One of my favorite moments from the opening episode of “The Comedy Store,” Showtime’s docuseries about the famed L.A. club that incubated some of the world’s best-known comics, is watching David Letterman get uncomfortable. During an interview with the late-night legend, host Mike Binder asks Letterman about a stand-up bit he once did involving a local TV sports anchor who reports news of a murder while delivering the night’s baseball scores. Letterman winces and insists he doesn’t want to rehash what he clearly believes to be inferior material. He finally relents and delivers a brief summary of the gag, but it obviously pains him.
Binder conducts about a dozen sit-downs with stand-ups, populating this retrospective with plenty of raw reactions from the men and women who clawed for stage time in what became a crucible for emerging talent. Regular Comedy Store performers Louis Anderson and Howie Mandel recall repeatedly being dismissed by Johnny Carson’s talent scout as unsuitable for “The Tonight Show” (Mandel eventually went on to appear 22 times). Fellow comedian Jeff Altman laments how his unwillingness to develop new stand-up material — he scolds himself for being lazy — coupled with a disastrous stint on the short-lived 1980 network variety show “Pink Lady and Jeff” left his career bruised and bleeding.
(Please allow me this opportunity to indulge in one “Pink Lady” detour. In the show, Altman was paired with two Japanese singing stars who spoke English phonetically. The banter was next-level bad. In the “Pink Lady” clip shown in the documentary, a tuxedoed Altman informs his glamorous costars that in America finding a romantic partner is easy because we have “computer dating.” To which a Pink Lady haltingly replies, “Oh, you date a computer?”)
Always, a comedian had to pass the charisma test of Comedy Store owner Mitzi Shore, who appraised new talent with a keen and unfeeling eye. If she didn’t like your style, you were done. Mitzi was the nightclub equivalent of Mickey the boxing trainer ordering Rocky Balboa out of the gym because he’s a bum and will always be a bum.
There are, of course, exuberant moments recaptured. How could there not be when so many of these comics not only went on to stardom but helped helped shape popular culture for a generation? Whenever one of the Comedy Store regulars earned a spot on “The Tonight Show,” the other performers would crowd around the club’s black-and-white television to watch. One of them, Jay Leno, would eventually take over for Carson. In his interview in the documentary, Leno divulges his secret to a successful stand-up career: Once you’ve conquered an audience with your best stuff, don’t stick around. Move on to the next club and keep experimenting, keep refining.
I most enjoyed the surprises found in “The Comedy Club.” Who knew that Michael Keaton was a successful stand-up before he landed a career in movies, or that the biggest draw back in the day was none other than Jimmy J.J. Walker, aka Kid Dy-No-Mite? Or that Freddie Prinze, enraged that the newest heartthrob, John Travolta, had supplanted him on the cover of Tiger Beat and other teen mags, went to Travolta’s apartment and fired three arrows into his door with a crossbow?
Prinze was troubled, and died young from a self-inflicted gunshot wound in 1977. The film shows a parade of his fellow comedians emerging from the church after his funeral — shocked, grieving, but no less ready to go on stage whenever Mitzi asked.