Stand-up’s American history is hard to explain and contain. The bare bones of it is that there are hubs on either coast, thousands of miles of “the road” in between, the television revolution, boom and bust cycles, and wholesale stylistic changes, for seemingly arbitrary reasons. And, due to lost records, misremembered posturing, and competing interests, the origins and innovations, from brick walls to relay hosting, can be disputed with no resolution. Everyone’s pointing fingers and painting their mythology. But then there’s The Comedy Store, a singular entity, open since 1972 and under the domain of the late Mitzi Shore for decades. Stand-up, as an art form, can be ephemeral yet disposable, gone or changed in an instant. The Comedy Store endures. And “The Comedy Store,” endears.
“The Comedy Store,” a five-part documentary series produced by Showtime, gives shape to the legendary West Hollywood comedy club. “Shape” and “Legend” are the operative words, for many reasons. There’s no way to tell the full story of a fifty-year institution, especially in five hours, especially through oral history told by thousands of comedians. Comedians can be honest to a fault but they’re also apocryphal by nature and craft. This is especially true of the motley crew that serves as the faces of the Comedy Store, spiritual and actual figureheads, owners and employees, icons and up and comers. There’s enough in the series to entertain and inform, while exuding an immense and amorphous totality.
Even in the 100%, honest to God, fact-based truth, brilliantly captured in primary sources—amazing retro images and video—the story of the Comedy Store is unbelievable. Comedy itself can be unbelievable. It’s a madcap industry with a mandate to do everything and anything, to live life in laughter, and stand outside of norms.
Talent and brilliance cluster together, feeding and germinating, inside and outside of every comedy club, in ways both chaotic and divine. That’s even more heightened at the top, at the summit, in Los Angeles, where show business is the chief regional export and greatness is endlessly churned.
The Comedy Store is undeniable. To speak about the club can feel like simultaneously overstating and understating its impact. Most of “The Comedy Store,” the history discussed, is absurdly matter of fact. Yes, this was Richard Pryor’s home club. And Jay Leno’s. And Robin Williams’s. And, and, and, and…
But The Store is also a comedy club: three dark rooms, a two drink minimum. The harsh realities inherent in that physical space are a heavy constant. There’s still bombing, infighting and meltdowns. “The Comedy Store” gives as much space to tragedy as to triumph. The Store is the cradle of life and the river Styx for a significant slice of pop culture and the comedy community at large.
The series is an autobiography of sorts. Filmmaker and host Mike Binder, a writer, director and actor since the late 70s-early 80s, got his start at the Comedy Store. His story is a lot like the waves of young comedians that became fixtures at the club: he heard the call to come West; worked his way up through the stand-up ranks; graduated to a “Hollywood professional.” He also kept a fondness for his early years.
His familiarity and closeness with the subject matter captures a spiritual authenticity that could have faltered in less entrenched hands. His peers starting up were Jay Leno and David Letterman. He was on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. If you look at old photographs of a legendary night in the mid-1980s, there’s a good chance you’ll see Mike in the frame.
That equity is all over the series in fascinating ways. As much reverence as they have for their early days, and the magnitude of their later careers, when comedians get together, they’re comedians. It’s electric to see comedy royalty busting balls. There’s a sparkle in Jim Carrey’s eyes as he stands next to Damon Wayans, his friend and peer, trying to remember punchlines, giddy about the ghost of pure, unapologetic creativity. Stature is torn down like statues when you’re interacting with someone who knows your evolution. Growing up together in comedy isn’t just a meeting of the minds, there’s a melding of the souls.
Far from just a trip down memory lane, “The Comedy Store” lives in the present, in the midst of a comedy wave mired in tumult and the unknown. We’re shown the proliferation of podcasts and the ability to circumvent traditional gatekeepers. We also see concern for cancel culture and the pressures of social media. The Store is bolstered by both old and new enthusiasm. But how long will that last?
Throughout, there’s a rare insight to comedy club culture. “The Comedy Store” celebrates the “late late night” comedian, urban legends of the witching hour. The documentary captures the phenomenon of “a comic’s comic,” the comedian that every other comedian rushes in from hanging outside to see. There’s a whimsical reflection about when a comedian (and a scene) has changed and you can’t feel “home” anymore. “The Door Guy,” comedians that check IDs for stage time, get their due like never before. That section is an uncommon, meticulous, refreshing look at the way a comic levels up in the Store’s hallowed, haunted halls. “The Comedy Store” crystallizes the beautiful struggle.