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Once in a lifetime a venue comes along that changes show business dramatically, that fosters growth and camaraderie, experimentation and freedom. The Comic Strip is one of those places, and Make ’Em Laugh is an inside look at how it all happened, straight from the mouths of the stars who built their careers on its stage. Owner Richie Tienken and a wealth of comics open their hearts and souls to share their most intimate memories, the laughs and tears, the good times and the bad, in order to paint an ...
Once in a lifetime a venue comes along that changes show business dramatically, that fosters growth and camaraderie, experimentation and freedom. The Comic Strip is one of those places, and Make ’Em Laugh is an inside look at how it all happened, straight from the mouths of the stars who built their careers on its stage. Owner Richie Tienken and a wealth of comics open their hearts and souls to share their most intimate memories, the laughs and tears, the good times and the bad, in order to paint an all-encompassing, behind-the-scenes history of this iconic club. Interviews include famous comedians, such as:
And many more!
Relive the excitement as these comics explain how they came to belong to the Comic Strip family, and how they went on to enjoy huge careers, bringing laughter to millions of people all over the world. This book is a must for any comedian or comedy lover’s library!
When we were working out the structure of this book, we decided to make each chapter as if it was about a family, because The Comic Strip is just like a family—a family consisting of all dads, that is. This family consists of the parents, the older kids, and the younger siblings, as well as family friends and the next generation to come. The older ones, about whom this section is dedicated, are the ones who came along at the birth of The Comic Strip, starting with Jerry Seinfeld, and his crew: Paul Reiser, Larry Miller, George Wallace, and others.
Jerry Seinfeld is a comedian, actor, writer, TV and film producer, and director who made his name part of our lexicon with the eponymously named Seinfeld. The show ran from 1989 to 1998. Since then, Jerry has co-written and co-produced The Bee Movie, directed Colin Quinn's Long Story Short on Broadway, and created the NBC show The Marriage Ref starring Tom Papa.
When did you start performing, and what were some of your earliest memories of The Comic Strip?
Well, this is funny, because I actually started performing in my last semester of college. In order to finish college, I cooked up an independent study in stand-up comedy to get twelve credits so I could finish school and graduate. I had already done three-and-a-half years, and I figured, "Well, I might as well finish it. My parents'll be feeling better if I finish it, but I really was done with it, and I just wanted to go into stand-up comedy.
So I cooked up this thing, like a thesis, and I went to the theater department head, and I said, "Well, I wanna do a study on stand-up comedy, and I'll spend nine hours a day writing and twelve hours a day performing, and I just made up this whole crazy thing, and the funny thing is that Carol Liefer, who I had given it to when I knew her back from 1977, just sent it back to me a couple of weeks ago.
But I did it, so I didn't have to go to school for the last six months, so I could hang out here at The Strip and start doing comedy, and they went for it. They actually went for it and gave me the twelve credits, and that's how I graduated Queens College of the City University of New York in the summer of 1976.
I had been studying television production and drama and theater. Anything to do with show business was interesting to me. And somewhere in that period, from '74 to '75, I decided I was gonna do comedy.
I went to night school for a while in Queens, and I worked some construction jobs during the day, and I remember sitting on this ledge on Madison and 57th Street eating a sandwich—and it's still there that ledge. Now it's a Montblanc store. It was a bank at the time, and I remember sitting on this ledge watching people walk by and just trying to figure, "What is life? What are you supposed to do in life?" And the thought came to me: "What's the difference? Why don't I just do what I love to do ... what I wanna do? And even if I'm a failure, it'll probably be a better life than anything else that I don't really wanna do." So in that moment I decided I'm gonna do comedy and I don't care what happens.
So, I really began performing early in '76. Maybe I did a couple of things in '75, when I was about twenty-one years old. And then I used to go to a couple of other clubs that were around at that time like The Improv, Catch A Rising Star, Pearl's Place on 96th Street. There was the Golden Lion Pub on 44th and Broadway, and I remember hanging around, and I swear I can remember it crystal clear. I remember standing at the bar at Catch and somebody was saying there's a new club opening on 2nd Avenue called The Comic Strip.
Do you remember your very first time onstage? Not at The Strip but just onstage doing comedy?
