THIS COLUMN ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON theinterrobang.com
So, I made my usual stop at Comedy Juice at Gotham Comedy Club this week and was glad to see Wil Sylvince hosting. I had never seen Wil host Juice before and it was great. I love when he does his “Haitian” material! And then once again, in something I’ve almost gotten accustomed to, but not quite, Jerry Seinfeld walked in as a surprise guest, and took the stage to a standing ovation. Seeing him perform so many times in the last few months has been very special for me, because as a writer who respects the crafting of a joke, there’s no better wordsmith than Jerry Seinfeld. Watching him work is like watching an artist like Picasso paint a picture. Jerry’s work is that visual. (And I hope that was an appropriate example, because I don’t know a lot about art!) I’ve also watched him kind of evolve and open up on stage over these last few months. As the weeks went on, facing live audiences several times a week, I felt like he became friendlier and friendlier, and more engaging with his audience. Even though he was rehearsing for his Netflix special, I heard him doing some new material he was trying out, and at the end, he took questions from the audience. People were very respectful, but all questions were answered, with some of them leading into bits.
He left the stage to thunderous applause and I could see the other comics wondering who would have to follow that. Donnell Rawlings took the stage and joked about having to follow Jerry, but he’s so funny he had no problem keeping the laughter flowing. I always thought it would be better to follow someone great who had the audience rolling, than someone who had just bombed, because the comic who was great got the audience pumped, and a comic who bombed would have drained the energy from the room, making it harder for the next comic to get it back. Literally at the very moment Donnell took the stage, I got a text message from comedy manager Jason Steinberg asking me to call him. What’s weird about that is that Jason manages Donnell Rawlings so I thought there was going to be some connection.
Turns out there wasn’t and that it just happened to be a major coincidence. Jason was calling to invite me to his birthday party a couple of nights later, at a cool place on the West Side, which I went to, and which was packed with comics, after coming back from catching Paul Virzi run his hour for his upcoming special up at Levity Live in West Nyack. Paul is pumped and ready, and has been rehearsing, and honing his material as much as Seinfeld did. I’ve seen it a few times already and he’s totally ready. Plus, Paul has a killer new car. A tricked out Lexus with a baby seat in the back!
Performing with Paul was Chris Lamberth
who recently filmed a movie with Melissa McCarthy
called Can You Ever Forgive Me?
and is working on recording a comedy album, hopefully by late Fall. He said that ideally, he’d like to tape it at Union Hall
in Brooklyn. He said he saw Marc Maron
record there and really liked the space. Either that or in his hometown of D.C. where he grew up. Brooklyn or D.C.? I wonder if you need a beard in D.C.? I wound up hosting that show at Paul’s request and it was a lot of fun.
Finesse Mitchell, onetime SNL cast member headlined Gotham this week, and announced to the audience that he was 45 and recently had a baby, and asked an audience member who also claimed to be 45 to join him on stage. And as he compared their appearance, he declared to the audience that this was official proof, … in his own words, … that “Black don’t crack”!
I dropped by The Comic Strip to schmooze with owner/founder Richie Tienken and asked him what was going on. He told me that Jerry Seinfeld had dropped by the night before to rehearse for his Netflix special, and that all Jerry had to do was Tweet about it once that he was coming and the place was packed wall to wall. Then he surprised me by taking me into the showroom. It was completely different. The entire room had changed. The stage was now back where it was in 1976 when they first opened, on the far side of the room, with a piano on stage, and with all new tables and chairs with red and white checked tablecloths. Late night was already going on where the new comics get up to work on their material in hopes of being passed at the club. One of them commented that Seinfeld had left his notes on the stage.
The next night, I came back to see what would happen. As I sat in the balcony, I heard someone call my name. It was Jimmy Brogan
in from L.A., and the man who started “And where are you from, sir?” back in 1976 when he started out at The Comic Strip. Jimmy has appeared on Johnny Carson, David Letterman
and wrote for Jay Leno
forever. As a matter of fact, Jimmy told me that for the last 22 years, every Sunday
night he opens for Jay at the Comedy and Magic Club in Hermosa Beach which is the last place I saw him a few years ago. Jimmy hadn’t been back to The Strip in so many years.
In a few minutes, we were joined by Mark Schiff who also started back in the early days of the club and often tours with Jerry Seinfeld. I was wondering why he seemed to be dressed as a cab driver, but I didn’t ask because the show was about to start. The three of us sat in the balcony watching Ray Ellin host the show, as he’s done so many times at The Strip. After his opening, he brought up Jimmy as the first act. Jimmy has the best story. As a new comic doing late night back in the 70’s, Richie Tienken told me he had no idea how funny Jimmy could be because Jimmy would ask the small late night crowd where they were from and nobody answered.
One night, one of the regular comics couldn’t show up for an earlier show and there was no one else to put on but Jimmy Brogan. It was a packed house and this time when Jimmy asked “ And where are you from, sir?” people answered and Richie saw how funny Jimmy was working off the audience. From then on, Jimmy got main spots on the show. And it’s safe to say that he is the father of crowd work. His skills have only improved over the years and it’s amazing what he can do with the audience. But he told me on one of his first big TV auditions, this executive asked him to perform for him all alone in his office, so Jimmy said, “And where are you from, sir?” and the executive said “ I asked you to do your act!” And Jimmy said, “ That IS my act.” The executive said, “Thank you” and ended the audition right then and there.
While Jimmy was on stage, Mark excused himself and a moment later, I saw why he was dressed that way. In the middle of Jimmy’s act, Mark wandered through the crowd as if he was looking for a seat and began engaging Jimmy in conversation. He identified himself as a cab driver and they bantered back and forth just like they did back in the 70’s. It was amazing. Authorized heckling!
