I gravitated more toward the Velveeta Room because I was more interested in the local comedians. Unfortunately, that meant I never got to the Laff Stop much. I was lucky enough to see Bill Hicks at the club, at his last show there before he succumbed to cancer. I've seen Robert Hawkins, Chris Cannon, and JR Brow -- all Texans, the latter two locals -- at the Stop. And I was a judge at their annual Funniest Person in Austin Contest this past May. But by and large, I didn't know the club that well.
Now, I won't have the chance to expand my familiarity with the club, and neither will anyone else. The Laff Stop is no more. Four months ago, Colleen Buchanan and Bruce Barshop, the owners of the RiverCenter Comedy Club in San Antonio, bought the Austin club. Ross Jackson, who'd run the club for 10 successful years, stepped down as general manager, and the Laff Stop name was retired. In a full-body makeover, the venue got a new look, new management, and a new name: The Capitol City Comedy Club, which was chosen last November in a "Name the Club" contest.
This change of ownership/management was one of the few pieces of genuine comedy news to hit the scene -- at least from an audience perspective -- in a couple of years. Individually, local comedians had done pretty well, though none has made that leap to stand-up celebrity. And the clubs had hung in there, weathering the dramatic decline in the comedy business that followed the glut of clubs and comics in the Eighties. (Nationally, the number of stand-up clubs has dwindled from 400-plus to fewer than 300.) The Laff Stop in particular was a consistent presence, with a loyal and steady clientele who kept returning to see the stream of popular comedians booked repeatedly by the club. To have it pass from the scene, or at least be transformed, was to rattle the foundation of Austin comedy.
What made the change of hands even more interesting, however, was the timing. With the national comedy scene in the state it is, it is to say the least a challenging moment to take over a stand-up club. How did the new owners plan to infuse fresh life into an artform in which the masses seem less and less interested?
Rich Miller is the man with the answer to that question. Miller, a fixture in the business for a decade, a man with experience running comedy clubs in California and Minnesota, was brought in by Buchanan and Barshop to consult for the first few months of the Capitol City Comedy Club (CCCC). (After February, he will continue booking the room, but from the Great North.)
As Miller led me across the room that houses the mainstage, the cosmetic changes -- still in progress as we talked, all sorts of buzzing and hammering, but now complete -- were immediately apparent. In its Laff Stop days, the room had a stage positioned such that anyone getting up mid-act to hit the johns, any waiter running to and fro for drink orders, was a real distraction. Good for the comedian who needed a quick laugh and could pick on anyone with a full bladder; not so good for those with attention deficits who missed a punchline here or there thanks to the bustle. Now the stage stands on the room's back wall, directly opposite where it once was. There is a new backdrop -- very similar to the one in the San Antonio club -- and new chairs, covered in material not unlike your grandmother's heavy draperies. The overall feel of the space is roomier somehow. "We want to seat 300 comfortably," says Miller, who would rather not push any higher, thereby crowding and "pissing off the last 20 or 30 people."
More significant than these changes, though, are the invisible and near invisible ones, namely the politics of new management and the strategies to keep those 300 seats full. Looming large as such changes are instigated is the shadow of Ross Jackson, the man who spent a decade steering the Laff Stop. Margie Coyle, who is in the interesting position of having worked in both regimes, as manager for the previous owners and day manager for the new owners, points out, "Ross made this club worth buying. His rapport with the comedians who worked here was great; he kept it running smooth for 10 years, which is unheard of. He dedicated 10 years of his life, every day, to running this place. That's what it takes, and people worked hard for him."
Though quick to admit that leaving the Laff Stop brought on mixed emotions, Jackson says he is comfortable with the move, especially now that he's had a few months to breathe and think about it. "I enjoyed my 10 years and felt like we provided good shows and a lot of good people and helped the local scene as well," he reflects. "But there's a time and a place when you have to move on. I was getting very very burnt out spending 50 to 60 hours a week there. Bruce and Colleen offered me the opportunity to stick around, but I thought I'd done all I could do. I felt like it would be a situation where they had new ideas and I was used to doing things my way."
