Despite the ubiquity of comedy on television and the Internet, live comedy continues to thrive at the Comedy Store, which is celebrating its 40th anniversary. The brainchild of comedian Sammy Shore and wife Mitzi, along with partner Rudy Deluca, the franchise launched in 1972 with the opening of the Sunset Strip location, the same month Johnny Carson moved “The Tonight Show” to the West Coast.
“There was a huge exodus of comedians from New York to L.A.,” says Argus Hamilton, a Comedy Store regular who writes a widely syndicated humor column.
Satellite clubs subsequently popped up all over the West Coast including Westwood in 1975, Pacific Beach the next year, La Jolla the year after that, then Las Vegas and Honolulu in 1984 and 1985, respectively, and Universal City in 1988. But while the franchise continues to make a profit, according to its managers who declined to give specifics, it has not been immune to the fluctuations of the economy. At present two locations continue to operate, including its flagship in West Hollywood. But its legacy has not lost its luster.
Asked how Mitzi managed to pluck the best of the best out of obscurity, Hamilton says the godmother of L.A. comedy “only picked people with incredible charisma. She believed if she gave them enough stage time, they’d develop the acts they needed to succeed.”
Mitzi, who took over the operation when she and Sammy divorced in 1974, became one of Hollywood’s more influential comedy brokers with an eye for talent that television networks mined when they cast their upcoming sitcoms from her talent pool.
“Performing at the Comedy Store is basically the biggest thing that can happen to you as a comic,” says Whitney Cummings, whose stand-up career led to her own sitcom on NBC as well as CBS’ hit “2 Broke Girls.” “She sees talent in people that even they, or the industry, don’t know they have.”
Cummings, who had to audition twice for Shore before she landed a slot, describes the club as a kind of boot camp for comics to hone their craft. “The lighting and seating, everything, is designed to make a comic better,” she says. “It breaks you, makes you so tough that nothing can hurt you after you’ve performed there.” The experience, she says, allows performers to establish an identity. “We call it the gym. Getting a laugh at the Comedy Store is like an applause anywhere else.”
Iliza Shlesinger, who was the winner of NBC’s “Last Comic Standing” in season six, likens performing at the Comedy Store to being put through the ringer. “A Comedy Store comic is a tougher comic,” she says. “It’s a badge I wear with pride.”
Pauly Shore — who says he had two hurdles to overcome: he had to be funny and the fact that he’s Mitzi’s son — describes the hoop comedians jumped through to make the cut, a system he calls “pretty bullet proof.” Essentially, a comic would perform for three minutes in front of Mitzi, and if she liked you, she’d let you park cars and seat people. “What she’s saying is you’re part of the family.” He adds that it took Jim Carrey and Howie Mandel a few times but she finally let them in.
The club’s creative director Tommy Morris says Mitzi has always referred to the franchise as an “artist colony” and not a club. “What do we do here?” he asks rhetorically, “we develop people.”
The opportunity she has afforded rising stars is no joke. Among the careers she’s helped jump-start include Robin Williams, Richard Pryor, Jay Leno, David Letterman, Freddie Prinze, Sam Kinison, Louie Anderson, Chris Rock, Eddie Murphy, Roseanne Barr, Chelsea Handler, Arsenio Hall and Bob Saget.
Morris tells the story of when Mitzi talked Letterman off a ledge just as he was about to give it all up. “If you leave now,” she told him, “you’ll miss your destiny.”
“Mitzi Shore and her club changed my life forever,” stated Letterman in an email. “I owe her and the Comedy Store everything.”
Mitzi instilled in Morris the three attributes essential for success: talent, work ethic and desire.
“When I find somebody with the gift,” she once said, “I give them an arena to develop in. If they work hard at it and want it bad enough, magical things will happen.”
Part of that magic is a resiliency in the face of a surfeit of comedians over the airwaves, whether cast in sitcoms, sketch comedy or variety shows on networks, cable and the Web, or filling the 24-hour programming cycle on the Comedy Channel.
But for Morris, the beauty is in the details. “You can watch as much TV as you want,” he says, “but you won’t get the same feeling as being in the room. There’s an energy flow.”
Adds Peter Shore, who, with Pauly, has been running the Comedy Store when Mitzi’s health began to decline in recent years: “Audiences are very savvy and understand the difference between seeing someone live vs. on TV, so they continue to come to the club. Like all businesses, we devise creative ways to stay current and continue to reach out to those in our community to build long term relationships which may be mutually beneficial.”
Despite a still-nagging recession, he calls live comedy “recession/depression proof.” “It’s simply astonishing how resilient the Comedy Store has been despite many external challenges.”
Peter Shore says the family business will continue to develop and nurture talent through the system his mom established decades ago, while fortifying the label.
“Given the right circumstances, we’ll expand locations into other markets, and continue to broaden brand recognition through social media, marketing charitable causes, film, television and digital media platforms.”
If the formula sounds a tad like a position paper, the Comedy Store continues to get the last laugh.