Jeffrey Gurian Looks Back at The Comic Strip
Comedy writer and performer Jeffrey Gurian knows everyone in the business. He’s written for, interviewed, or worked with an endless list of comedy greats including Joan Rivers, Jerry Seinfeld, Robin Williams, Milton Berle, Jerry Lewis, Chris Rock and the list goes on and on. He just released a fantastic book chronicling the history of the longest running comedy club n New York, The Comic Strip. He stopped by the SiriusXM studios to talk with Ron Bennington about the new book, “Make ‘Em Laugh: 35 Years of the Comic Strip. The Greatest Comedy Club of All Time.” Some brief excerpts from the interview appear below.
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Ron Bennington: Jeffrey Gurian is in here with us. You wrote this book with Richie Tienken as well as some of the many many stars that came out of this nightclub.
Jeffrey Gurian: I did, yeah Ron. And it actually felt like it took 35 years to write the book. I was working on this book for 4 years, believe it or not.
Ron Bennington: It really is a harder thing to pull off, isn’t it?
Jeffrey Gurian: Well, especially when you’re working with all these big stars. Everyone has a schedule. Even though they want to be in the book, it took me 3 years to line up everybody. The first year – in 2008, I was at the Comic Strip one afternoon with Ann Curry and Gilbert Gottfried. And we were coaching Ann on how to do stand up comedy. She’s very funny by the way. You wouldn’t expect it, but she really is. And I was looking at all the pictures on the walls and I said to Richie – we’ve got to do a book on this club. This is amazing that all these people came out of this one club. So he said – a lot of people had suggested that to him and he came to my house to talk about it and he saw my walls – that I had more pictures on my walls than he had in the club. (laughs) And he said – okay. You’re the guy to do it. So, I started that summer. And I went up to the “Just For Laughs Festival” in Montreal, which you know is the biggest comedy festival in the world. And I got my first 3 interviews. I started with Larry Miller, George Wallace and Paul Provenza.
Ron Bennington: Which could have been a book right there.
Jeffrey Gurian: Right there, yeah.
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Gurian Talks About Richie Tienken’s Impact on Comedy:
Ron Bennington: Those 3 guys have enough comedy knowledge. But does Richie let this into his head that he’s kind of helped be responsible for this entire generation – couple of generations of comedy?
Jeffrey Gurian: It’s so funny that you ask that because it dawns on him slowly. I don’t think anybody really sees themselves the way the rest of the world sees them. Like there’s a tendency to think that if you did it – it can’t be that spectacular. The fact that he discovered Eddie Murphy and Chris Rock– that’s a cool thing for your resume. How do you deal with that? And he’s so down to Earth and humble about it. But at times, he’s like – wow, I can’t believe what I did – what I wound up doing.
Ron Bennington: And it just goes to show you, sometimes what comedy – we kind of take it for granted. Because the history of this club is every bit as interesting as anything that happened in Liverpool. And we idolize that. But the way – you bring up those 2 guys who – at different times, changed comedy – comedy changed direction. Jerry Seinfeld is in the book. Again, where he went – guys all over the Midwest and California went right behind him. And it all came out of this one place on the Upper East Side.
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The Opening of the Comic Strip:
Jeffrey Gurian: Which is phenomenal to me. I mean it’s such a rarity. And the fact that it’s still going strong, is really interesting. Budd Friedman had opened The Improv in ’63. And then Rick Newman opened “Catch a Rising Star” at the end of ’72. So when the Strip came along, it was like the 3rd club. They called it the red-headed stepchild. And it was just a few blocks away from Catch, so they could have been in competition, but they wound up working together. And as a matter of fact, I interviewed Rick Newman for the book and I brought him together with Richie. And is was a very special moment because Richie was able to tell Rick that he was his idol and his inspiration. And it was because Richie saw how busy Catch a Rising Star was. He went down there on a Monday night to see a comic named Tony D’Andrea who was an impressionist, who performs in Vegas. But he was Richie’s bartender and he was an impressionist. And he was all excited that he got an audition at Catch and he said – Richie, come down and see me. It’s Monday night. And so Richie had 3 people in his bar. He was a bar owner from the Bronx. He had never done anything with comedy before. This guy Tony invites him down – comes down on a Monday. And he sees that the place is packed. There’s lines around the block waiting to get in. And he couldn’t believe it. So, he brought like 14 people with him and he started coming down every night to see what was happening. And he sees every night, it’s 5 deep at the bar and lines around the block. So he said – maybe we could do something like that. And he told his partner that they should look for a space. And in a cab ride down to meet their third partner, a guy named Bob Wachs – he looks out the window and he sees the Shannon Bar. And his partner says – where are we going to find a place like this? And he goes – right there. And they pulled the cab over and they find the Shannon Bar and that turned into the Comic Strip.
