December 2nd, 2008
Clubs, Camps, and Catskills

“Follow the money,” went the refrain in All the President’s Men. When it comes to charting the influence of nightclubs and resorts on American comedy, the refrain might be “Follow the martini.”

Conviviality and comedy have gone together for centuries. In the 19th Century, music halls sprung up in urban centers, which essentially allowed working men to enjoy a pint or two while listening to a song or watching a couple of lowbrow baggy pants comics hammer it out with each other. When vaudeville came along, it added the provision that there was to be no drinking during the show (which made it permissible for women to attend the performances) and this conferred respectability allowed vaudeville to grow and prosper. When Prohibition was enforced in 1920, it created a new venue where covert imbibers could drink and be entertained: the speakeasy. The most famous figure of the New York speakeasies was, in fact, a mistress of ceremonies, Texas Guinan. While not strictly a comedienne, Guinan certainly knew how to break up a crowd; she would crack jokes, flirt with customers, initiate pranks, introduce celebrities, bring on the dancing girls. Guinan’s antics—with her legendary cry of “Hello, suckers!”—were the perfect cocktail of hooch and hilarity, confirming the basic fact that, for many consumers, a drink went down better with a joke as a chaser.

After the Federal government restored the legal procurement of alcohol to the American public in 1933, it seemed unlikely that profitable speakeasy owners—or their clients—would give up their post-prandial amusements. Organized crime had discovered a lucrative source of income and, therefore, backed many nightclubs—as they were now known—in cities across the country. In 1940, the mob invested in the Copacabana, a Latin-accented club on New York’s East 60th Street, and it quickly became not only one of the most successful nightclubs in America, but one of the premiere venues to watch ascending stars of comedy. Typically, in the 1940s and 50s, a club like the Copa offered dining, drinking, and dancing (back when couples knew how to dance cheek-to-cheek) which were temporarily halted three times a night at 8, 10, and 2 AM, to provide a fully produced floor show. There would be an orchestra, a bevy of dancing girls, a crooner, and, more and more frequently, a comic.

A high-profile nightclub like the Copa (or the Los Angeles-based clubs such as Ciro’s or the Cocoanut Grove) could provide a unique launching pad for a comedian. In 1948, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis were signed, against their better instincts, for a two-week engagement at the Copa. They thought working in a nightclub was a step sideways on their career paths, and were displeased to open for a singer, Vivian Blaine. But, the night they debuted, Martin and Lewis were such a sensation clowning around on the bandstand—and in the audience—that, when Blaine came on to sing, she was hooted off the stage. The Copa management extended Martin and Lewis’ engagement for eighteen weeks, raised their salaries to $5000 a week, and basked in the rave reviews from the gossip columnists—back in the days when gossip columnists meant something. They certainly meant something to Martin and Lewis; the buzz on the duo was so strong that Hal Wallis, a producer at Paramount, came to see them and signed them for a film contract. The Copa provided a showcase for other comics—Jimmy Durante, Joe E. Lewis, and the occasional hijinks of the Rat Pack—but the club was practically synonymous with Martin and Lewis; they played there every year and it was at the Copa that they played their farewell engagement as a team in July of 1956; it was the hottest ticket in the country.

The nightclub life for a comedian was not the easiest one. Usually the comedian opened for a singer (only with a great comedian was it the other way around) and three sets a night, seven nights a week, four weeks an engagement (not to mention the travel) was grueling work. That kind of gig was, of course, not helped by the whispered drink orders or tinkling silverware that formed a distracting accompaniment to the act, but with a weekly salary that often cracked five figures, such annoyances could be endured. Hecklers were an occupational hazard, but they kept a comedian on his toes and each had their preferred way of dealing with an obstreperous drunk: “Oh, I remember when I had my first beer,” was the way Steve Martin dispatched hecklers in the mid-sixties.

Perhaps the epitome of the post-war comics was Joe E. Lewis. Lewis had started as a singer in Chicago; when he ran afoul of a mob boss in the late 1930s, Lewis’ throat was slit as a vendetta. Eventually, he regained his ability to speak, but turned more to joke telling: “A man is never drunk if he can lay on the floor without holding on,” went one of his more famous remarks. David Steinberg remembers that “he started to expand talking to his piano player. So he talked to his piano player about his ex-wife, his gambling. Eventually people flocked to see him. He was always upset if you saw the first show, because he was always drunker for the second show and was always more hostile and funny for the second show.” Lewis, with a Scotch in one hand and a cigarette between two fingers, standing in front of a mike in the middle of the night in a pressed tuxedo, was the picture postcard of a nightclub comic.

Catching a comic in a major nightspot such as the Copa would be the kind of thing out-of-towners would consider the height of post-war urban sophistication. However, there was also another place to catch some of the best comics in America, although it was as far removed from city life as possible (well, an hour and a half, anyway): the Catskills. The Catskill Mountains, located northwest of New York City in Sullivan and Ulster Counties, had been a popular resort area since the 1880s; the hotels, bungalows, and camp sites there provided relief to a largely Jewish population fleeing the city for the summer. The Catskills were bred and sustained out of a racial insularity. Jewish vacationers knew they would be welcome at these resorts and, likewise, the resorts catered (and that is the word) to Jewish sensibilities in terms of food, socializing, and entertainment. The entertainment, in particular, included seminal work by some of America’s most successful comedians. They, too, were defined by the heavy Jewish food offered in mammoth proportions at these resorts, specifically the cold beet soup smothered with sour cream—the Borscht Belt.

