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Legendary comedians reminisce in 'The Comedy Store'

Bill Burr blew his first shot at The Comedy Store, but worked his way back in. Photo courtesy of Showtime
Bill Burr blew his first shot at The Comedy Store, but worked his way back in. Photo courtesy of Showtime

LOS ANGELES, Oct. 2 (UPI) -- When David Letterman returned to The Comedy Store for the Showtime docu-series on the legendary venue, the weight of its history made him very emotional.

Director Mike Binder interviewed comedians about their experiences at Mitzi Shore's comedy club on the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles for the series The Comedy Store. He conducted many of the interviews in The Original Room, the first stage the club ever had in 1972.

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"I walked Letterman up into The Original Room and he just looked at me really quiet," Binder said on a recent Television Critics Association panel. "He goes, 'Man, you've got a lot on your shoulders to tell this story. You better do it right.'"

Other comedians who participated in The Comedy Store also became emotional celebrating comedians of the past. Bill Burr, who began to do standup in 1992, made it onto The Comedy Store stage in the '90s. The 52-year-old said comedy fans will feel nostalgic to see intimate moments from their favorite performers in the series.

"Comedy nerds are going to love this thing," he said. "Just to see Letterman and Robin Williams laughing and [Richard] Pryor in the background, it's an incredible experience for comedy fans."

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Binder performed at The Comedy Store in the '90s before he became a filmmaker, directing such movies as The Upside of Anger and Reign Over Me. He said Peter Shore, Mitzi's son, and producer Mike Tollin asked him to direct the series. Binder said a visit to the club reinvigorated his passion for it, too.

"I saw how on fire it was," Binder said. "I went back there and just fell in love with the place and with the whole group."

Mitzi Shore co-founded The Comedy Store in 1972 with ex-husband Sammy. She took sole ownership in 1974 after their divorce and ran the club until she died in 2018. The club expanded in 1976 to add a second stage called The Main Room. It now has a third room, The Belly Room, so three concurrent standup shows can be scheduled per night.

When a standup comic kills, the laughter fills the room. When they bomb, the silence is deafening. Burr remembered Mitzi Shore audibly saying, "He's not ready" from the stage.

"I heard her say it in the middle of my set," Burr said. "Her voice could just cut through the room."

Burr would return after honing his craft on New York stages and become one of Shore's regulars.

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The five episodes of The Comedy Store trace the history of Shore, her club and the comedians who performed there. Binder uncovered rare footage from The Comedy Store archives, including videotapes of performers' sets before they were marquee names.

"It's really a look at standup comedy in the last 50 years in this country," Binder said.

The Comedy Store includes footage of Michael Keaton performing standup before he devoted his career to acting full time. Other famous comedians who frequented The Comedy Store include Williams, Andy Kaufman, Pryor, Sam Kinison, Whoopi Goldberg and Roseanne Barr.

"We also have footage that no one's ever seen from The Comedy Store, like early Letterman doing standup and [Jay] Leno," Binder said. "I just recently found some stuff from Jim Carrey."

Comedian Annie Lederman began to perform standup in 2009, and earned a spot at The Comedy Store, too. She said she found the series' history of her predecessors informative, particularly Freddie Prinze, the star of the TV comedy Chico and the Man and a Comedy Store performer.

Prinze died by suicide at age 22 in 1977. Lederman was only familiar with his son, Freddie Prinze Jr., who became an actor in the '90s.

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The series captures "the laughter and the tragedy in comedy too," Lederman said.

As part of the history of the club, The Comedy Store also traces evolutions in comedy. Comedians like Letterman and Leno aimed to land a spot on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson off their Comedy Store sets. By the time Carson retired from The Tonight Show, standup comics aimed to get their own specials on cable TV or streaming.

In the '80s and '90s, standups like Barr, Tim Allen, Jerry Seinfeld and Ellen Degeneres aimed to transform their acts into TV sitcoms. Modern comedians use YouTube and podcasts to amplify their work.

"Each episode shows the different paths," Binder said.

For her, landing a spot on Joe Rogan's podcast, The Joe Rogan Experience, was a boost to her career.

"I worked really hard, I caught the attention of Joe," Lederman said. "I became friends with him, got to do the podcast. Then you get your own thing."

The Comedy Store premieres Sunday at 10 p.m. EDT on Showtime.



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