The Comedy Store turns 50 this year, and it’s now known as a storied birthplace for the careers of literally hundreds of comedians — from David Letterman to Jim Carrey to Whoopi Goldberg to Sebastian Maniscalco.
The late co-founder and longtime owner Mitzi Shore always envisioned the historic institution on L.A.’s Sunset Boulevard as an “artists colony,” a protected enclave where young talent could grow without worrying about money, consequently she mostly didn’t either.
When Peter Shore came to Los Angeles in 2002 from Portland, Ore., to keep an eye on the business while his mother, Mitzi, convalesced, he and Bob Wheeler, the Store’s chief financial officer, would spend the next 10 years correcting the questionable decisions made decades in the past.
“It is really just about preserving the place by any means necessary,” Shore tells Variety.
Shore, who rarely agrees to interviews, was driven as much by how important the place is to thousands of comics who have come through its doors over the past five decades, and the millions of audiences that came night after night to see them, as it was to his mother, who passed away in 2018 at age 87. And over the past 20 years, he and Wheeler took a business that was hanging by a thread and transformed it into a sustainable operation that anticipates another 50, thanks to a steady and thoughtful approach.
Consequently, Shore and a team of longtime, deeply loyal staff members have methodically modernized and updated the business, adapting to shifting cultural trends and other market fluctuations, such as, say, a pandemic that forced the building’s closure for the longest period in its history.
Augmented by Paycheck Protection Program loans from the government, the Store was able to pay employee salaries for six months out of savings Shore and Wheeler accumulated. But, he says the initial cushion was generated by carrying on established Comedy Store traditions, implemented in new or sometimes unique ways.
Philosophically, that has meant not just rotating through different talent managers including the Store’s current one, Emilie Laford, but using different processes to evaluate and bring on comics. In 2014, Shore changed a longstanding policy that once required even the most seasoned working comics to audition and to showcase in order to get approved as paid regulars. Instead, talent managers were encouraged to take into account that wealth of experience and pass proven performers based on their reputation (and the potential ticket sales).
David Spade was the first comedian hired as a paid regular via this new approach in that year, and the change subsequently encouraged other comedians to try and book appearances.
The other factor that Shore and the team have taken into consideration is the change in what is — and what should be — allowed in a space where irreverence and individuality are encouraged. Balancing the legacy of his mother and the essence of what the Store represents, while also acknowledging a complex larger world that rightfully demands accountability, Shore encourages frequent conversations among the team to figure out how best to address individuals, inside or outside the Store, whose bad behavior may have been forgiven or overlooked altogether in the past.
Conversely, general manager Richi Taylor has also been with the Store for 20 years, and he works to make sure that the décor and iconography of the space doesn’t change, even if its values do.
“When you walk into this ancient, historical building, you walk down the halls and you see these photographs of these comics when they were younger people,” Taylor says. “Everything’s still the same inside. We’ve had just a few cleanups and little modernizations, but it’s still that same backbone.”
Despite so much of the interior being shrouded in the minimalist aesthetic of black paint, this has proved to be a bigger challenge than one might expect. But he and Shore have worked in lockstep over the years to try and preserve elements that regulars associate with the Store, treating a space for laughter with diligent reverence.
“We want to make it feel like a museum,” says Shore. “This is a piece of Americana, and it’s important to maintain the integrity of its history by being consistent with its own history.”
Shore also further enhanced that lived-in, familiar atmosphere by installing the wooden bar from his mother’s home as the centerpiece of a VIP room, tracing a lineage from Robin Williams and Bob Saget to Dave Chappelle into the future.
“Objects carry a weight and a history and an energy,” says Iliza Shlesinger, who became a paid regular in 2006. “Surrounded by all of these comedy artifacts and pictures and posters, that energy lingers there more than any other club. These things are eternal.”
It’s also pursued new methods of promoting comics and facilitating their creativity. The Store built a podcast studio in 2015 and former Warner Music Group veteran Jon Sosis started renovating it last year after joining the staff full time in August. The Store enlisted him to oversee an in-house record label to record and release both new material from current comedians and archival content that’s been gathering dust in the building’s basement. Capitalizing both on the explosion of streaming and social-media platforms and the resurgence of interest in physical media, Sosis vacillates between projects such as Rick Ingraham’s debut album, “American Bully,” which was released digitally in February, and a forthcoming vinyl box set containing never before released material from the Store’s 10th, 15th and 20th anniversary shows.
But with or without these changes, Wheeler, who started working with Mitzi in 1997, marvels at the way the Store has always found a way forward, often by the skin of its teeth.
“I always felt like the store was somehow bigger than all of us, and there was some universal thing looking out for the club,” he says. “Because just when we’d think, ‘oh my God, it’s our last hope,’ something would happen and all of a sudden we were getting attendance again.”
Although he adamantly wants his mother, Mitzi, to remain the face of the Comedy Store — so much that he was reluctant to be quoted for this piece — it’s ultimately Shore’s shrewd business sense that has enabled it to endure.
“It’s not for me and my legacy or my children’s legacy, or in fact my mother’s legacy, which I do preserve as best as I can,” he says. “It’s really for the comics to ensure that they have that place that they call home to be preserved as long as possible.”