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'The Comedy Store': How a Legendary Club Helped Create Legendary Comics
October 4, 2020  | By Mike Hughes

For a generation of comedians, the challenge was the same: Do an open-mic set at the Comedy Store. Do your best; hope club-owner Mitzi Shore (top) likes you.

For Bill Burr, that went one way: "She (said), 'He's not ready,'" he told the Television Critics Association (TCA) last month. "I heard her say it in the middle of my set."

Burr soon moved to New York. Years later, he returned while building a vibrant comedy career. For Mike Bender – who has now made The Comedy Store – it went the other way. He was just 18, a boyish-looking redhead from near Detroit when he tried the Comedy Store.

"I got really lucky the first night," he said. "She loved my act, and I hadn't been doing it long, and the wind hit me right…. I was made a regular and she gave me a job as a doorman."

Now, 44 years later, he's done a different task.

After Shore died in 2018, her sons asked him to make a documentary about the club.

"There's just hundreds and hundreds of hours of footage," Binder said. "I've been working on it for two years…. I just have so much love for all these people, and for this subject…and for Mitzi."

He emerged with five episodes that ripple with sharp one-liners and with memories. In the first hour alone, he takes David Letterman and Marc Maron back to the club and offers historical glimpses of Richard Pryor and Freddie Prinze, offering a history lesson for younger comics. "For me, Freddie Prinze is the dad of Freddie Prinze Jr., the guy from all those rom-coms when I was growing up," said comedian Annie Lederman, 37, born six years after the elder Prinze's suicide. "So, it's nice to see his story."

It's a colorful one, including the time Prinze – angry that he was no longer on the cover of teen magazines – fired arrows into John Travolta's apartment.

Such stories fill the documentary, which is part of a busy stretch for Showtime. Binder's series debuts at 10 p.m. ET Sunday, right after the 9 p.m. ET start of The Good Lord Bird, a flawed series spiced by Ethan Hawke's spectacular performance as anti-slavery warrior John Brown. Both – plus Kingdom of Silence, about slain journalist Jamal Khashoggi – will rerun often.

The Comedy Store has already been fictionalized in Showtime's I'm Dying Up Here with Melissa Leo has someone like Mitzi Shore. Now we see the real story.

In 1950, she married Sammy Shore, a stand-up comedian. He soared: opening for Elvis Presley, and in 1972, co-founding The Comedy Store in Los Angeles. Two years later, Mitzi got the club in a divorce.

The club was still struggling then, but Johnny Carson had moved to Los Angeles. His show was crucial to comedy careers; Jim McCauley, his talent coordinator, would spot them in local clubs.

That gave The Comedy Store fresh power – and gave comics opposite goals. For McCauley, Binder said, it was all about the specific jokes and how "clean and really precise they were. (Jerry) Seinfeld and Larry Miller and (Paul) Reiser are really great comics, but not Comedy Store (types)."

For Shore, he said, it was the persona, the ability to hold a crowd. "Comedy Store was really about energy (and) charisma. Mitzi was going for something a lot different than Jim McCauley was."

Binder didn't reach Carson's show until his early 30s, but he made all the other talk shows – Letterman, Sajak, Conan, Mike Douglas, Dennis Miller, more – and also befriended Shore and her sons (including Pauly Shore, who would become an actor and comic).

At a time when comedy was performed primarily by white men from New York, Binder said Shore had no biases by gender (she started a smaller room for female comics to get started), race, and region. "She was from (Green Bay) Wisconsin; I was from Michigan, and…she treated me like one of her kids."

Decades later, he would revive memories of her club and her life.

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