Western New York’s newest comedy club, Comedy @ The Carlson in Rochester New York is a brand new 350 seat club that sits on the former site of the Stromberg-Carlson factory. We talked with the club’s founder and operating manager Mark Ippolito about the history of the club, and his plans for the future, as well as his relationship with two comedy legends who recently passed- Kevin Meany and Barry Crimmins. Jason Steele sat down with Mark to talk about Comedy @ The Carlson.
The Interrobang: Could you speak about the process that went into opening the club?
Mark Ippolito: In June of 2017, I believe it was June 16th, we had our soft opening. We had a couple of soft openings, we had Dan Viola, Joel Lindley, and then we had Doug Stanhope come for a kind of two week build-up, and then right after Doug Stanhope, we went right into having Mike Birbiglia to do our regular type of shows. With the build up, Dan Viola is a local guy, and Joel Lindley is a local guy. Joel is a guy who does cruises and he is, you know, pretty popular around the country. With the build-up, even though we knew we would get nice crowds, it would be crowds that we already knew, and they’d (the shows) be a little bit more maintainable than sold out shows, so we did those two for soft openings, and then we had Stanhope and then we went full-fledged into Mike Birbiglia.”
The Interrobang: I know this building is historic, but what was the process of trying to maintain that line between historicism, the club is set in a sort of aesthetic Bohemian-like neighborhood that is on the edge of the business district.
Mark Ippolito: We are here sitting in our main bar, so one of the main things we wanted to do was within our main venues was to pay homage. What you’re talking about is that this [building] was the Stromberg-Carlson Building. The company was founded in 1904 and they made everything from televisions to radios to telephones, a lot of apparatuses; but, they also made microphones. In fact, they partnered with Shure microphones to make the iconic Shure Dynamic 55 microphone right here, right where we are standing; but at that time it was also called the Stromberg-Carlson Dynamic 41. You can see that microphone on the United States stamp with Elvis Presley and it came to be on a lot of famous people’s riders. Guys like Frank Sinatra, and James Brown, insisted on using the Shure Dynamic 55 microphone.
You’ve probably seen 2,000 different companies use it as their logo as well, but it was actually manufactured, built, and packaged right where we are sitting now. That is why we wanted to pay homage to Stromberg-Carlson. As you can see, behind our bar, we have a giant mural-like black and white photograph of the building that was taken in 1937, we put their logo up across 50 feet of our walls; and that’s why we call it Comedy @ the Carlson, to say ‘hey, thanks!’ It feels as if we are standing on the shoulders of giants here and it was our way of tipping our hats to the generation of innovation that came before us.
The Interrobang: Rochester has a rich history of trade and industry, but what do you think makes Western New York a hotbed for comedy? I hear comedians on podcasts say that Western New York has a very specific type of crowd that isn’t afraid to laugh at jokes that maybe take it a little bit further. How do you see the comedy scene here in Western New York?
Mark Ippolito: It actually goes both ways in Western New York. You have people who are still liking all forms of comedy, whether it be punch up or punch down. You also have a lot of people in Rochester who are kind of progressive here in Rochester. Rochester has always been a very progressive city. You have Susan B. Anthony, this is where she was arrested for voting. This is where Fredrick Douglass employed a lot of black people, from the times when they were slaves, also helping free the slaves as well, this is where he owned lots of land and eventually called home. So, civil rights and progressiveness has always been a big thing in Rochester, New York. When it comes to comedy, you have people who still say, ‘hey, everything that Richard Pryor was saying is great. Don Rickles is great,’ then you have crowds who are saying, ‘I don’t really want to go that route. I like to hear jokes, I like to hear stuff that is funny, but not necessarily at the expense of the feelings of others, so I like to hear something that is well written and articulate rather than something that takes a joke at the expense of another person. I, personally, am a proponent of all comedy. I listen to a lot of roasts, I listen to a lot of progressive comedians, and I just find the art entirely awesome.”
The Interrobang: I’ve come here for a lot of shows and one week it will be Big Jay Oakerson, the next week it will be the Super Trooper guys, and the week after that it may be a YouTube comedian. It’s really cool that Rochester has that blend of community that can appreciate each aspect of it.
Mark Ippolito: We do, and that’s the thing about comedy. No matter where you are in the world, not just Rochester, is that it’s so genre-fied. Like, for instance, the Super Trooper guys. If I told my father the Super Trooper guys were coming, he’d be like, ‘eh?’ But when I have Bob Saget, or someone of his nature like Richard Lewis, my father says, ‘that’s great!’ Last week, I had the Dry Bar Comedy guys who are internet sensations, about 4 million followers on Facebook and Instagram. They came in here and it was like a whole new crowd of people who wanted to hear clean comedy, and that is what these guys are known for. It is cool to have different genres come in. I have different groups come in for different styles to push the genre diversity of comedy in of itself as a whole.
