clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

‘The Comedy Store’ well-stocked with stories from the biggest stand-ups

Showtime documentary collects anecdotes about David Letterman, Jay Leno, Dave Chappelle, Robin Williams, Jim Carrey and other stars who broke big at the famed West Hollywood club.

Comic Bill Burr performs in a scene from “The Comedy Store.”
Troy Conrad/Courtesy of Showtime

“I drove by it in ’94 when I was on vacation and I remember thinking, ‘Someday I’m going to play there.’ ” Bill Burr, “The Comedy Store.”

Before you can become a big-time stand-up comedian, you have to stop at the Store. Like, a couple hundred times.

We speak of The Comedy Store, the iconic club on the Sunset Strip in West Hollywood, California, where for nearly 50 years the likes of David Letterman, Jay Leno, Dave Chappelle, Robin Williams, Jim Carrey, Leslie Jones, Chris Rock, Sam Kinison, Whitney Cummings, Marc Maron and Sarah Silverman have walked in, usually as unknowns, and eventually commanded the stage as superstars. First you might have to work the door taking tickets, then you’d sign up for open mic and hope to get a five-minute slot, then you might actually get paid — and maybe, just maybe, one day you’d reach the point where your photo would find a spot on the black-painted walls.

Director-comedian Mike Binder has put together THE definitive oral and visual history of the club in “The Comedy Store,” a five-part docuseries premiering Sunday on Showtime. Binder fits solidly into the category of stand-ups who did well at The Comedy Store but never quite reached the top — but he’s a talented director, a good listener and a well-versed student of comedy, and he clearly has the respect of his peers, as he scored interviews with nearly every major living comic who has toiled at The Comedy Store at some point over the last 47 years.

In the opening episode, we see grainy old footage of the late and legendary Mitzi Shore, who received the club as a divorce settlement from her husband Sammy Shore in the early 1970s and for decades ruled from the Iron Throne of comedy, handing out coveted time slots, telling the less talented to go home and promoting the best comics to headline status. We’re also treated to a treasure trove of old photos and footage of Letterman, Leno, Chappelle, Robin Williams, et al., when they were impossibly young and still honing their trade.

In addition to the comics who emerged from The Comedy Store and enjoyed decades of success, “The Comedy Store” reminds us of the blazing stars who burned out, including Sam Kinison and Freddie Prinze, who had rock star success at the club, which catapulted him to appearances on Johnny Carson’s career-making “Tonight Show” and a hit sitcom, but became consumed with addiction and paranoia, and took his own life at just 22. Far less tragic but still compelling are the interviews with comics such as Jeff Altman, who was as funny as Letterman or Tim Allen or any of them back in the day, but made a couple of wrong moves (anyone remember the disastrous “Pink Lady and Jeff” on NBC in 1980?) and never quite broke through to the next level. The best comedians are wonderful storytellers, and “The Comedy Store” honors that with a bounty of comics telling one great story after another.