While Miller does plan to do things differently than Jackson, he is reluctant to criticize the former manager's style. "Ross is a great guy -- absolute great guy," he begins, and the tone is sincere. "I've gotten to be pretty good friends with him. I don't want to re-invent the wheel here; I want to capitalize on what the Laff Stop did. I don't want to alienate any of the existing patrons, but I would like to branch out to some of the people who aren't coming in."
To that end, Miller is out to diversify the lineup of comics who play the new incarnation of the club. "One complaint I heard about the Laff Stop from a lot of people -- from comedians, from patrons -- is that it was a lot of the same people -- comedian-wise -- who came in," says Miller.
Part of the reason for that -- and a key problem with the Laff Stop, both Miller and Coyle agree -- was the talent budget. "Everyone affiliated with this club for the past 10 years did a helluva job," says Miller, "but I think they were up against it sometimes because they didn't have the strength in ownership that maybe they would have liked. In turn, they ended up putting out a lot of fires all the time. When your budget is what their budget was compared to what our budget is -- and I prefer not getting into specific numbers but I will say ours is considerably higher -- it gives me the ability to go out and get the people that might be a little bit, I don't know, different."
Coyle is more succinct. "It was way overdue for some money to be put back into the club. The new owners came with heavy pockets."
Part of Miller's strategy is to bring in not just new faces, but new faces with fresh ideas. "This room is a little more of a profanity/dick-joke room than I care to see. I would like to get a little bit more sophisticated. And sophisticated doesn't mean that we're not swearing. I mean, my brother Dennis [Note: Yes, that Dennis Miller] is an intelligent comedian, but he swears on stage as much as anyone I know. He says `fuck' constantly. But his premises are very intelligent, and you can get away with it.
"I hate someone who's doing a body reference joke and then also saying `fuck.' It's an easy cop-out. We're going to try to get something a little more original in here. I will sell out to that [low humor] too, because I do realize some of that stuff sells -- it's a crowd pleaser. But if we were getting three out of four weeks of lowest-common-denominator comedy, now I want to scale it back to two out of four, and then one out of four."
Another strategy Miller is employing involves booking comedians who have lots of TV credits. For example, when the club holds its grand opening February 8-10, Jeff Cesario will headline. Cesario is producer and head writer for The Dennis Miller Show (Note: Yes, that Dennis Miller) and he's won an ACE award for his HBO show. It's a ploy that's based not strictly on name recognition, but also on the idea that a comedian who has played the tube a few times is likely to be a more assured, smooth entertainer than your average joke peddler. In the current scene, it's something of a gauge of comedy professionalism.
But though Miller knows the value of a polished comedian who has been on TV, he is not one of those guys who requires a comedian to be both funny and hyperactive. "I'm a bit more of a traditionalist," he admits, "I like a straight monologist, and energy level doesn't really concern me -- as it seems to be so important to so many people in the business. I don't think you have to be overly energetic to get the job done. That's kinda what's wrong with the biz right now."
Ferinstance, and good news for all of us, Johnny Steele, who is, thank god, no Carrottop, has been booked into the CCCC this week. Steele is a razor-sharp satirist who spends more time floating in his think tank than toiling in a prop-shop. And generic audience appeal be damned, Steele always has an agenda and doesn't hide it behind references to his member.
Still, solid acts or not, filling a comedy club is a very tricky business these days. "It's a wild balance between papering and not papering," says Miller, referring to the method of filling a club via the giveaway of free tickets. "Papering has killed the business -- it's a decrease in the talent budget because you're not getting anything at the door. Once you start giving away, you create a cancer in the marketplace; next thing you know, you can't get people to pay on Friday and Saturday nights."
