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Laughing on the Outside : Rival Comedy Clubs Get Serious in Quest for Patrons

May 21, 1987|ELISABETH DUNHAM | Dunham is a Venice free-lance writer.

The Hilton Improv in Sherman Oaks is housed in a former hotel meeting room. Its steel-blue walls and spill-proof carpets are more in tune with a Rotary Club luncheon than a comedy club. One can almost sense the ghosts of creamed chicken that has been served in the room.

Up the Ventura Freeway in Universal City, the Comedy Store at the Sheraton Universal Hotel is definitely more glamorous. The room underwent months of remodeling that transformed it from a dark cocktail lounge to the Valley counterpart of owner Mitzi Shore's Sunset Strip club. Neon faces of famous comedians hang on the room's black walls.

Both stages are set for laugh-filled evenings, but behind the scenes is a rivalry that dates back to 1979. The opening of the two comedy clubs in the San Fernando Valley during the past months once again pits comedy maven Mitzi Shore against her competitor, Budd Friedman. Together with partner Mark Lonow, Friedman owns the Improv on Melrose Avenue and its namesake in Sherman Oaks.

Sparked by 1979 Strike

Tension between the club owners stems from a 1979 strike of Los Angeles comedians against the Comedy Store's "no-pay policy."

Until that time, neither Shore nor Friedman paid comedians a salary. The theory was that comedians should almost be paying the owners for the exposure the clubs provided. When the comedians' strike began, the Improv was closed for fire-damage repairs. Therefore, the strike focused on Shore, not Friedman.

Friedman quickly took on the role of union supporter by agreeing to pay comedians $5 a performance as soon as his club resumed operation. Comedians flocked to the Improv and actively recruited others from the Comedy Store picket line.

Shore insists there are no hard feelings these days.

"It's not really a rivalry between the clubs," she says.

But she made a pointed jab at the Improv during the Comedy Store's April 15 grand opening in Universal City. "It's a totally different environment at the Comedy Store," Shore said. "We develop comedians."

Playing Both Clubs Discouraged

Shore might not consider the Improv her club's rival, but she strongly discourages Comedy Store comics from performing at the other club.

"I put my faith in each comic. They know they won't get as many time slots at the Comedy Store if they play both places," she said. "So there's really no crossover with the Improv."

Friedman said he has no problem with comedians playing both places. In fact, he said, he encourages them to get as much exposure as they can.

"If she feels she can badger the comedians, she will," he said. "Jay Leno is a good example. A few years ago, he told Mitzi, 'I'm not giving up the Improv, I started at the Improv,' and she said, 'Okay.' "

"I feel the more they work out, the better. However, I don't want them to call me on a Thursday night and say, 'I've got a spot at the Comedy Store, I can't come in tonight.' "

Timing Called Coincidence

Friedman and Lonow said it is purely coincidental that the Improv and the Comedy Store opened rooms in the Valley about the same time.

Shore is skeptical of that assessment.

"I wouldn't doubt they followed us," she said. "They've done it before."

The clubs' owners give some of the same reasons for opening clubs in the Valley.

For one, smaller rooms provide relaxed settings for comedians to try out new material.

"All the comics are very relaxed here because it's away from the Sunset place," Shore said. "Because they're more relaxed, they can work out their stuff. It's like a resort atmosphere. The audience is more select."

Comedians who play either club agree that the new rooms are less threatening than the originals.

"It's a mellow room. There's no pressure, really," said Danny Stone, a regular performer at the Comedy Store.

"I was talking to all the comics after opening night. I said, 'How did you like it?' And they said, 'It's so relaxing, it's like a Jacuzzi.' "

Giving comedians more stage time is only one reason he and Lonow opened the second club, Friedman said.

"There are two reasons. One is greed. Two is we needed more stage time for all the comedians we have. There's certainly money to be made in the Valley."

But making that money may take a while.

Room managers from both clubs say week-night audiences are relatively small, averaging 40 to 60 people a night. The weekend brings more established comedians and bigger audiences to the clubs. Improv room manager Joe Drew says Saturday night shows have been selling out steadily since the club opened. But the Comedy Store has not been packed on the weekends. On Fridays and Saturdays, the club averages audiences of about 60 for each show in a room that seats 115.

Club Keeps Ticket Sales

The Improv and the Comedy Store have similar financial agreements with the hotels they occupy. The club collects ticket or "gate" sales, whereas the hotel profits from food and beverage sales. Tickets for shows during the week cost $6 at either club. Friday and Saturday night tickets are $8 and $12 at the Comedy Store, $7 and $8 at the Improv.

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