This isn’t quite in the TV and radio realm but I do a lot of comedy coverage so here’s what I wrote for Thursday’s print edition:
The Punchline in Sandy Springs has been metro Atlanta’s stalwart standup comedy club for three decades, nurturing acts from Jerry Seinfeld to Jeff Foxworthy, from Louis C.K. to Larry the Cable Guy.
But The Improv, a franchise operation with 24 clubs nationwide, is hoping to give comedy fans a fresh option to see up-and-coming and established acts. The new 300-seat room (with the chain’s signature brick wall as a stage backdrop) officially opens Thursday night in Buckhead with veteran comic Louie Anderson as its first headlining comic through Saturday. (Buy tickets here.)
Stan Weaver — a partner in a cluster of eight Buckhead restaurants and clubs called the Andrews Entertainment District — wanted to add a comedy room. In August, he contacted Budd
Friedman, who founded the first Improv, in New York City in 1963. Within weeks, Weaver and Friedman had a deal.
“Atlanta is a prime market,” says Friedman, who helped launch the careers of Rodney Dangerfield, Bette Midler and Jay Leno. “When Stan asked to license the Improv name, we were more than happy to do so.”
Jerry Farber, who runs his own cabaret club Jerry’s Side Door at the Landmark Diner in Buckhead, likens the looming Punchline-Improv matchup to college basketball’s legendary Duke-North Carolina rivalry.
“The Improv’s a chain with a lot of muscle,” says Farber, a well-known local comic since 1970. “The Punchline is the strong independent. The Punchline will hang around. But like a new hotel in Miami Beach, The Improv will get a lot of action, no question about it.”
For standup comics, Atlanta has become an increasingly robust city to develop their craft.
There are now five local comedy clubs that focus exclusively on stand up, the most in years. That includes Atlanta’s 350-seat Uptown Comedy Corner, which targets a black audience, the 74-seat Laughing Skull Lounge, which focuses on the hipster Midtown crowd, and 100-seat Bonkerz, at the Andretti Indoor Karting & Games in Roswell, for northern suburbanites.
Marshall Chiles, who used to operate the now-defunct Funny Farm in Roswell, has run the Laughing Skull since 2008. When he started performing amateur standup comedy more than a decade ago, Chiles says he usually could practice before live crowds only on weekends.
Now there are open-mic nights every night of the week at various metro venues, ranging from The Star Community Bar in Little Five Points on Mondays to Limerick Junction in Virginia-Highland on Wednesdays and, on Thursdays, the Sweetwater Bar and Grill in Duluth.
When The Improv held an open call for local comics last month , Friedman says more than 75 tried out — and several will perform on a regular basis at the club.
“I’m happy to see that The Improv is embracing local comics,” Chiles says.
This is actually The Improv’s second effort in Buckhead. A franchise operator gave it a go in the early 1990s but it didn’t last.
“They’re the grand-daddy of comedy clubs,” says Ron DiNunzio, who founded the Punchline in 1982 and has since retired. “They came in with guns blazing. I heard they’d put us out of business. That didn’t happen.”
Gary Abdo runs Uptown, which used to operate in Buckhead but is now off Marietta Street, near Georgia Tech. He says Weaver and his partners at the Improv “are really experienced restaurateurs. But the comedy portion of the business is tricky.”
Jamie Bendall, who now co-owns the 270-seat Punchline, says he isn’t overly concerned by the arrival of The Improv.
“The more people who go out and see live comedy and go to comedy clubs, the happier I am.”
Louie Anderson is an interesting pick for the first weekend at The Improv only because he has worked several times up the road in Roswell at Bonkerz. But work is work.
Anderson actually has his own 250-seat room at the Palace Station casino in Las Vegas, where he has lived the past seven years.
Even through the economic recession, “my fans have been pretty loyal to me. I feel really blessed about that. I’m very popular with the locals. When people come to visit, locals bring their friends to see me.”
He still gets out of town once a month to do gigs for folks who don’t travel to Vegas. But he feels for comedy club owners. “It’s a rough business,” he says. “You’re only really making money on weekends.”
Even after 33 years doing stand up, the 59 year old is still loving his work, likening it to therapy. “I feel like I’ve recaptured my inner standup,” he says. “I had one of my best shows last night doing stuff I’ve never done. I was just talking to this family right in the front. It spurred this whole idea of families and stuff that’s my forte. Families and food – and being fat. I had a great time.”
Anderson has been in many films over the years (remember “Coming to America”?), a Fox animated series “Life With Louie” (1993-95) and host of “Family Feud” (1999-2002). He admires current host and Atlantan Steve Harvey: “He seems to be settling in and having a lot of fun. He’s very smart and much more ambitious than I am.”
He loved doing a game show because he only worked 35 days a year but the shows were spread out to give the world the impression he worked every day. “I’m the laziest person in the world,” Anderson says, self deprecatingly. “Thank you father. It’s not an accomplishment!”
8 p.m. Thursday, October 14
8 p.m., 10:30 p.m. Friday, October 15
8 p.m., 10:45 p.m. Saturday, October 16
56 East Andrews Drive, Atlanta
678-244-3612. Buy tickets here.
By Rodney Ho, Radio & TV Talk