Ron Bennington: And pretty much – immediately a hit? I mean very early on he gets people like Seinfeld coming into his club.
Jeffrey Gurian: The very first night, Billy Crystal opened the club.
Ron Bennington: That’s unbelievable.
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Seinfeld Gets His Start at the Comic Strip:
Jeffrey Gurian: But on June – well, the club opened on June 1st of ’76. June 17th – Seinfeld walked in to audition. And his original sign up sheet is in this book. It’s on the wall, but we made a copy of it for the color section of the book. And he was graded “good”. And they wrote – “definitely invite back” – Monday 6-21. So we know he did well. He started out strong. And he became an emcee within I think the first 3 months of performing which was the fastest that anyone ever became an emcee at the Strip. And then he started with one night and then he wound up emceeing for 3 nights and in doing that, he was making enough money to quit a job that he had as a waiter somewhere in Times Square. It was the only non-show business job that he ever had, he said.
Ron Bennington: You actually interviewed Jerry in here. And Jerry – you ask him and this is so great – about one of his early jokes. And it’s so funny as if anyone wrote it today and it was the bit about the roller coaster in the city and I won’t give the joke away because I want people to pick up the book, but I think it’s great. Because A) if anyone did that joke today, it would still get a laugh and B) it’s edgier than we even think of Seinfeld.
Jeffrey Gurian: Exactly.
Ron Bennington: It’s amazing stuff – how many guys – so many successful guys, but they look back on this, almost you could see that they would do it again. To go back and have that experience again.
Jeffrey Gurian: A lot of them – they look back very fondly on those days. Even though they’re struggling, you hear that from a lot of very successful people. That it’s nice being on the top, but the excitement of the early days when things first started to happen is irreplaceable. And they look back very fondly on those days.
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Chris Rock Breaks Into the Business at The Comic Strip:
Ron Bennington: Well, David Sayh used to have this thing of there’s more doctors in this country than there are comedians, but that I think has changed quite a bit.
Jeffrey Gurian: Absolutely. As a matter of fact, there were very few Black comedians. When Eddie Murphy came into the club – in 1986, Eddie was like the Elvis of comedy. He was the biggest star in the world. And he had already done (Beverly Hills) “Cop 1″ and I think “Cop 2″ was in ’87. So whenever he would come to the Strip, Richie was managing him at the time, they were thrilled to have him there. They didn’t want him to leave because the audience would be so excited that Eddie Murphy was there. So Eddie walks in one night and he says – are there any Black comics I can see? And in those days, there were really very few. But Chris Rock was 19 and he was setting up chairs in exchange for stage time. That was his deal. So they didn’t want Eddie to leave, so they said – well look, we have this young kid, Chris Rock. He doesn’t have a lot of experience. Eddie’s like – put him up. Now Chris had never performed before – maybe 6 people at 3 in the morning because he used to do late night which is a special show they had there. But it was Friday night and the place was packed. Chris goes on and he kills it. And he hears Eddie laughing from the audience because you know, he has a very distinctive laugh. And Eddie was waiting for him when he got off stage. They sat in this little booth there. And they sat there for hours talking and Eddie gave him his phone number and said call me. Chris was too nervous to call him – didn’t call him. Waited a couple of days. Ran into Louis Faranda who you probably know, runs Caroline’s – for a long time. And in those days, he was working at Catch and he said – I heard Eddie Murphy likes you. And Chris says – like yeah, he gave me his number. He says – well, did you call him? He’s like – no, I’m too nervous. He’s like – Shmuck! If Eddie Murphy gives you his number, call him. Right? So he called him that night. He went to the movies with Eddie and his mother and his entourage. As a matter of fact, they went to see Spike Lee’s “Do The Right Thing”. And it was so long ago, Spike was selling t shirts in the street. That’s what he remembered – outside. And then Eddie invited him to come to L.A. to come with him to the set of “Golden Child” when he was doing reshoots. And that’s how Chris got “Beverly Hills Cop 2″. And that’s what made his career.
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Remembering Patrice O’Neal:
Ron Bennington: Well, I’m going to ask you – I know you were very close with Patrice O’Neal who we all think is one of the most talented people we’ve ever had the chance – it was so strange to see everyone catch on to that after he passed away.
Jeffrey Gurian: Everyone catch on to what?
