Comedians Stretch Out Small Time
As stand-up comedy grew in popularity and comedians became television personalities, movie stars, writers or annoying phone sales people, the showcase clubs (The Improvisation, Catch A Rising Star, The Comic Strip, and The Comedy Store) that were designed for comics to learn their craft became places to be seen by the movers and shakers, looking for the next Paul Reiser, Jerry Seinfeld, Larry David, Richard Lewis, Bill Maher, Ray Romano, Roseanne Barr, and Richard Belzer. For the seasoned comic who wanted to expand as artists, the showcase clubs were no longer places to experiment if you still wanted to have a career.
Small clubs in dark corners of the country became the places to work. The Comedy Shack in Simi Valley, California was my favorite and quite possibly one of the best comedy rooms of all time. It had been converted from an old gas station and was lined with bamboo poles, palm tree leaves, various patches of thatch, a few coconuts that looked like frayed bowling balls and plastic things that fooled no one into thinking that they were in Hawaii– or even in a gas station in Hawaii. It had the feeling of a Tiki lounge that someone built on an oil rig or a home for turtles.
I had always prided myself on getting off stage promptly when my time had expired so I bought a small timer with a silent alarm that would count down to zero then vibrate. I put the timer in my pocket and set it for two minutes before my set ended so I could wrap up and get off stage.
One night at the Shack, I set my timer for 23 minutes. The audience was the kind you could tell was going to be great the second you walked on stage—one sad-sack expression and they were in hysterics. I had to wait for the laughs to die down just to get my first line in. That night the laughs were crashing into each other and rolling with every new joke, and for a while I lost track of time, which happens when you and your audience are in the same zone. But as I did more and more material, I got the feeling that I’d been on longer than 25 minutes. I was loose, ad-libbing tags to jokes, but my material hadn’t come close to being exhausted. And since I didn’t feel any vibration, I figured my sense of time had to be distorted, lost in my own comic world.
I didn’t want to get off too soon so they didn’t have to look for the next act in the parking lot. So I kept going and going and going and going, trying out new jokes, working in old ones, using my sickest stuff, which made the audience howl even harder. Finally, I saw the owner standing in the back of the room, waving. I figured he was signaling for me to get off stage because a special guest comic like an Elayne Boosler or a Jay Leno had mysteriously shown up.
My applause was the kind that actually makes a comic feel so worthy that they have to wait around to be told by every member of the audience personally. When I got to the back of the room, the owner smiled and said that I just did an hour and a half. Now I was stunned. I said, “That’s impossible. I set my timer.” Then I reached in my pants pocket and it wasn’t there. I knew I had remembered to put it in a pocket. And I did, but I stupidly put it in the pocket of my sports jacket, behind a joke I had written on half of an egg roll and couldn’t feel the vibration.
One weekend the owner asked me and a comic friend, (the late) Vinny Marz, to run the Shack, which we did quite efficiently—too efficiently. We caught the waitresses and the girls who collected the cover charges robbing him, so we fired the entire staff on the spot. We waited on the customers and probably made the most money the club ever made. When the owner returned, he was pleased by the increased profits, but soon found he no longer had a staff and a girl friend. She was the first one we fired.
The Comedy Shack was one of those dingy little places around the country that no one, except the comics would remember. But these tiny venues that TV or Hollywood agents would never show up are where we could get up and stretch out, perform our weirdest material, fool with our stage persona, and do it all unafraid of failure because we knew we wouldn’t be seen by anyone important enough to even have a designated driver.