After the show Jimmy, Mark, Richie and I hung out at a table up front by the bar just laughing and reminiscing about the old days. Jimmy told me he remembers the opening night of the club on June 1, 1976 like it was yesterday. He walked in and Billy Crystal was on the stage and he had to peek though a glass window to see because it was so crowded. And then I took out my little black notebook to write that down and Jimmy started laughing as he took the exact same book out of his own pocket to show me. So crazy that we carry the exact same tiny notebook to jot things down on, and that’s what it’s like to be old school!
And so all of this is leading up to something and it’s the secret I’ve been keeping for weeks now. Jerry Seinfeld decided to do one of his Netflix specials in the club where he started out, The Comic Strip, with the guy that gave him his start and supported him 41 years ago, Richie Tienken. He wanted the club to look the same as it did in the old days and he wanted his old, longtime friends to open up for him, so they flew in from L.A. to do so.
This is an amazing story and one I never thought I’d see. The last time I saw Jerry in the club was when he came in to be interviewed by Richie and me for the book we wrote about the history of The Comic Strip now called Laughing Legends. And he couldn’t have been friendlier, more gracious and more open than he was that day, but that was the last time he was in the club.
This past Saturday, April 29th was Jerry’s birthday and he scheduled two tapings at The Strip and one for Sunday night. It was a very select crowd hand-picked by who knows who. Netflix Director of Production Jonathan Mussman was there and told me the choice of the audience was a very complicated process. I got there early and the line was already extending around the block. People had to present proof of tickets on one line, be “wanded” by security and then get on a second line to enter the club. I hung outside with club manager Tom-e Latsch, and Richie’s wife Jeannie Tienken, who told me that a few months before, out of nowhere, Jerry walked in one afternoon, and announced that he thought it would be a great idea to do one of his specials in the club. This was the big secret I’ve been keeping because Jerry didn’t want anyone to know. Most of the staff at The Strip didn’t even know.
Netflix came in a few days before the taping and re-constructed the entire club, building a beautiful new stage just where it had been in 1976, so Jerry could do all of his original material and feel at home. All the material that within five years of him starting out had him sitting on The Tonight Show across from Johnny Carson. They took over a store next to the club and used that as a green room for Jimmy Brogan, Mark Schiff and George Wallace to hang out in. Jerry had his own trailer parked somewhere in the area, in which he hung out with his longtime manager George Shapiro.
After the entire audience was seated and there was no more room for another human, Richie, George, and I entered the club and took up places squeezed up against a wall. Jimmy Brogan was next to me, and George Wallace was across the room cut off from us by a huge TV camera on a dolly. He kept motioning to me, but I couldn’t understand what he was saying, and neither could Jimmy. I wanted to approach him to ask, but was afraid that in doing so I would somehow bang into or even worse knock over the camera that was filming the show. Those are the kind of things that happen to me, and have happened to me. One time in Montreal, they were taping a big star on stage and as I made my way to my seat, I accidentally banged in the camera that was filming him and almost knocked it over. So my fears were grounded in reality. Later on, George told me he had the exact same fear, and George is a very big man, so if it could happen with me, it could certainly happen with him.
Me, George and Richie huddled against the wall to watch Jimmy Brogan open the show to be joined and interrupted again by “cab driver” Mark Schiff and it was great. It was also a night of clean humor. Not one curse word was uttered by any of the comedians because that’s how they started out and that’s how they work. We sometimes tend to forget that you can get the same laughs working clean as you can working “blue.”
Then Jerry came out to thunderous applause in a shiny grey jacket and tie, looking exuberant and thrilled to be there. He ran through his set which was scattered with applause breaks throughout. One thing he said that was very meaningful to me, and came across as very truthful, was when he told the audience he had no trouble speaking to all of them, but speaking to any of them alone would be difficult for him.
George, Richie and I stood the whole time and George and I were leaning against the emergency door exit. Once again afterwards, we both discovered we were worried about the same thing that if we accidentally leaned too hard the alarm would go off during Jerry’s act and we would ruin the entire thing. And I always thought I was the only one that sick to imagine those kinds of things. It seems I’m not alone. Jerry left the stage to even more thunderous applause than when he came up, and went right back to his trailer with George Shapiro to do a little TM before the next taping. It was great seeing George Shapiro again after many years and we embraced each other warmly. George is a truly amazing guy, who’s been practicing TM for more than 30 years, and I’ll never forget the stories he’s told me about both Andy Kaufman whom he managed as well and how he always believed in Jerry even when he was brand new. He predicted Jerry’s success years before it happened.
For the next taping, George Wallace, Richie and I stood up front in the bar area waiting for Jerry to make his entrance, which they filmed for the special. Richie told me that Jerry told him he was really happy with both tapings. But comedy history was definitely made this weekend with Jerry returning to his roots and the club where he got his start with the guy who he credits for giving it to him, Richie Tienken, … and I felt honored to have even been there to see it. More on this to come!
I got over to New York Comedy Club just in time to catch the headline Roast Battle between Rosebud Baker and Frank Liotti. It was a rematch and the crowd was pumped. They tore each other apart with lines about Rosebud’s deceased sister who apparently died 15 years ago in a tragic accident in a hot tub, and lines about Frank’s gayness which is not apparent to anyone, but something Frank is open about. Frank won the first round, and the judges, Mike Cannon, Yamaneika Saunders, Dave Sirus, and Ricky Velez, who are always the funniest part of the battles, were so split they gave the second round to Rosebud just so they could see a third round. Yammie said the battle was so vicious, she lost two of the kids she was carrying! I get so distracted by the insanity of the battle, that I can’t swear to it, but I think Frank won! I do know that he and Rosebud high-fived each other after the brutality was over! Napoleon Emill and Brendan Sagalow closed out the show.
And with that I’m OUT!!!