Still, since the Laff Stop was able to pull it off and stay afloat, the CCCC will continue to offer a certain number of entertainment coupons and birthday coupons. "In Austin, they're very effective with their papering. I've been in some cities where they paper and they still don't get a crowd," Miller points out. "But we're going to try to take very small steps to get away from it. In the first six months, we're going to get away from papering the Saturday 10:30 show. Then, by the end of the year, we want to get away from papering the 8:00 show Saturday."
There are a few other changes that longtime patrons of the Laff Stop will notice: variations in the menu, Monday open mikes scaled back to twice a month instead of every week, and no more ComedySportz shows in the lounge on Saturday nights. The story behind this last move is another indication of how smoothly Barshop, Buchanan, and their team have made this transition. Les McGehee and his troupe of improvisational comedians began performing weekly shows in the small, front room of the club in late 1994 and developed a steady crowd over the next year, but that arrangement came to an end once the remodeling for CCCC began. Like Jackson, McGehee says Barshop and Buchanan didn't push him out, but they couldn't be fully accomodating to him, either. "The new owners were straight with us," he insists. "Bruce is easy to work with. The remodeling wasn't conducive to simultaneous shows in the front room and the main room. People would like to think we had some kind of bitter dealing with them, but we didn't. In fact, our ComedySportz affiliate in San Antonio is in their club down there."
Not only do McGehee and Jackson both express satisfaction with the way they were treated by the new owners and the way they left the comedy scene on Research, they talk about it as if it's the best thing that could have happened for all involved. True, Jackson wouldn't have minded buying the club when the old owner sold. And McGehee would have loved to continue building his steadily growing audience in a regular venue. But neither has been deterred, or even slowed down to wonder "what if." Jackson is staying busy running a Comedy Defensive Driving course in both the CCCC and in his own space on Anderson Lane, where he also offers Laff and Learn, a comedy-based Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission training course for bar and restaurant employees. McGehee and company are currently negotiating a lease on a space at Northcross Mall that sounds to be a promising, full-bodied club. The tone each man uses describing these new developments is summed up nicely by Jackson: "As a matter of fact, I've been kind of giddy over the last three or four months because the pressure is off. I'm still enjoying seeing the people I used to book, and I had never had much opportunity to do the things I'm doing now -- like go and see the local scene at places like the Velveeta Room."
As for the CCCC, it remains to be seen if the new club will be able to pick up where Ross Jackson left off and lift the numbers to even greater heights. But Margie Coyle, who has been there and should know, is optimistic. "It's been a relatively smooth transition, considering it's a successful 10-year-old business that changed names, which is really risky. It's really early to tell. But we're doing the same amount of money we would've done last year. And New Year's Eve was a sellout, which is always a good sign."
Meanwhile, Jackson is getting used to the idea that the outside of the building is about the only thing left from his days in charge. "I'm glad the name was changed. It keeps my era in itself. I'm not putting down the name change, it's just it says `Hey, those 10 years as the Laff Stop were Ross and his crew.' And we made a lot of people laugh in Austin."
Where the biggest comedy news in my career covering the scene here is concerned, it's all sunshine and sweet compliments. About the only complaint I could squeeze out of someone was a gripe by a friend who attended the New Year's Eve show. Apparently, the remodeling effort took out the green room -- a haven for comics before and after the show -- which used to be behind the old stage. And with that room went the wall with the irreplaceable autographs of Bill Hicks and Sam Kinison.
"That wall is gone," admits Coyle, "though I think it may be in the walk-in cooler. But if I put myself in the position of a new owner, they have to create their own Sam Kinison wall. The Laff Stop had a good reputation, but the Capitol City owners need to come in and do their own thing."n
Johnny Steele performs through Sun, Feb 4, Wed, at the Capitol City Comedy Club. The club's Grand Opening Weekend featuring Jeff Cesario takes place Feb 8-10, Thu-Sat.
Spike Gillespie has written for Cosmopolitan and Playboy, and is a regular columnist for Prodigy's online service.
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