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#28: Dangerfields: The World's Oldest Comedy Club.
The world's oldest comedy club might have been a bit of a shithole, but it was MY shithole.
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October 14, 2020
No Respect, I tell ya.
When I moved to New York I had a notebook with 7 years’ worth of jokes in it that I’d been performing in Australia. None of it worked in New York. I flushed my notebook down the toilet at the Ludlow Hotel, blocked the toilet and fled in a panic as the water rose and flooded the bathroom. A worthy death for such tired, dreadful material.
Over the following 3 years, I went out every night of the week, did 3–4 spots each night and worked up a new hour of material (ok, 35 minutes of actually decent material, 25 minutes of B and C-grade material.) I’d mark off each night on the wall calendar how many spots I’d done. (Each triangle was a gig for that day.)
Years passed. Clubs ‘passed’ me.
Eventually, I got a manager and an agent, I started booking casinos and clubs and doing commercials and TV shows. It was a lot of work, and it didn’t once feel like it. I loved every minute of going out there and building an act.
Auditioning to get ‘passed’ at clubs was nerve-wracking, but I managed to get my foot in the door at a few ground-level places to cut my teeth at some late-night spots. (Getting “passed” is getting approved to be put on their regular roster of comics: You send in your avails to the booker each week and they give you times/shows that you’ll be on that week. The hardest club to get passed at is The Comedy Cellar; the best club in New York.)
The first club I got officially passed at was called LOL.
Back then, it wasn’t so much a “comedy club” as a converted sex dungeon above a luggage store in Times Square with a cheap vinyl banner that said ‘LOL STANDUP COMEDY’. Eventually, they sprung for a proper sign (above) and called it a CLUB.
It had two separate musty old rooms inside running concurrent shows every night, filled with people from the Midwest who had been told 5 minutes earlier by a barker that they were about to see Chris Rock, Louis CK or Tina Fey*
(*not a stand-up comic).
As you can imagine, by the time my dopey mug made it on stage, they realised how badly they’d been screwed and often asked for their money back. One time I was there when the manager got punched in the face by an angry punter after hearing the words ‘No Refunds.’
I would perform at LOL 2–3 nights a week, sometimes 3 or 4 shows in a night, 10–15 minutes apiece. Sometimes I’d be hosting, other times I’d close out the show. Sometimes they’d give me a free hot dog. Sometimes a beer. We’d do shows every night. In a swampy 100 degrees or in the middle of a blizzard. (The blizzard thing only happened one time.)
Working in that club taught me two things: How to deal with hostile audiences and how to digest uncooked hotdogs.
Before long, new management came in and I was turfed out the door along with a swag of other comics who’d been working there since it opened. It was at that point a booker I was working with at Broadway Comedy Club put me up to audition for Dangerfield’s.
He’d been producing outside shows for both clubs and threw me up with a few other comics for consideration. I passed. Within a month I was performing there 2–3 times a week and booking road gigs at Casinos through their management company.
Dangerfield’s was my new ‘home’ club.
The first night I set foot in Dangerfields I felt like I’d been sucked into a time machine. The red velvet curtains, the old carpet, the dumbwaiter behind the old mahogany front bar with overpriced drinks— It had everything you’d expect an old storied comedy club from the sixties to have, and then some.
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The club is obviously named after comedian Rodney Dangerfield and was founded by Rodney and his long-time friend Anthony “Tony” Bevacqua, who still runs and operates the club today. I remember Tony telling me Rodney lived upstairs at one point.
Tony was years ahead of the pandemic; he’d prefer a fist bump to a handshake on account of the grubby hands of the average comic. If he was at the bar when you showed up, he was always polite and quietly friendly.
It was the world’s longest-running comedy club.
Back when this club opened in 1969, comics would perform in bars, strip clubs and music venues. There was no such thing as ‘comedy’ clubs, but rather ‘venues that had comedy nights.’
The club opened on September 29, 1969. The Comedy Store in LA opened 3 years later. Kenny Burrell, Thelma Houston, and Rodney Dangerfield performed on the opening night, while Milton Berle, Ed McMahon, Joan Rivers, and David Frost were in the audience. It became a comedy institution and went on to be considered a place for ‘pros’ to work out material.
When it opened, only headliners would perform at Dangerfields, with no amateur or open-mic nights. Performers over the years included George Carlin, Jay Leno, Tim Allen, Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock, Jim Carrey, Andrew Dice Clay, Dom Irrera, Roseanne Barr, Bill Hicks, Sam Kinison, Bob Nelson, Robert Schimmel and Jeff Foxworthy.
Leno lived in the back office for a summer before he took over the Tonight Show, and it was the location of Seinfeld’s first TV appearance.
Glamorous history aside, the club definitely felt like it was stuck in a bygone era.
The location wasn’t great. It was at 61st & 1st Ave: nowhere near a subway line. Unlike Greenwich Village or Times Square, there wasn’t a lot of foot traffic for potential walk-ins, except for a few locals going to their bodega. By the time I was playing there during the week, we were lucky to have eight to twelve bewildered-looking tourists sitting down before we started the show.
