Death, Laughs and a Comedian Strike: Looking Back at 45 Years of the Comedy Store
Besides being one of stand-up comedy's most iconic rooms, the Comedy Store in West Hollywood — which turns 45 this week — is also one of its most difficult.
Originally a Prohibition-era night club in the 1930s with ties to Bugsy Siegal, its still-creepy basement is rumored to have been used for the mob's dirty business, from "whacking" people to providing unregulated abortions for prostitutes employed at the brothel the criminal organization ran next door. Add to that multiple murders that have taken place within steps of the venue and a revenge suicide that took place across the street, and it's no wonder the Comedy Store has its very own page on hauntedhouses.com. Perhaps tormented spirits account for the Original Room's rap as a cruel and unusual stage. Standing against those darkly sheathed windows facing Sunset Boulevard is like surfing Oahu's Pipeline — if you can do it there, you can do it anywhere — but even the best occasionally get swallowed by the treacherous waters.
Old-timey comedian Sammy Shore and his wife, Mitzi, opened the venue in 1972 to serve as a stage and hangout for Sammy and his friends. Hardly a woman to stand in the shadows, Mitzi instantly assumed the role of matron, often running the place autonomously while Sammy toured. She instituted an open mic, formed set lists out of the original free-for-all scene, and instituted a two-drink minimum — a policy that simultaneously ensured cash flow and a well-lubricated audience, which (perhaps irritatingly) remains the industry standard to this day. In short, she created a template in the '70s that, nearly half a century later, still dominates in the majority of comedy clubs nationwide. In 1974, the Shores divorced and Sammy gave her the Store in what is officially the coolest alimony payment in history. For Mitzi, it was more like winning custody of a child.
“Mitzi had a mother-hen hold on her comics, from beginners all the way up to the great Richard Pryor,” says Argus Hamilton, who claims to have performed two minutes more than his allotted time at the Comedy Store every night since the Carter administration (if you’ve been there, you’ve likely seen him in his trademark suit telling political one-liners). With her sharp eye and knack for curating a lineup, Mitzi was like the Lorne Michaels of stand-up. Robin Williams often cited her as an influence: “Mitzi didn’t dictate content, which was great. ... She would sometimes advise you, ‘Oh, you don’t need to do all those penis jokes,'” he told E! in a 2001 episode of True Hollywood Story. Williams, along with many a top comedian, jumped at the chance to do a Mitzi impression.
In 1976, she expanded the Store into a three-room comedy palace. She then bought the Comedy Store Westwood, where up-and-coming comics could cut their teeth and her best could work out new material, creating an unprecedented, extended playground for West Coast comedians.
On the one hand, the Store's regulars had creative freedom, stage time and a steady stream of agents and executives scouting them. On the other hand, Mitzi garnered huge profits, while the very comics who drew and dazzled the crowds walked away empty-handed. She refused to pay comics on the grounds that it was a "comedy college," an institution of learning and showcasing. Some made peace with it, but most began to feel they were subject to the glamorous showbiz equivalent of indentured servitude.
Robin Williams and Sam Kinison onstage in the Original Room
Courtesy the Comedy Store
In 1979, Mitzi’s beloved children turned against her and went on strike. With bigger names like Leno and Letterman by their sides, the Comedy Store comics attempted to form a labor union, demanding pay for their performances. The problem was, they weren’t employees to begin with. Certain comics were blacklisted from the Comedy Store, including Steve Lubetkin, who, shortly thereafter, committed suicide by jumping off the roof of the Continental Hyatt House across the street. His suicide note read: "My name is Steve Lubetkin. I used to work at the Comedy Store ...”
Mitzi began paying her comics $15 a set, a fee that remained the same until last December, when it was raised to $20. After Mitzi implemented the new policy, clubs everywhere started paying comedians for their performances (hopefully better than she did).
In the tenderly awkward period that followed, Mitzi began inviting comedians to stay at a house she owned behind the Store known as Cresthill House. Some thought it was a guilt offering, some thought it was just a further expression of her devotion to cultivating young comics. In any case, far beyond her usual job of training comedians, she was now fostering them. The tenant list included Andrew Dice Clay, Sam Kinison and, later, Mitzi and Sammy's son Pauly at the height of his career.
In the decades that followed, the Store’s influence ebbed and flowed but never lost ground. Comedian Tony Hinchcliffe started performing there in 2007 and hosts his podcast Kill Tony from the club's Belly Room. “A lot of the rooms were empty back then. ... People said the place was dying out," Hinchcliffe says of his early days there. Not unlike Twitter, the club survived its speculated demise, proving to be inextricably bound to the culture that yielded it. “They’re embracing the podcast. I think it’s just going to keep evolving.”
Such fluid navigation of the comedy world has further cemented the Store’s status as legendary, despite the fact that Mitzi has been battling Parkinson's disease for years. Her brand endures and the venue she built remains a hive for L.A. comics. Louis C.K.'s recent special Live at the Comedy Store was an instant classic. And when Chris Rock wanted to work out his material before last year's Oscars, it was the Store he turned to.
“In the old days, comedians went onstage at the Comedy Store in order to get on national TV; now comics have to do national TV in order to get onstage at the Comedy Store,” Hamilton says.
The Comedy Store celebrates its anniversary on Friday, April 7, at 9 p.m. with a show hosted by Bill Burr and featuring Neal Brennan, Iliza, Argus Hamilton and many more. Tickets available at hollywood.thecomedystore.com.
Kelly MacLean records her podcast, The Tao of Comedy, in the highly haunted basement of the Comedy Store, where she interrogates comics about life’s existential questions and, like the resident mobsters before her, refuses to take no for an answer.
CORRECTION: In an earlier version of this article, founder Sammy Shore was misidentified. We regret the error.
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