I was in the Groundlings main company doing sketches. A girlfriend of mine named Judy Toll, who went on to become a writer on “Sex and the City” and was a really funny comedian, was in the Groundlings but was also doing sets at The Comedy Store, founded by Mitzi Shore. I was doing a kind of stand-up at the Groundlings, and people there like Judy and Lisa Kudrow told me that they thought I would be better at stand-up than sketch comedy, because I would tell these personal, kind of unique stories. But I was scared to try a comedy club. It’s such a different environment than the Groundlings Theatre, which was a 99-seat theater with no bar. But Judy said, “Let me see if I can talk to Mitzi and if I can get you a good, respectable, 10- to 15-minute audition slot.”
So I went with Judy to the Store, and Judy, who was a rare female comedian, went to talk to Mitzi, who was the only female club owner of significance. This was 1990 or ’91, and I think Sam Kinison was at her table. She was surrounded by her guys — the guy comics. It was a kind of kiss-the-ring situation. Judy literally couldn’t get me a seat at the table, but she was like, “I’m going to approach the table.” And she got me the slot.
I had what they called a guest set. Mitzi watched me, and I had the very unusual experience of my very first set going unbelievably well. I killed. So Mitzi started giving me more spots. And then, I swear to God, I bombed for two years. I ended up not doing very well at the Store and not making my career there. But I was fascinated by the culture there. Whenever I could, I would get one of my comedian buddies to take me there and I’d hang out. To just see a female with that influence and how the guys hung on her every word was incredible. She could really talk to those dudes in a way that they never had a female talk to them, and they listened to her and took her seriously. It was interesting to observe a time, which we’re probably going back to with this fucking administration, where a powerful woman had to govern a little bit by fear. I was intimidated by Mitzi and I admired her.
Many people owe her their careers, and I owe her my first shot. I bombed for two years after, but I got a taste of something. Those two years I was bombing, what kept me going was the memory of that first set, and the belief that I could get back there again, getting those laughs.
Kathy Griffin is a stand-up comedian and comic actress. Mitzi Shore died April 11 in West Hollywood. She was 87.