The Interrobang: Greg Fitzsimmons was here recently on the same night Bill Burr was in town, and I listened to a Greg Fitzsimmons podcast with Bob Kelly where after Greg’s experience in Rochester, he had great things to say about the club.
Mark Ippolito: Greg is an awesome human being. By the way, you mentioned that Bill Burr and Greg Fitzsimmons being here on the same night, and I have very few pinnacle moments in my career. One of those moments happened that night. I don’t know if he talked about it, but me and Fitz went to see Bill and we went back stage. I was very fortunate to see and witness Greg and Bill construct and deconstruct jokes right in front of me. What was really cool about it is that I’m a huge Burr fan. I traveled to Pittsburgh with my business partner and marketer to see him two months before he came to Rochester. We drove down there, saw Bill, saw all of his material, and then two months later he comes to Rochester, saw him again, and it was different. Bill had maybe five or six key bits, but a ton of different stuff and I’m amazed. So I’m sitting in the room with Bill and Fitz, and I know where I stand, and I just wanted to listen. So, Bill and Fitz are talking about different ways they do bits, and I hear Bill tell Fitz ‘yeah, and I use to do it this way’, and I said, ‘I just saw you do it that way in Pittsburgh!’ To be quite honest with you, to sit in that room, because I’m such a huge Burr fan, he’s so much about plowing ahead, and doing the material, and being free with comedy; I absolutely love him. To sit there and listen to him and Fitz talk about their bits, about constructing jokes for literally an hour, I was standing there in awe, like ‘one of the defining moments of my career is happening right now, in this room!’ I mean, I didn’t do it, I was happy to be witness to it. It was epic!
The Interrobang: Yeah, to them, it was probably just basic back and forth bantering, but for someone like you they’re talking about their craft and it’s like a dream come true, for you, or really any comedy fan out there.
Mark Ippolito: Yeah, totally, and I’m starting to realize it is all about moments like that. When we were driving back from Pittsburgh, we decided to stop at this place called Junior’s Comedy Club in Erie, PA where Christopher Titus just got done doing a show. Chris hung out with us, having cocktails with my partner, and I don’t drink so I just talked, but he was just hanging out and it is really cool to go to places like that and hang out with comedians. It’s like hanging out with friends, and to see that comedians are real people who happen to be blessed with the gift of making people laugh.
The Interrobang: You have a state-of-the-art podcasting studio. As comedy changes, did you see that when you were opening, did you see podcasting becoming more mainstream around 2014, 2015?
Mark Ippolito: Yeah, now my dog walker has podcast. Everybody has a podcast now, so I find myself listening to a lot less podcasts, and the ones I do listen to are the ones like Bill’s and Maron’s because those are still great. Those are the ones that paved the way, like Marc Maron paved his whole career himself, and he did something that guys like Doug Stanhope did. They didn’t go with what their agents, or their managers told them, or what they thought Hollywood would want, they just fuckin’ plowed ahead and they made such a great platform, and built such a great fanship out of what they did themselves. A lot of people are trying to repeat that, as you know. No, what we do with our podcast, quite honestly, is kind of more selfish than selfless as far as internal reasons. When you go do radio or TV advertising, it’s just a guesstimate about what’s actually coming in. You’re shooting out a net, and hoping to catch fish. When we have our social media base on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, they’ve all been here before, they’re all comedy fans, and they’ve all liked our social media. That means that they want to be reached out by us. With us having our social media platforms, it’s use is letting people know ‘hey, here’s our ads,’ but then when we can do a cool podcast with it, and interview guys like Gilbert Gottfried, Tom Green, Kevin Pollock, and Colin Quinn. We ask the questions that a lot of other people don’t ask, so it’s not like (puts on wacky radio voice), ‘ HI, WELCOME TO KDO9 RADIO TALK LIVE AND HEY I’M HERE WITH COLLLINNN QUINN! HEY COLIN!’ No, we’re just having discussions like, ‘hey man, how’d you get started, what’s this project you’re working on, ecetera.” We try to speak to something that will get real cool stuff out there to our listeners that typical media wouldn’t let out. And that goes out directly to comedy fans, so the selfish part of it is instead of throwing a net out to catch some fish, we’re throwing out the net to the fish who already love it and who are already comedy fans who come here and appreciate the shows.