Ron Bennington: Just how great he was. New York Magazine did a great article on him. And I’m like – I only wish that he would have seen that because I did an interview with him where he was basically like happy to be doing his own thing – talking about the thing that you’re talking about – but wondering when it was going to catch on. And it always kind of made me sad that he was the one person who didn’t get a chance to see that happen.
Jeffrey Gurian: I’m so glad that you brought that up because I love talking about Patrice because he was such a fascinating character. Patrice, to me, was a comedy philosopher. And when they wrote that thing about him in New York Magazine, it brought up a lot of feelings for me. Because it was something like – the comedian that all comics feared. One of the reasons they feared him is that most comics act in a very immature way. They always feel like they have to put each other down – that high school jock mentality where you can’t just say hello to a guy – you have to make fun of him at the same that you’re saying hello. I never got that. And I never had that relationship with Patrice. We used to hug each other, man. As big as he was – I used to love seeing him. And he asked me to be his co-host on the Black Phillip shows. Me and Dante Nero was his original co-host and then he asked me to join them – not only because we got along and we saw eye to eye. Well, we didn’t see eye to eye – we had similar interests in how to meet women. But our approaches were very different. We came from opposite ends of the universe. He could never meet women using the things that I said and I could never say anything that he said to any woman. They would kill me. And it wouldn’t be in me to that. But he said I was the only white man that he ever met who knew all the words to “Bitch Betta Have My Money”. And that really impressed him because that was his theme song and it happened to be my favorite song at the time. I’m a big hip hop guy. And I got to know him very well. And he was not a woman hater at all. And I think he loved women – what offended him was the power that women had over men. And how men would ingratiate themselves and lose all their power trying to get women to be with them. And that offended him. And he spoke about that very – in very strong terms, which made him look like a misogynist to people who didn’t know him. I never felt that way about him.
Ron Bennington: I never felt that way either.
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The Gatekeeper of the Strip– Lucien Hold:
Ron Bennington: “Make ‘Em Laugh” is the book. And one of the people who shows up very big in everybody’s story is the Gatekeeper to the club.
Jeffrey Gurian: Lucien Hold.
Ron Bennington: And it doesn’t matter who you’re talking about – the biggest stars – everybody’s talking about Lucien. Tell the folks a little bit about what his tie-in was with the club.
Jeffrey Gurian: Lucien Hold was an iconic character. Very very interesting. He actually started out as a Broadway dancer, believe it or not. And then he became a carpenter. He physically built a lot of the club. And when he was finished with his job and the club was ready to open, Richie said to him – what are you going to do now? And Lucien’s like – I’m gonna try to find a job on Broadway. Richie said – why don’t you stay here and become a bartender? He said – I don’t know how to be a bartender. And Richie said – well, someone asks for a beer, you give him a beer. Now you’re a bartender. (laughs) So Lucien stayed, became a bartender. And then when Richie started managing Eddie and he had to go out to L.A., he had Lucien running the club for him. But Richie was still booking the acts from California – over the phone. And he realized it was getting hard to do that, so he started training Lucien on how to do that himself. And Lucien became the face of the club – not only did he start managing it, but after that, Richie had stayed in L.A. for quite awhile. Nobody knew them – everybody thought Lucien owned the club. Richie didn’t mind that, but he was the face of the club for 25 years. And he did all the auditions. And everyone said for a guy who had no real background in comedy, he knew what was funny.
Ron Bennington: And a lot of guys hated him until they got in, right?
Jeffrey Gurian: They did. They did.
Ron Bennington: I’m sure he had many offers to leave that club and do other things in show business.
Jeffrey Gurian: Probably. He was very loyal to Richie. Richie was like a father to him too. I mean he took him in, he trained him and he stayed there his whole career.
Ron Bennington: “Make ‘Em Laugh”, you can pick it up I guess online, book stores anywhere.
Jeffrey Gurian: In every book store. It’s in every Barnes and Noble in New York City which I was glad to find out. I went to one near me to sign the books because they like it when they have autographed copies from the author and they looked it up and said it’s in every Barnes and Noble. It’s on Amazon.com which is great. We got a great review in the New York Post. Larry Getlen, who’s their comedy person there, wrote a great review about the book. And I’ve been getting a great response from people like yourself. I’m so happy to be on your show, man. This is very cool.
Ron Bennington: It’s great to have you in here. “Make ‘Em Laugh”. Thank you so much Jeffrey.
Jeffrey Gurian: Thank you Ron for having me on. I’m looking forward to being with you for long time. This is great, man.
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You can learn more about Ron Bennington’s two interview shows, Unmasked and Ron Bennington Interviews at RonBenningtonInterviews.com.