“Ask any working comedian anywhere which club means the most in terms of bragging rights to say you’re a regular at. Hands down, it’s The Comedy Store.”
So says actor, writer, director and former stand-up comedian Mike Binder, who cut his teeth doing stand-up comedy at the world famous Los Angeles comedy club alongside veterans such as David Letterman, Jay Leno, Jimmie Walker, Richard Pryor, Sam Kinison, Jim Carrey and many more. Now Binder is behind The Comedy Store, a five-part documentary series beginning on Showtime in early October, and it’s a riveting, hilarious, heartbreaking, intimate, and definitive chronicle of how this venue defined stand-up comedy for decades and still does to this very day. It’s all thanks to the eccentric and dedicated owner Mitzi Shore, the mother of 1990s pop culture sensation Pauly Shore.
You might know Mike Binder for writing and directing films such as Reign Over Me or The Upside of Anger. Or maybe you just remember him screaming “Anderton, wait!” in Minority Report over and over again. Binder has been around the block of Hollwood, but his career in show business began when he moved from Detroit to Los Angeles in the late 1970s when he was just 18 years old, and he started working as a doorman at The Comedy Store on Sunset Blvd in the heart of Los Angeles.
Binder was a regularly working, fairly famous comedian in his own right, performing on every talk show, from The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson to Merv Griffin, Dinah Shore, The Mike Douglas Show, and more. He even had his own stand-up specials on cable. So there’s no better person to drive this documentary by interviewing dozens of some of the most famous stand-up comedians from yesterday and today, remembering their days spent at this stand-up hot spot.
Binder has personal relationships and friendships with old school comics featured in the series, such as Tom Dreesen, Argus Hamilton, John Witherspoon, and Tim Thomerson, and veteran comedians who are still famous to this day such as David Letterman, Jay Leno, Jim Carrey, Whoopi Goldberg, Tim Allen, Chris Rock, Damon Wayans, and Howie Mandel. Viewers may also be surprised to learn about Michael Keaton‘s early years spent as a stand-up comedian before he became a big TV and movie star. And more modern comedians like Anthony Jezslnik, Nikki Glaser, Tom Segura, Tiffany Haddish, Leslie Jones, Sebastian Maniscalco, and more also provide insight. Binder’s presence in these interviews paves the way for some of the most intimate and candid conversations about comedy that I’ve ever seen in any documentary. It feels more like eavesdropping on a nearby conversation than listening to an interview, and that’s a big part of what makes this series so outstanding.
Each episode, at least within the first three installments provided for review by Showtime, is guided by a conversation between Mike Binder and comedians speaking with him about The Comedy Store on their own podcasts. The first three episodes feature Marc Maron, Bill Burr and Whitney Cummings, in that order, talking to Binder about their experiences and history with the venue. That’s not to say each episode is primarily focused on these comedians, but these segments are dispersed throughout an hour-long historical recap of the famous faces and defining moments that have made The Comedy Store a cornerstone in stand-up comedy history.
It all begins when The Comedy Store became a breeding ground for comedians looking to land a spot on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. The kind of stories that are peppered throughout this series are the kind of anecdotes you love to hear from show business. Howie Mandel remembers how Johnny Carson’s talent scout told him that he’d never be on The Tonight Show because Johnny wouldn’t like his style of comedy, only to be invited by guest host Joan Rivers. And that guest spot was seen by Johnny Carson, who loved him so much that he invited him back to the show just weeks later.
Flash forward to the period full of more unpredictable comedians known as “The Wild Bunch,” and you’ll hear Jim Carrey recalling a time that he stomped through the audience when some hecklers wouldn’t shut up, smashing a beer bottle on their table, and making a threat taken directly from a bar scene in the film From Here to Eternity. Almost everyone has some kind of wild story like this, and the series jumps between memorable moments in history, entertaining reminiscence, and abridged comedian biographies, but it never feels lost or lacking focus. It all feeds into the larger legacy and image of The Comedy Store.
