For 50 years, the Comedy Store has been a club in need of comics, and a place for comics in need of a club. The relationship is as plain as the writing on the walls of the storied venue, cluttered with the names of its biggest stars dotting its black exterior in white cursive. But that only tells a fraction of the story of a venue that's anchored itself in comedy history, creating a magnetic pull that brings new stars in and keeps the veterans coming back.
Days before receiving the slap heard round the world at the Oscars, Chris Rock spent a week working out his latest material for the Store crowd, surprising audience members who had no idea he would be popping in on a weeknight. When his name was announced, the air inside the club's Main Room turned electric.
"When it's Tuesday night, you're here and people saw Chris Rock just walking onstage, the vibe and the tempo just changed, it livened up," general manager Richi Taylor says. "And then those people tell their friends, 'You're not gonna believe this! You were supposed to come and you didn't!' And they're teasing them that they missed when Chris came in … nights like that have always helped the notoriety of the club."
It's been a year since the club at 8433 W. Sunset Blvd. reopened its doors after shuttering during the pandemic. Celebrating its 50th anniversary this month, the Store and its nightly magic are back, along with many of its traditions. The door person greeting incoming crowds is always likely to be an aspiring stand-up comic charged with watching other comics onstage while waiting for their shot at the spotlight. Walking in through the halls, the club still looks and feels the way it did in 1972, its dark red vibe best suited for a room full of laughs, icy cocktails and body heat.
On the top floor of the store, the office of its legendary owner, the late Mitzi Shore, sits unchanged from the last day she left it. The pills in her drawer, papers on her desk and photos on her wall haven't been touched since she stopped running the club in 2002. Since her death in 2018, staff members who work at the club say that her spirit is ever-present, especially Peter Shore, her son who took over as the Store's CEO 20 years ago.
Though the club might feel the same, Peter says he runs it very differently than his mother. He's not the one sitting in on the shows scouting talent, or ruling with an iron fist — he's never even had an office in the building. The Portland, Oregon, resident spends most of his days working as a therapist and only occasionally visits L.A. Yet the staff he's hired to help the Store's traditions stay alive has given him room to figure out ways he can usher them into the future.
"I've gone out of my way to not be the face of the Store," Shore says. "I've been the CEO for a very long time. I think it's emblematic of my approach and running the place, which is that it's all about making sure that the comics feel like it's their home. … This house belongs to the comics."
Of course, there were times when the house almost fell apart — beginning with the landmark strike in 1979 when comics refused to work for Mitzi at the club without getting paid to perform, a moment that shook up the world of stand-up and changed how the comics got compensated. Decades later, Shore remembers the dark days of the early aughts when the club was falling into severe disrepair and in danger of closing its doors more than once. In the early 2000s, they relied on a benefit show headlined by the late Robin Williams just so he could pay to fix the roof. In the late '90s and early aughts, the Store's first urban hip-hop comedy night, Phat Tuesdays — created by comedian Guy Torry — almost single-handedly kept the club open and became the shot in the arm that it needed as crowds and celebrities packed the audience again.
For the Shore family, that pain was also personal, from the financial woes to the fallout between Shore and his brother comedian Pauly Shore, who wrestled for ownership of the club in the mid-aughts. Currently, Pauly does not have a role in running the club, though he does still perform at the club locations in L.A. and La Jolla.
The 50th anniversary of the Comedy Store comes at a notable time in the world of comedy, one in which the world has indelibly shifted and comedy has had to adapt to new generations. Shore says that, although the Store has its traditions, he's been trying to make it feel welcoming to the comics and audiences of today the way it did when it was opened on April 7, 1972, by his father, comedian Sammy Shore, and comedy writer Rudy DeLuca along with Mitzi, who took the club over after she and Sammy divorced two years later. Part of that has been changing the ways things were always done. Though the system of comic development — going from working the door to becoming a paid regular comic — is still intact.
"It's kind of like minor league baseball," Taylor says. "Comics start off in Single A, they play well, they can go with the Double A, you know, then you can get into that, you know, Triple A. That's when you become a paid regular, that's when you make it."
However, since 2014, Shore has done away with using the passing system for major touring comics who never worked the Store before becoming paid regulars — starting with David Spade, who became a regular over a decade after his career took off. This has also opened the Store to many more popular comics from all over the country, Shore says.
