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Punchline Comedy Club celebrates 30 years after 10,000 plus shows including Jay Leno, Jeff Foxworthy, Steve Harvey, Jerry Seinfeld, Tim Allen

The partygoers who worked at the Punchline between 1982 and 1997. CREDIT: Rodney Ho/rho@ajc.com

The partygoers who worked at the Punchline between 1982 and 1997. CREDIT: Rodney Ho/rho@ajc.com

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.

Atlanta comic Greg Ray poses by his original photo from 30 years ago when he had hair and a mustache. CREDIT: Rodney Ho/rho@ajc.com

Atlanta comic Greg Ray poses by his original photo from 30 years ago when he had hair and a mustache. "This place ruined me for every other comedy club out there. Here, they always did it right," he said. "They threw out hecklers and kept it a business." CREDIT: Rodney Ho/rho@ajc.com

Darryl Pinsky was part of a comedy duo 30 years ago and worked in the comedy business for 10 years. He now sells wholesale diamonds in Atlanta. CREDIT: Rodney Ho/rho@ajc.com

Darryl Pinsky was part of a comedy duo 30 years ago and worked in the comedy business for 10 years. He now sells wholesale diamonds in Atlanta. "They always ran a tight ship," he said. And DiPetta in the early days made a great bouncer, he said. CREDIT: Rodney Ho/rho@ajc.com

The original 8 by 10s of Jeff Foxworthy and Jerry Seinfeld hang on the wall of the Punchline.

The original 8 by 10s of Jeff Foxworthy and Jerry Seinfeld hang on the wall of the Punchline.

Chris DiPetta worked at the Punchline from 1981 to 1987, managed the likes of Jeff Foxworthy and Brett Butler, before returning to the club around 2004 to manage it. He has spent more time recently in Los Angeles managing Billy Gardell. CREDIT: Rodney Ho/rho@ajc.com

Chris DiPetta worked at the Punchline from 1981 to 1987, managed the likes of Jeff Foxworthy and Brett Butler, before returning to the club around 2004 to manage it. He has spent more time recently in Los Angeles managing Billy Gardell. CREDIT: Rodney Ho/rho@ajc.com

(L-R) Ron DiNunzio (an original owner), Lisa Bartlett (waitress), Bunny DiPetta (wife of Chris) and Chris DiPetta (original assistant manager) all were at the Punchline the night it opened in February, 1982. CREDIT: Rodney Ho/rho@ajc.com

(L-R) Ron DiNunzio (an original owner), Lisa Bartlett (waitress), Bunny DiPetta (wife of Chris) and Chris DiPetta (original assistant manager) all were at the Punchline the night it opened in February, 1982. CREDIT: Rodney Ho/rho@ajc.com

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:

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By Rodney Ho, Radio & TV Talk

5 comments Add your comment

Rickster

February 23rd, 2012
12:13 pm

Lots of good laughs at the Punchline. Wish it had been a little bigger, with an upper level. But the small size made things great for the audience and the talent.

Craig Ashwood

February 23rd, 2012
2:37 pm

Great memories for me, as I got to host Sunday nights there back in the early to mid 80’s. I was on 94Q back then (now Star 94) and we had Sunday nights to emcee…I got the job, alone at first for a year or so, and then shared between me, Jeff McCartney, and Neil “Hondo” Williamson.

So many of today’s huge comics were just starting out then. Plus, you’d never know who’d pop up on stage…people like Eddie Murphy or Robin Williams, after they’d worked their “bigger venue” gigs earlier that night, would occasionally come in late and jump up on stage to do a set.

I learned that stand up comedy is likely the most difficult job in the world, because it’s just the comic and the audience. And it’s an ugly thing to see, when an audience turns on the performer. That would happen rarely…but still, awkward. I remember one night, the headliner just walked off stage, it was so bad. His set was terrible and the audience let him know. I was upstairs, watching from the balcony next to the office, and had to run downstairs to get on stage quick smart to say good night.

But most nights, it was just magic. I think the intimate atmosphere of the club really helped comics as they worked. I saw some amazing people there, and got to work with some big name folks. Lots of fun!

Ron, Dave, Chris, and the whole staff were first rate people and a real pleasure to work with and to know.

Finally, Jeff Foxworthy, who was just starting out when I was doing the emcee work at the Punchline, is one of the nicest guys “in real life” you’d ever want to meet. So many comics seemed full of self-doubt and angst off stage as you’d talk to them, but Jeff was and remains as good as it gets.

Scott Crawford

February 23rd, 2012
7:44 pm

Everyone who took Jeff Justice’s comedy workshop has very fond memories of the Punchline, as I do.

kevin

February 24th, 2012
6:28 am

love the punchline

Rickster

February 24th, 2012
10:55 am

I remember Jeff Ray’s claim to fame was that he was “the guy who held the watermelon in the Ginsu knife commercial.”