I do, and as a matter of fact I think my very first time onstage was at Catch. And it was probably the summer of '75. I got on the audition night line, and I got number one. They announced my name, and I went onstage and froze. I totally froze. I said a couple of things, and then I froze.
Elayne Boosler was the MC. I mentioned a couple of topics that I wanted to talk about, but that was all that came out. I had no idea that you really had to memorize what you wanted to say. I thought it was all gonna come out very easily.
I was on maybe two minutes, and then I just got off, and then she went on and said, "That was Jerry Seinfeld, the master of segue!" 'Cause I was just going, "My parents, the beach, driving ..." I could only remember the topics I wanted to talk about, but I couldn't remember what I wanted to say about those things.
Then I didn't go back onstage again for probably about six months.
It must have taken a while to get over the embarrassment of that incident.
Not really. I didn't really do anything that night.
But weren't you embarrassed?
Yeah, I guess so. I still feel embarrassed a lot of the time. You gotta get over that.
So, I'm hanging out at Catch and I hear them say that The Strip just opened and they were looking for people. They said it was a lot easier to get on at The Strip, 'cause the place just opened. At Catch, it was really tough at that time, because we were starting from scratch and there were a lot of very established guys performing there regularly. They didn't really like giving up their stage time to newcomers.
So, I came over here, found out about the audition, drove here in the middle of the day, got onstage, and did five minutes. And Bob Wachs was in the audience, and they passed me right away on the audition.
You know, I was watching a movie the other day called 500 Days of Summer, did you hear about it? It's a movie about this young guy who falls in love with this girl, and he becomes obsessed with the girl, and it's about the slow progress of the relationship, and then finally he sleeps with her. It's a very big moment in his young life, that he gets to sleep with this woman he's obsessed with, and afterwards they show him running down the street to Hall and Oates's "You Make My Dreams Come True."
And all of a sudden everybody on the street starts helping him celebrate that he slept with this girl, and it's this huge thing, and it's a very funny, cute bit of how a guy feels when he's young and he gets a girl that he really wants for the first time. I was watching it with a friend, I think it was Schiff (Mark), and I leaned over to him and I said, "That's how I felt when I passed the audition at The Comic Strip." I said, "I never felt that way when I got a girl. But that day, that was a dream come true. You know, 'cause then I knew that I was on my way."
And you know a funny thing that was a big deal to me, and that I used to tell people? I was performing in a lot of these little clubs—they were kind of low-grade places—but when I passed the audition here at The Strip, if I remember correctly, you had a five dollar cover charge here right?
Well I was very proud of that five-dollar cover charge, that people actually had to spend five dollars to come and see me. I thought that was something really special and a real different level of the business. That five-dollar cover charge made it seem like it was something of value, and it meant a lot to me.
You know, I even remember where I parked that day I auditioned. I drove in from Massapequa, and I parked right near the avenue, on 82nd Street. I was just one block north, and I remember I was on the north side of the street, and I remember everything about it. As a matter of fact, I think that was the last time anyone ever found a spot around here.
But it was certainly the last time I ever auditioned as a comedian for anything. Once you became established here, you were golden. You could go anywhere.
The club was new, I was new, Larry Miller was new. And so we said, "This'll be our place." Frankly, we never felt that comfortable at the other places, 'cause established people really don't want new people coming and taking their spots. The other comedians aren't happy to see you. Especially if you got somethin'.
So we came here and we were able to make this club, and the club in turn made us, and it was a great thing for all of us. They were happy to have us, we were happy to have them, and we were one big, happy family. It was our home, and it was great.
So, after I passed at The Strip, I left Massapequa and moved into Manhattan that September. I was going back and forth up till that point, and my parents couldn't really understand what I was doing. My mother couldn't believe I would be taking a shower at midnight and getting ready to go out. She was like, "What are you doing?" And I'd be like, "I'm going to the club. I gotta hang out at the club and try to get on late."
And she finally said, "Why don't you just get an apartment in the city? Wouldn't that be easier?" And so I did, and I'm still living on the same block thirty-four years later. Isn't that amazing?
I also have the same friends, too. Larry Miller I met on the cross-town bus on our way over to The Comic Strip. He was a bartender and a drummer, and he was trying to get onstage and I was the first act he ever saw when he came in here. So he came over to me on the bus one night and introduced himself, and we've been friends ever since.
