'The Comedy Store' Review: A Hysterical History Of The LA Stand-Up Scene Showtime's five-part documentary about the famed Los Angeles club contains plenty of laughs. But it also says a lot about fame, about the drive to succeed, competition and friendship.
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Hysterical And Historical 'Comedy Store' Takes You Inside The LA Stand-Up Scene

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Hysterical And Historical 'Comedy Store' Takes You Inside The LA Stand-Up Scene

Review

TV Reviews

Hysterical And Historical 'Comedy Store' Takes You Inside The LA Stand-Up Scene

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DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. This Sunday, Showtime presents a new five-part documentary series called "The Comedy Store," about the most famous comedy club in history. Located in Los Angeles on the Sunset Strip, The Comedy Store was run for decades by Mitzi Shore. It launched the careers of Richard Pryor, David Letterman, Jay Leno, Roseanne Barr, Chris Rock and Jim Carrey, Whoopi Goldberg and so many others. Our TV critic David Bianculli has this review.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE COMEDY STORE")

MIKE BINDER: If any one person is responsible for making the store the most important comedy club in the world other than Mitzi, it's Richard, or as everyone used to call him when we were here, Richie.

DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: That's the voice of Mike Binder, who's the writer and director of Showtime's new five-part documentary series, "The Comedy Store." Binder first got on stage at that Sunset Strip comedy club a long, long time ago, when he was 18 years old. His biggest success came much later, in 2001, when he wrote, directed and starred in the HBO comedy series "The Mind Of The Married Man." And now Binder serves as our tour guide through what essentially is the history of comedy since the '70s.

If he and Showtime had waited two more years to release this series, it would mark the 50th anniversary of The Comedy Store, which Mitzi Shore co-founded in 1972. But why wait? The story in Binder's hands is both timely and timeless. Many of the comics interviewed for this program likened The Comedy Store to a comedy college. But really, it seems more like a comedy high school. There are cliques and teacher's pets, rebels and delinquents.

And in a place where everyone is the class clown, Binder emerges as the veteran comic with an everyman perspective. When he offers his own perspective, talking about Richie Pryor or anybody else he saw working that room, it's worth hearing. And when he reminisces with everyone from David Letterman and Jay Leno to Whoopi Goldberg and Marc Maron, they open up to him like they're swapping tales at a high school reunion. They talk a lot about Mitzi Shore, who began running the club solo in 1974 and stayed involved until her death two years ago. Many of the comics Binder interviews, female and male, do their vocal imitations of her.

Not all the stories are happy ones. Even though this documentary has the cooperation of the Shore family, it's honest and unblinking enough to tackle the darker times - the death of young comic Freddie Prinze, the time many of the comics, including Letterman, went on strike to demand they get paid for their appearances on stage. And the comics, talking openly with Binder, are very candid, telling stories about Mitzi that are anything but flattering.

But this Comedy Store series is more than just a history of the club. It's also a history of modern comedy - how Johnny Carson and TV sitcoms changed the landscape, as did the advent of cable TV and comedy specials, and how acts like Pryor really pushed the envelope. And best of all, this documentary is the story of the evolution of dozens of individual comics. There's a lot of talk about process and daring to fail. And what's obvious while watching this Showtime special is that stand-up comics have a tendency to remember bits from other comics' acts that even the people who performed them have long forgotten. But thanks to home movies and other archive footage, we get to witness those bits - for example, when Bob Saget talks to Mike Binder about one particularly esoteric stand-up bit by Michael Keaton, who pretends to read from a tiny two-inch comic that came wrapped around some bubblegum.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE COMEDY STORE")

BOB SAGET: Michael Keaton's stand-up, it was all conceptual. He would read a Bazooka Joe bubble gum wrapper that had a fortune in it.

MICHAEL KEATON: Remember Bazooka Joe bubble gum?

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Yeah.

KEATON: And I'll just read it to you. Now, you might not laugh, but I think this is very funny. He says - Bazooka Joe has a clock in his hand, you know? And Tubby (ph) says, what are you doing, Bazooka Joe? And he says, I'm throwing a clock out the window. And he says, why? And Bazooka Joe says, I wanted to see time fly, OK?

(LAUGHTER)

KEATON: All right, now, wait a minute. Wait a minute. Tubby says to him, time, Bazooka Joe? That's a rather ethereal subject, isn't it?

(LAUGHTER)

BIANCULLI: This documentary contains plenty of laughs to make it very entertaining, but it says a lot at the same time about fame, about the drive to succeed, and about both competition and friendship. Such topics as sexism and racism are addressed frankly, also. In putting this all together, Binder has access to a seemingly endless stack of candid photos taken at the club and uses them very well. He also folds in some very specific music choices on the soundtrack, ending each episode on one emotional peak or another. "The Comedy Store," in its five installments, shows that comedy is serious business. But as examined here, it's also very inspirational and heartwarming and very, very funny.

DAVIES: David Bianculli is editor of the website TV Worth Watching and a professor of TV studies at Rowan University. He reviewed "The Comedy Store," a new documentary series that begins Sunday on Showtime.

On Monday's show, we speak with actor Ethan Hawke, known for his roles in "Dead Poets Society," "Reality Bites," "Training Day," the "Before" trilogy, "Boyhood" and "First Reformed." He's now starring as the 19th century abolitionist leader John Brown in the new Showtime series, "The Good Lord Bird." It's based on a James McBride novel. I hope you can join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSETTE EXPLOSION'S "L'INCOMPRISE")

DAVIES: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer this week is Roberta Shorrock. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSETTE EXPLOSION'S "L'INCOMPRISE")

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