The Interrobang: That’s a really cool thing because then someone can simply search Gilbert Gottfried’s name and suddenly it’s like, ‘wait, Gilbert was just on this podcast I haven’t heard about, and look there’s other big names. Let’s check into it more”
Mark Ippolito: Absolutely! And that’s the traction of it. Traveling outside of Rochester is also very cool, because we rank differently every week, just like every other podcast, but our numbers have been pretty good.”
The Interrobang: I see this as a sort of Comedy-Triangle because you have Buffalo, you have Toronto, and Syracuse with Rochester; and even further up is Quebec where the Just for Laughs festival –“
Mark Ippolito: Yeah, and then you have the whole world down there in New York City. That’s the Mecca. That’s one of the good things about being only a four to five hour drive or 45 minute flight away from New York is great. New York is filled with just the best comedians. Period.
The Interrobang: As the Director of Operations, as the guy who runs this place and everything goes through you, do you feel a sort of responsibility to cultivate the open mic scene in Rochester?
Mark Ippolito: Do I feel responsible for that? No. Do I wish it the best and help out when I can? Yes. The responsibility part is no. I will try to help out anybody, though. When we were talking earlier about different classes of comedy, I look at a lot of the people that are starting off in comedy in a couple of different classes. You have guys who really want to make it, and they’re writing new material, and they’re going to open mics every night, and they’re really trying. Then, in that same group, you’ve got guys that are doing it just because they want pals and they’re kind of hanging out, not really seeing the endgame as them making a living in comedy. To make a decent living in comedy, it’s a tough road, man. You’re going to go through – some people get struck by lightning and pass right through – but for the majority, it’s a lot of years of bullshit and dealing with a lot of crappy people. In the nightclub/bar scenes, there’s a lot of crappy people. There’s very few places that think about it professionally like we do. So the responsibility, no I’m not responsible. I open this place up for everybody to enjoy big names, little names, comedy; but I want professionalism on my stage. To get on my stage you must be a professional comedian. Whether you’re a professional host, a professional feature act, or a national headline; I’m not going to put some guy on stage just because he says he’s funny. My email literally blows up with a thousand emails a week of people who think they’re the next star. I can’t be responsible for that.
Also, I don’t have the time for that. I don’t have the time, but what I do is help. So what we do have, like this week we have a roast battle. Twenty guys from the local scene, and they compete against each other, and I go in and I watch. If I like what I see, I’ll put somebody through our MC program. We also do a monthly showcase called ‘New Comics Night’ which is kind of like an open mic. You come in, you sign up, and the first twenty to sign up get to five minutes in the small room, and I watch these shows. If I see some talent there, if I see somebody there and think ‘that guy can definitely host a show, or that girl definitely has what it takes, and she did that this way and I can definitely help mold the talent,’ then I’ll bring them aboard. There’s definitely a line with it; like having a weekly open mic, no. I support them, though. There’s a ton of them around town, and I tell people to go, go, go, because that’s what you want. You want new people to keep writing, keep getting on stage, and you want to keep exploring and practicing your craft.
The Interrobang: There’s definitely an appreciation for that. You hear about clubs throwing anybody on stage, and there has to be that baseline benchmark there.
Mark Ippolito: You don’t want people taking a shit on your stage, people are paying for tickets here. I’m trying to put the value back into comedy here. For the longest time, people have been devaluing comedy. I mean, there’s clubs around the country that give away free tickets, free podcasts, and people say, ‘why would I want to go there? I just saw this guy at a coffee shop.’ Well, the guy you saw at a coffee shop fucking sucks, and quite honestly there are people who want to make a good thing out of this, and that’s what we are trying to do. We are trying to put the value back in it. This is what I believe in, I mean, I remember watching Delirious with Eddie Murphy, and watching Richard Pryor. I want for people coming here, even if it’s not for someone who is a national headliner, because the comedian can hold the room, and they’ve got the audience. There’s nothing like going from absolute chaotic laughter to all of a sudden dead silence to where you can hear a mouse fart in the kitchen because they are holding onto everything the comedian is saying. When they have you, there is nothing like holding the room. That’s what I want from everybody on that stage to do; to hold that room. I want my MC’s to set the table. I want my feature acts to start serving the dinner, and I want my headliners to be that fat juicy steak you paid the money for.
The Interrobang: When I reached out, I mentioned your relationship with guys like Kevin Meany and Barry Crimmins. Two comedians prominent in this area, and I know you had a close relationship with both of them.