And George Wallace I knew from The Strip, too. Anybody who was serious about it was here seven nights a week. You had to hang out with the other comics, and very quickly it became a home.
This club really took care of us. We even ate here. They even gave us clothing. All you really needed was a couple of pairs of jeans, 'cause the club gave us the T-shirts, and maybe you needed a decent shirt for the weekend, and you were golden.
You've been quoted as saying the ultimate goal was getting the nine p.m. spot on Saturday night at The Comic Strip. Do you remember getting your first weekend spot?
First of all, if I didn't actually say that quote, I certainly thought it. And I remember that first weekend spot so well. It's another thing that's crystal clear. I don't remember who actually gave me the spot, because in those days the MC used to make up the lineup.
In any case, I do remember the evening exactly. The audiences in those days here were so excited about these new young comics. They would come in and they were really in a great mood. So I remember going on at nine o'clock in front of two hundred people. It was the biggest audience I had ever faced by far. I had usually performed in front of fifteen or twenty people late night, but this time I went on in front of two hundred people and did my little fifteen-minute act, and it worked really well, and that was it.
I just knew that I was gonna be okay, and I was gonna be doing this the rest of my life. And I remember sittin' at the podium for the rest of the night, 'cause I just didn't wanna leave. I was just enjoying the glow that I had experienced. In my mind, I had made it. I was on my way. I could stand in front of two hundred people and do okay. It was a big deal.
Do you remember any of your early material?
Sure. The first joke I had that was a really big laugh was about the tramway to Roosevelt Island, which had just been built. This was 1976, and I said, "Well, this is great. The city's going bankrupt, and they're putting in rides for us. The next thing I guess we'll have some sort of roller coaster through the ghetto, and that'll be the first roller coaster where they scream on the flat part of the ride!" And that was a big laugh.
In those days I wrote material every day, and I still do. To me, that's what being a comedian is. It's kind of working that part of your mind offstage as well as onstage. You gotta be always using your mind. They're paying to hear what you think, so you have to spend part of your day thinking!
I keep a pad with me to write things down. That's my business partner, and it's the only partner I have.
So, in the early days, I hung out here with Larry and George and Mark Schiff and Jimmy Brogan, Mike Cain and Carol Liefer.
Can you tell us about the New Year's brunch and how that got started?
We argue about that. I think it got started on New Year's Day of 1978. A lot of those gigs on New Year's Eve were rough. The people would get drunk. They were tough crowds. They had noisemakers and all and weren't exactly always paying attention, so we wanted something to look forward to. Knowing what we had to endure, we figured we could all get together the next morning, have brunch, and could kind of commiserate on how horrible the night before was, and that's how we started getting together on New Year's Day.
So what made you make the move to LA?
I was performing here at The Strip for about four years, until I went out to LA in March of 1980. I had gotten to be pretty good here and was one of the regular, steady weekend guys, and I could get on at the other clubs, and I just thought, "Well, if I'm getting to the top here, I better be a small fish someplace else."
I didn't really wanna be a big fish here. And everybody always talked about LA. I had never really been there, and I thought, "Well, let's see." You have to keep moving forward.
When I started, I thought to myself, "Oh, I'll be doing this a couple of weeks, and I'll be on The Tonight Show." It's so funny; you're so impatient when you're a kid. You don't even know what it is when you start.
Once I decided to move to LA, I told George Wallace that I was gonna give up the apartment, and he said, "Don't give up the apartment, that's a great place to stay when we come back to New York." He says, "Why don't we split it?" So we did. It was $210 a month, and we split that in half.
So when did you get Seinfeld? (It felt strange asking him that, as if his last name wasn't Seinfeld.)
That didn't happen until late fall of '88. I had been booked on the Rodney Dangerfield special, and George Shapiro, who was managing me after having seen me at The Comedy Store in LA, wrote to Brandon Tartikoff at NBC, to invite him to the taping of that show here in New York.
George had first seen me perform that summer I got to LA, back in 1980, and he wrote a letter to Brandon Tartikoff, which I think is in the National Archives now, and there was one sentence that stuck out in everyone's mind. He said, "Call me a crazy guy, but I think Jerry Seinfeld is someday gonna be doing a TV series on NBC."
