OK, stop me if you've heard this one before: A comedy writer walks into Victors Liquor & Delicatessen in Hollywood at 12:30 Sunday afternoon, says hello to owner Bill Gotti and sits down at a table for 10. Pretty soon, a musician joins him. Then a comedian. Three more comedy writers. Another comedian. Another writer and his 8-year-old daughter. In short order, the old friends start kibitzing about work, reminiscing about their comic heroes and taking jabs at one another along with their eggs.
They're talking Red Buttons' death, the future of radio comedian Phil Hendrie and the state of stand-up comedy. They're remembering old bets they've made (Is there really such a thing as white lox?) and roaring at what Slappy White said at Redd Foxx's funeral ("There's one thing that would make Redd feel better now, and that would be if I went into Redd's show and replaced him"). And they're trying out jokes.
"I have a surprise TV appearance next week on NBC," announces Mike Rowe, an Emmy-nominated writer for "Futurama" whose credits also include "The Family Guy." "It's a little show called 'To Catch a Predator.' "
For the next two hours, it's a stream-of-comedy free-for-all where the only rules are be quick and funny.
There'd be nothing unusual about this get-together -- comics fill up tables at restaurants all over Los Angeles -- except this brunch has been a Sunday tradition at Victors since 1991. For 15 years, the same core group has seen one another through marriages and divorces, births and deaths, successes and failures.
"This thing has gone on long enough to go from [women] and dope to prescriptions and colonoscopies," says Eddie Gorodetsky, an Emmy winner for "Late Night With David Letterman," producer of "Two and a Half Men" and producer of Bob Dylan's XM Satellite Radio show.
It was here that Phil Rosenthal found out that his show "Everybody Loves Raymond" had been picked up as a series. Les Moonves, the head of CBS, called Victors. Rosenthal picked up and said, "Whaddya want? I'm eating." Moonves said -- "very quickly, and to his credit, this was a great line," Rosenthal remembers -- "Order an ice cream sundae."
"That's a memorable moment," Rosenthal says, "and it was at Victors, and it's indelible now. It has a special place in my heart because that happened there and I was with my very good friends, so it meant a lot."
On any given Sunday, the group is eight to 10 strong. But there've been as many as 35 gathered around the table and, on equally rare occasions, a much smaller number.
"There was a very recent one where I was the only one who showed up," says comedian Jeffrey Ross, whose recent documentary film, "Patriot Act," has gotten wide praise.
"No, you probably showed up at 3 o'clock and we were gone then," shoots back Alan Kirschenbaum, a writer on the sitcom "Yes, Dear" and son of Borscht Belt comic Freddie Roman.
"A lot of guys come for the camaraderie," Rowe says.
"I come for the material," Ross says. "It's good for roasts. I always leave with more." Later, Ross will crack, "I just come because the bathrooms here are cleaner than at my house."
The regulars are mostly former New Yorkers who made their way to Hollywood in the late 1980s. Kirschenbaum and Rosenthal have been friends since high school; Rosenthal slept on Kirschenbaum's couch his first month in L.A. Rowe's first paid writing job came when Gorodetsky, then a supervisor for the Comedy Channel (now Comedy Central), hired him. When Rowe moved to California -- around the same time Gorodetsky did -- he worked with Kirschenbaum and Rosenthal on the sitcom "Baby Talk." "I'm sure you remember 'Baby Talk,' " Rowe says.
"We have a clip, actually," chimes in another regular, Don McEnery, co-writer of Disney's "A Bug's Life" and "Hercules."
They invited Gorodetsky to come talk shop.
All four lived nearby, and Victors, which opened in 1991, was one of the few restaurants around. Location was everything, especially for Gorodetsky, who only learned to drive 10 years ago.
Soon, the table expanded. Kirschenbaum brought along L.A. music scenester Chuck E. Weiss -- the subject of Rickie Lee Jones' "Chuck E.'s in Love." Ross came along, as did Lee Frank (a comedian who's written for cable TV's "Reality Remix" and "Girls Behaving Badly") and McEnery, who used to headline the Wall Street comedy spot called Jokers and Brokers, where Ross got his start. McEnery persuaded his poker buddy Jonathan Solomon (comedian and writer for "Mad About You" and also a friend of Rowe's and Frank's) to come break bread.
"In L.A.," Rosenthal says, "our social culture is in our restaurants because we all drive everywhere. In New York, you can walk down the street and run into somebody and have a conversation. But in L.A., you have to meet at an appointed time and an appointed place, usually a restaurant for lunch or for dinner. And that's where you socialize."
On this Sunday, like most other Sundays, socializing inevitably leads to reminiscing.