Mark Ippolito: Ugh, it breaks my heart. Yeah. I booked Kevin Meany probably thirty times over my career. A very close friend, I had him play my other club ‘The Comedy Club’ quite often. At least three or four times a year, and a lot of special events and sometimes I’d just bring him back for one nighters. I also booked him at a couple of the casinos around here, and he was a very dear friend. There wasn’t a time in the 25 years of knowing Kevin Meany that he performed that he did not get a standing ovation. He was loud, he was flamboyant, he was electric. Everywhere he went he was Kevin. It was Kevin on stage, it was Kevin that if you were walking beside him in a grocery store, he would go up to some old lady and say (impersonating Kevin) ‘I wouldn’t eat that! That’s going to give you gas!’ He was the greatest fucking guy in the world, and a very close friend, and I actually booked his last show. For people in Rochester, his last performance was at the Finger Lakes Racetrack in Farmington, and that was the only performance of his that I missed. I booked the show, and my daughter had a basketball tournament in Camden, NY, which is four hours north. The very tip of New York before you get to Canada, you know, the very very top of East Bumblefuck, corner of East Jesus. So, I give Kevin all of the information, ‘this is the lady who will pay you, here’s the hotel you’re staying at, let me know how it goes.” Like I said, he would always get standing O’s, and every single time he would get off stage I’d point out to the crowd and say, ‘look, another standing O’ and he’d be like, ‘oh, stop!’, you know, me breaking his balls. He called me that night, after the shows ended. It was 11 or 11:30, and I was in the hotel with my daughter watching TV before her basketball tournament the next day. He said, ‘hey, everything was good. Everything’s all set, everything’s all good,’ he said. Right after hanging up he shoots me a text saying, ‘just so you know, another standing O,’ and then two days later he passed. That was very very traumatic, and it is one of the reasons we have christened our main room, the room everyone performs in, is called The Kevin Meany Showroom. That is to him, he’s a dedicated friend.
And another friend, as you know, is Barry Crimmins. Barry as you know had been battling demons his whole life, but he was still touring pretty regularly, in fact, right before he passed away….uh….he lived three hours away from here but he used Rochester as his airport to travel out of so he’d stop by pretty regularly. When we opened up we had a Kevin Meany appreciation show, and Barry came, and he performed that night. Then, he’d actually just pop in. I was drinking at the time, and Barry would just walk in and we’d have a couple beers. I’d put him up in a hotel if he had trouble with his flights, or whatever, but he was another one, just the ultimate respect for what he’s done in comedy, his writing, for what he went through as a child to now; and if you don’t know what I’m talking about, please, investigate and look because I would not give it any justice or any meaning like he can if you just follow his story, but quite honestly he was a great guy. We lost two very big guys. Whenever a new comic comes here, they go, ‘oh my god! Kevin Meany,’ and they’re like, ‘this is just so fuckin’ cool,’ because he was the star to all of us, but not so much the mainstream. But that was all….you know… I love them both and wherever they are…I, uh….wish their souls the best. ”
The Interrobang: Wow.To know Barry cherished this place and what it stood for; and same with Kevin, too. That must be pretty rewarding.
Mark Ippolito: Yeah, it was cool to sitting at the bar and Barry walks in saying, ‘yeah, I’m taking a flight tomorrow, and I’m going to London!’ and…..Quit smoking kids! Barry was one of the greatest guys and ball breakers; and just a good-good writer and he had great material, and if you were an intellect, you loved his stuff. And Kevin was just the silliest fucking guy…and he was just….ugh, I love him so much. I miss them both terribly. I think about it all the time. To have Kevin perform here would have been such a great triumph, especially, just through the years. I mean, twenty five years of knowing him…. It would have been a triumph.”
The Interrobang: I wanted to compliment you on the service at the club. I’ve been to a lot of clubs around upstate New York, and your club stands above them all in terms of service and making the guest feel welcome….”
Mark Ippolito: “One of the things that we insist on doing [at Comedy @ the Carlson] is giving our guests an experience, I don’t want [a server] who’s just going to take an order, I don’t want just bar people and servers from regular restaurants to work here; I want experienced staff that are going to make sure that we take care of our guests. You know, some guests are horrible guests, you know, someone who’s talking during a show and needs to be removed; but, 99.9 percent of the people who come here, from the mechanic that’s been working his ass off all week around, who’s taking his girlfriend out, I want them to feel important. We don’t do any VIP’s or anything like that because that tends to make people feel like they own the place and they ruin it for others. Instead, we take care of everybody the same and we hold very high standards for our staff, and I really appreciate your comment about our staff being good. Thank you!