And then he just gave him the information if he wanted to come see me at the Rodney thing. I don't think he actually came, but then they called me in to NBC and said, "What kind of show did you have in mind?" And I said I didn't really have anything in mind. And then I was telling Larry David the story at Catch one night, and then we started talkin' about it, and that's how the whole thing evolved.
Now Larry David was a stand-up in those days too. He didn't do The Strip as much as we did. I knew him mostly from Catch. He'd do a set here at The Strip and then he'd go over there and hang out and try and get on again. And that was our swing. It was really great that they were right nearby. You'd just go back and forth all night. Then, we'd all go to The Green Kitchen (a twenty-four-hour diner), which is also still there amazingly, and eat, drink, and laugh all night.
Tell me about Richie Tienken.
Richie was here a lot when I was here. If you didn't see Richie, it was like you felt like you didn't see everybody. That's what was great about the club. You come in, you expect to see the people that you know and like, and you hang out. I guess we were working, and it was our career, but it didn't feel like it. It really just felt like that silly song that they had at the beginning of Cheers, that this was your home.
And when we would have gigs at other places, we wouldn't go home afterward; we would come here.
Was Richie intimidating? A lot of comics described him that way.
Well, don't forget, I met him at the very beginning. He wasn't an icon yet, so he didn't have time to become intimidating. He was always very friendly and had a nice way about him. He was in control of the club, and there was no doubt that he was the boss, but you always felt like he had a paternal or a nurturing kind of feeling. Like he was taking care of us.
It was really very nice, and I think that was one of the reasons the club had such a nice atmosphere. These other places, there was a lot of drugs, there was a lot of mischief and mayhem going on thereandabouts, and this club didn't have that.
And I think that's why Larry and I, who were from Long Island—we were suburban kids, we were used to nice neighborhoods—we felt more comfortable here. It was a haimishe place.
And what about Bob Wachs?
I met him at the same time. We kind of thought of Bob as kind of a real powerbroker in the upper echelons of show business. We had no idea what he was up to. We knew he was making very important phone calls in a beautiful office somewhere. He was definitely not down here in the swamp with us! He was moving big pieces around.
Those were pretty glorious days. We were usually busy playing ball in Central Park, Hecksher Field, because we didn't have jobs. And there were all those buildings around you, and all those people were up there working under the fluorescent lights, and they got bosses, and they gotta be there at a certain time, and they can't leave, and we were wearing sneakers and T-shirts, playing ball in Central Park, and we just felt like we had it licked.
Did you ever have a day job?
No, never. I never had a day job. Well actually, to be perfectly honest, the story is, I auditioned at The Strip that first summer, and I worked as a waiter during lunch hour at Brew Burger on 3rd Avenue and 47th Street. And I had that job, but the guys at The Strip very quickly gave me the job of MCing Monday nights.
That was the first night that Richie gave me here. And that was like twenty-five dollars. And then somehow I got Friday night, which I think used to be Greg Monahan's night, but those were long nights and I think he had other things to do.
Excerpted from MAKE 'EM LAUGH by JEFFREY GURIAN RICHIE TIENKEN Copyright © 2012 by Jeffrey Gurian and Richie Tienken. Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Foreword Richie Tienken v
Foreword Jeffrey Gurian vii
Introduction Chris Rock ix
Introduction to the Comic Strip xiv
Chapter 1 The Older Kids 1
Jerry Seinfeld 1
Paul Reiser 14
Larry Miller 23
George Wallace 29
Ray Romano 35
Alan Colmes 44
Paul Provenza 48
Chris Rock 54
Gilbert Gottfried 67
Jackie Martling 74
Susie Essman 79
Tony D'Andrea 87
Eddie Brill 89
Rick Overton 93
Wayne Federman 96
D. F. Sweedler 98
Joe Bolster 101
Colin Quinn 105
Lewis Black 109
Billy Crystal 114
Chapter 2 The Younger Kids 123
Lisa Lampanelli 123
Jim Breuer 131
Pete Correale 136
Adam Ferrara 142
Sherrod Small 146
Tony Rock 152
Pete Dominick 158
Jeffrey Ross 164
Jim Gaffigan 168
Judah Friedlander 173
Chapter 3 Friends of the Family 179
Rory Rosegarten 179
David Eberhart 183
Rick Newman 186
Chapter 4 The Next Generation 191
Chapter 5 Legacy-What Next?
The Future of the Comic Strip 197