The Punchline Comedy Club on the surface looks very much like it did when it opened three decades ago.
The wood paneling, the classroom-style wood chairs, the black and white eight-by-tens on the walls of comics with bad 1980s hair. The only overt nod to modernity: flat screen TVs, including two on the stage.
But clearly, the success of the club has nothing to do with the modest decor. For the first 22 years or so, the club was managed by Ron DiNunzio and Dave Montesano, then by Jamie Bendall and Chris DiPetta (who also worked there in the 1980s.).
They treated the comics, staff and customers well. They marketed consistently. Even as they expanded into other markets in the Southeast and added two other Punchline clubs in Atlanta in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the main club held its own. The Sandy Springs Punchline fended off at least a dozen competitors, including the recently shuttered Funny Farm at Andretti’s Indoor Karting & Games. Over 30 years, the club has hosted more than 10,000 shows before more than a half million people. It’s no joke that videographer Steve Mitchell is creating a documentary on the club called “If the Walls Could Talk.”
This past Sunday evening, Bendall invited back alums of the club for a party with cake, open bar and a full spread of food. More than 100 showed up, including original comics and wait staff from 1982.
DiNunzio returned, looking like a proud papa. DiPetta greeted old employees with hugs and stories of water fights and untold debauchery.
He told me the club itself has renovated the guts in recent years: the HVAC system, the kitchen, the sound system, the lighting. These are things customers may not ostensibly notice but does make a difference in how comfortable the experience is. “We’re smaller than most clubs,” he said. (Capacity is about 275.) “But comics loves the place.”
Even DiPetta embraces the club’s shabby chic mystique. “This our dump and we love it!”
In fact, the wooden chairs and tables are original and obviously incredibly durable. “In 30 years, we’ve lost maybe three chairs!” he said.
DiNunzio, who with Montesano, sold the club in 2004 to DiPetta and Bendall. “It was good to see some of the old faces when I worked there,” he said after the party. “I surely congratulate Jamie and Chris for keeping it going, especially in tough times. I have mixed feelings. Sometimes I wish I was still there. Sometimes, I think I did the right thing.”
He said he sold because his partner had bypass surgery and was told to relax. Plus, DiPetta and Bendall gave him a solid offer.
Since then, DiNunzio briefly ran a Punchline in Destin, Fla. He considered a restaurant concept with Jeff Foxworthy but the economy derailed that idea. He has consulted with various food and beverage companies and nightclubs. Right now, he said he’s seeking new climes.
DiPetta gave me a quick tour of the green room at the Punchline, which is modest to say the least:
DiPetta talks to the partygoers, explaining why he thinks the Punchline lasted as long as it has:
By Rodney Ho, Radio & TV Talk