But the most fascinating bits come from behind the scenes of the club, where Mitzi Shore was the gatekeeper for a venue that could make or break your career. Every comedian has their own dead-on impression of Mitzi’s trademark voice, and the recounting of all the inner-workings of the club are nothing short of fascinating.Mitzi’s unique comedic sensibilities shot some comedians to stardom while forcing others to work harder for their fame. Some of today’s famous comedians never got her seal of approval. Her creative suggestions were more like demands, and if you didn’t acquiesce, you might not get a lot of stage time. But even so, being “passed” by her and earning a coveted spot on The Comedy Store’s stage was the ultimate badge of honor. Though Mitzi is often painted in a positive light from those who knew her best, there are also shortcomings that are prominently highlighted, including her resistance to paying comedians for their work on stage, which ultimately led to a strike, and her unwillingness to surrender control of the club as her mental health began to deteriorate.
Though The Comedy Store serves mostly as a history lesson, it also focuses on modern aspects of the club, including some of the more unsavory elements of the club’s reputation. Since the club is known as being this mecca of comedy that’s a prime place to work on new material, some of the famous and arrogant faces have abused their place in the comedy world by making unannounced guest appearances where they take the stage for three or four hours, bumping off all of the other up and coming or less famous comedians who just want some time to try out their latest bits. Plus, there’s the open mic showcase, which gives only a select couple dozen or so comedians (out of nearly 200 who try for a spot) a chance to get three minutes on stage to impress the club’s current booker, Adam Eget. If all goes well enough times, then Eget will ask a comedian to be a paid regular, guaranteeing them spots on stage and a little paycheck. There’s discomfort in seeing some comedians bomb, but pure joy when one of them sees all their hard work pay off. Along with the humor throughout, it’s a nice counter to the sadness that unfortunately pops up all too often in the world of comedians.
Since this is a documentary full of comics recalling the years they spent at the famous venue, The Comedy Store is undeniably funny. Both the interviews and vintage comedy clips bring a wide variety of laughs. But where there’s comedy, there’s also tragedy, and The Comedy Store is full of plenty of it. Profiles of Freddie Prinze and Sam Kinison don’t shy away from the scarier side of the free-wheeling drug use that pervaded the comedy scene. Jimmie Walker recalls accompanying Prinze, the handsome comedian and star of Chico and the Man, when he bought a crossbow and set out to kill John Travolta for being the new hearthrob. This really happened, and there’s a police report to prove it. And that was just one of several warning signs that Prinze was heading down an even darker path. Kinison’s best friend and fellow comedian Carl LaBove tells the agonizing story of holding Kinson in his arms as he died after a fatal car accident. And these aren’t the only sad stories told in this series.
More intimate and thoughtful conversations are sparked from these kind of tragedies. Pauly Shore in particular gets extremely self-reflective about his place in show business, not just as a son in a family of comedy royalty, but as a 1990s comedy star in his own right. He’s keenly self-aware but somehow simultaneously has an inflated sense of his legacy as he longs for the same fame that once brought him so much happiness. Despite having these feelings of inadequacy, he’s been around so much depression and drug and alcohol abuse that he’s learned too many lessons about the consequences of addiction.
Binder leaves no area of The Comedy Store unexplored, literally and figuratively, as every interview subject speaks from a wide variety of locations inside the club. While traditional documentaries often overuse locations for the settings of their interviews, Binder not only stages interviews in every possible corner of the venue, including Mitzi Shore’s office that has been closed off since her death in 2018, but he takes many of the subjects to several different areas, from the various comedy stages to the historic hall where they wait to go on stage, and everything in between. It’s a subtle touch, but it’s a welcome one in a genre that can too frequently rely on repetitive set-ups.
It seems appropriate that a documentary series called The Comedy Store has everything you’d want from a definitive chronicle of stand-up comedy as it unfolded in this famous club. The shelves are stocked with all your favorite comedians. There’s a sale on rarely seen archived footage and photos from various stand-up sets, including heavy hitters like David Letterman, Robin Williams, Jay Leo, Richard Pryor, and many more. And the pharmacy has a dose of reality to keep your feet firmly on the ground.
Easily one of the richest, most compelling and honest comedy documentaries in recent memory, The Comedy Store has it all, and you don’t want to miss it when it premieres on Showtime on Sunday, October 4 at 10:00 P.M. ET/PT.
/Film – ‘Slash Film: ‘The Comedy Store’ Review: A Riveting, Intimate and Definitive History of the Venue That Defined Stand-Up Comedy’
Author: Ethan Anderton
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September 29, 2020