists for lower quality work. This has always been a twisted line of reasoning that requires comedians to assume a very poor opinion of themselves (aren’t you trying to make good work, after all?) and the theater to demean its own product. It also makes no sense, because audiences pay to see that lower-grade work all the same, and the theater takes their money. To the extent that comedians have adopted this logic, it represents an internalization of the boss’s prerogative to minimize expenses and maximize profit. (Semi-relatedly, it’s revealed elsewhere in I’m Dying Up Here that Shore appeared to be skimming off the top of the club’s receipts.) I suspect this would not be possible without the deeply engrained affection many comedy communities have for their bosses, an affection that has compelled them throughout the form’s history to sacrifice their own interests. No one ever seems to ask what the business might look like if they’d all been paid fairly from the start.
This is the true story of comedy: a story of Lornes and Mitzis and Charna Halperns and UCB4s leveraging scarcity to extract their workers’ labor and psychological manipulation to extract their workers’ class consciousness. If comedy workers wish to build a healthier industry after the pandemic, they will have to tell this story clearly. If the rest of us wish to understand the world we live in, so will we.
Header image via YouTube/Comedy Central.