In keeping with the spirit of the classic era of '60s and '70s comedy albums Shore grew up listening to, the club recently started Comedy Store Records, signing comics and having their comedy albums pressed on vinyl. Meanwhile, the Comedy Store Podcast Network also continues to grow, adding shows from comics like Justin Martindale, Rick Ingraham, Jamar Neighbors and Chelsea Skidmore to its roster. Shore credits the comedy podcast boom of the 2010s with introducing the Store to a new audience as comics like Marc Maron, Bill Burr, Joe Rogan and Whitney Cummings branched out and became their own brands with massive audiences outside the club circuit, while still promoting their tour dates.
"To this day, as big as Rogan is, you pop in any of his podcasts, you dial it in to any time that he talks about my mom, what does he do? He starts crying," Shore says. "No matter how big he is, no matter how powerful and influential he is, at the core of his being is how my mother and that Store has touched him."
One change to the Store's strategy that Shore felt adamant about was hiring a female talent director — the first since Mitzi was in charge. Emilie Laford, a veteran comedy booker, jumped at the chance to usher in a new chapter in the club's history of garnering the world's top comedy talent. Over the last several years, she's taken the reins, booking Zoom shows and finding creative ways to book talent during the pandemic.
"It's great, you know, kind of like trying to put together a puzzle or like a recipe with different ingredients," Laford said. "We really take pride in the fact that we try to develop our own homegrown people who come up with a system here. … It was great to have those traditions still be part of the club."
Despite opening up more doors for new comics, one rule remains steadfast: No matter how popular or viral a comedian is, they have to be able to prove their skills onstage. That means resisting the pressure to book TikTok comedy creators with huge followings if they haven't put time into doing stand-up in real life.
"There's agents and managers out there who are promoting what they're calling stand-up comics, who have these wild presences on TikTok or Instagram or whatever, doing these bits," Shore said. "And they've got hundreds of thousands of followers … but we're like, they're not comics. Come and work out, go work out at the Potluck. Because there is nothing to substitute that live experience."
At the Store, "working out" means putting a comic's analytics-driven ego aside to see how their act translates in front of a room full of strangers. The goal is always to refine their act until those strangers become fans and the comics they share the stage with become family.
That homegrown Comedy Store family, many of whom are now international stars, will be part of the club's private celebration on Thursday for the anniversary, which Laford says will be more of a party than one super-long comedy show — a better situation for the comics who'd prefer to gather around banquet tables and have a few laughs without being onstage.
Despite celebrating the history-making talent that's come out of this building, the 50th anniversary comes at a bittersweet time for the Store. The party will no doubt feel a lot emptier without the presence of Bob Saget, Paul Mooney, John Witherspoon, Jeff Scott — the club's longtime piano player — and other great comics who've died during the pandemic. The club's milestone also fell just days before the five-year anniversary of Mitzi's death on April 11, 2018.
Part of the future of the Store depends a lot on remembering the past, Shore says, and keeping the traditions intact for those seeking a place in this revered comics clubhouse. Instead of chasing the trends of the outside world, the club continues to evolve from within as veteran comics help newbies find their way.
While Chris Rock was onstage preparing his act for the road, he spotted talented homegrown Store comedian Ingraham performing. He was so impressed he pulled him aside and asked him to go on the road to open for him, Taylor says. For the Store's general manager and everyone who works at the club, these are the kind of success stories that make it special.
"I enjoy watching the guys that go make it and they leave because they became something else and have prospered," Taylor says. "I like to say 'That guy used to work here. I used to yell at him to cover the ticket booth or go to the parking lot and move cars.' Now they're on TV, they're making albums, they're doing everything."
The tradition of outgrowing the store and returning to cultivate it is one that Mitzi instilled in the club and one that ensures it'll always have a future and hopefully keep the bills paid and people laughing. The power of that magic lasting five decades can't be overstated, Shore says.
"When you walk into that building, it's exactly as it was in 1972 and '73, '74. There's pictures still on the wall that haven't moved … and for some folks, like, that's really important. They get to go back in time and feel comfortable," Shore says. "I think you look at that through the lens of today's chaotic world, and it's something that you can't really ignore. There is meaning to that, and that's important for some people."