…But when we did Saturday night shows, they packed that room out.
It felt amazing: like I imagine it felt back in its heyday (minus the cigarette smoke.) The red lamps, the velvet lounges, the baby grand on stage… there was nothing like it. It was the only club where I could regularly get up and do 25–30 minutes; ample time to sneak new material into each set to try it out.
I performed more than a few times to a room of kids who had decided on Dangerfield’s for their ‘afterparty’ for Prom. They’d all arrived in a cheap limo and sucked down Shirley Temples until their heads exploded. Some of the meanest heckles I’ve ever got were from sugar-addled 12-year-old boys.
I did the same for bar mitzvahs, bat mitzvahs, and wakes. I did several nights of bachelorette parties. Sometimes they had a pianist on stage, sitting at the baby grand playing comics on and off. One time we managed to improvise a duet about the guy in the back row from Hoboken who wouldn’t stop yelling out “The Boss!!”
One hot summery Saturday, I rode across the bridge from Brooklyn to the club on a Citibike.
I turned up sweating profusely, wearing shorts. When I finished my set, Ryan Reiss lambasted me for wearing shorts on stage. (He’s right… Even in the middle of summer, it’s still not okay to wear shorts on stage: A lesson every comic with pale, hairy legs should learn.')
The years went on. I bombed. I killed. I did okay. I did every kind of set you can imagine at this club. I once stayed on stage so long that I ran out of material and started improvising a new act out of pure desperation (the next comic hadn’t shown up yet and I was padding for 45 minutes.) You learn a lot from sets like that.
Sundays were quiet.
One Sunday night I invited MAD Magazine’s Art Director, Sam Viviano and Baby Blues comic strip cartoonist Rick Kirkman to come to a show. “It’ll be fun!”, I said.
They ended up making up 66.6% of the audience. My set was basically me talking to them as if we were back at the bar… and one other guy from Pittsburgh who had fallen asleep into his $27 cheeseburger.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the inimitable Chario Antonio, the 77-year-old waiter who has worked at Dangerfield’s since 1970 (above).
Chario fancied himself a bit of a comedian. Once in a while, he’d jump up on stage between comics and tell some wildly off-colour jokes that would have made audiences blush in 1976. But, he was part of the furniture. The room wouldn’t feel the same without him.
He’d often cross in front of the stage during the show to drinks to the front tables, blocking the audience’s view of the comic. Once in a while, someone would say, “Hey! Down in front!” to which I’d respond, “Wait… can you guys see him, too!?”
I called Chario the ‘Ghost of Dangerfields’; he haunted the place and kept it safe from making a profit. He would often turn around, flip me the bird and say “Aaah, goh fack yo’self, you pizzosheet!”
He was a lot of fun.
Chario’s grisly demeanour would crack if you asked him to tell you a terrible long-winded joke. Bonus points if you stuck around long enough for the punchline. He’d often tell me the same joke about Australia (Hint: the punchline had something to do with someone going ‘down-under’.) — but I’d still laugh every time because of the way he told it in his thick Greek accent.
He had a mouth like a sailor and the heart of a comic. I worry about how he’ll spend his days now that the club has gone tits-up from the pandemic.
They still paid every comic by check.
Even if it was only a quick $25 spot, it would be handed to you on an old check, paid by Rodney Dangerfield Inc. I kept my first paycheck from 4 years ago:
Every night I’d show up, they’d have my goofy headshot from 4 years ago pinned to the corkboard surrounded by framed pictures of every successful comic who’d ever played there over the decades. It was a stark contrast.
I’d prop up the bar ’til it was my time to jump on stage, and more times than not I’d stick around to talk shop with the other comics and then see who was closing the show. Comics would often show up moments before they were to go on stage and sprint from the front door into the showroom. (Did I mention there were no subway stops nearby?)
A trip downstairs to the bathrooms was a trip back to the glory days of Rodney and his ilk. Photos and posters up from his movies, TV appearances, and promotional gigs. There was an ATM from the Cretaceous period still superglued to the wall. The tiles in the bathroom were the same ones they’d laid before the club opened in ’69. My grandparents had the same ones in their laundry.
When COVID-19 crippled the city in March, every gig in my calendar dried up.
I was due to perform at Caroline's on Broadway in April which I was really excited about, but alas, it, along with every other comedy club has been hit hard by the shutdown. I don’t know when or if they’ll open again.
When I woke this morning to see that Dangerfields was now closing after 50 years, I’d be lying if I told you I didn’t feel a twinge of disappointment.
It was the place I learned a lot about being a comic, grew my act, and spent a lot of nights watching the best and worst of the industry. I’d spend Christmas Day there every year… and New Year's Day… and any other night when any self-respecting comic pulled out last-minute and they’d call me as a backup.
By the end, it was a bit of a shithole, but it was my shithole.
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Caroline’s on Broadway has now announced it will now be closing for good. I heard Susan Sarandon bought the building and is turning it into a fucking ping-pong bar. Whatever that is.