Although the Catskills began as a collection of low-maintenance cottages, in the 1940s and 1950s, the resorts expanded and bigger and bigger hotels were built. Reports proclaim that there were eventually more than 700 of them. In order to keep competitive, the hotels would have to provide first-rate entertainments for their vacationers. The Saturday night show was the major social event of the week, and hotels such as the Concord, Kutscher’s, Brown’s, and Grossinger’s built larger and larger show rooms for the headliners to play for their eager, well-dressed, well-behaved audiences. (The Concord supposedly had the largest nightclub in the country at one time, over 3000 seats.) Needless to say, the comics who played there traded on Jewish clichés and Jewish jokes. (“The food is terrible here.” “Yes, and such small portions,” ran one famous joke.) Like the city nightclubs, it offered opportunities for comics to find their voice: Red Buttons (who changed his name from Aaron Schwatt at the Catskills), Buddy Hackett, Jerry Lewis, and Alan King joined such Jewish comic stalwarts as Myron Cohen and Henny Youngman. The plethora of resorts in the Catskills allowed comedians to play one hotel after the other—the Borscht Belt Circuit—and if a comedian scored big in the Catskills, word of mouth spread swiftly back to the city.

The Catskill resorts, so desperate to keep their clientele amused, often employed full-time jester/social director/cheerleaders called tummlers to make sure there was never a dull moment. Mel Brooks famously got his start in this capacity; one might say he never stopped. Tummlers, however, were not welcome at all resorts. In the Poconos, the Pennsylvania mountain resort area, a number of summer camps opened up in the 1920s, the most famous of which was Camp Tamiment, which prided itself on being a social meeting place for Jewish singles, but with a high ethical component; hence, no tummlers. Beginning in 1921, Tamiment provided week-long vacations in the summer, the highlight of which was a highly professional Saturday night revue. The revues at the Tamiment Playhouse have become the stuff of legend, especially during the regime of the social director/producer Max Liebman from 1933 to 1949. Liebman was in charge of putting on a brand-new revue every week; he had an excellent eye for talent and recruited, among many others, Sylvia Fine and Danny Kaye (who began their personal and professional partnership at Tamiment), Imogene Coca, and choreographer Jerome Robbins. The Tamiment revues were so good that one of them transferred to Broadway in 1938, and when television came along in 1948, Liebman was recruited to produce the first real original revue for broadcast. His show was The Admiral Broadway Revue, featuring Coca and a comedian he had worked with before, Sid Caesar.

Liebman left Tamiment to concentrate on producing television full-time (Your Show of Shows was the outgrowth of Admiral, and he used several writers from Tamiment on the program), but the camp still brought in major young comic talent to churn out its weekly revues: Carol Burnett, Danny and Neil Simon, and Woody Allen, who made both his directing and acting debuts at Tamiment, when he felt the staff wasn’t doing justice to his comedy material. Ironically, the Catskill resorts across the state line put an end to Tamiment’s heyday; when those hotels began to bring in major headliners, Tamiment’s clientele grew quickly bored with the “unknowns” pouring our their hearts and souls every Saturday night for their amusement. The camp closed in 1962, a victim of television—which it did so much to ennoble—and air-conditioning, which made the urban nightclub a comfortable fixture 52 weeks a year.

Nightclubs were part of the diurnal rhythm in big cities across America well into the early sixties, before crime and the call of suburbia made catching the 7:21 to Scarsdale a higher priority than catching Jack E. Leonard’s act at 2 AM. Each city had its premiere clubs and its second tier clubs, just the way vaudeville had the big time and the small time, and comics seemed to prefer it that way, tailoring their material to the tastes of the clientele. Back then, music was an integral part of the nightclub scene. Every comic played in front of a band, a combo, or at very least, a piano player and the tone of the club was determined by the kind of musicians it booked, rather than by the comedians it hired. New York’s best clubs were the Copa, the Latin Quarter (run by Barbara Walters’ father, Lou), and the Basin Street East; Le Ruban Bleu, the Blue Angel, the Village Vanguard, and Julius Monk’s Upstairs at the Downstairs catered to a more intimate, cabaret crowd. Chicago had the Palmer House and Chez Paree for the expense account crowd, Mr. Kelly’s Mill for those who liked their comedy a little on the raw side. Los Angeles had the Cocoanut Grove for the movie stars and the Crescendo for the hipsters. Miami was building fancy hotels at an expansive rate—the Fontainebleu, the Eden Roc, and the Diplomat—to accommodate the older generation who were fleeing the East Coast. Lou Walters established a Latin Quarter down there and headliners like Milton Berle and Jackie Gleason were packing them in; at a tiny club called Murray Franklin’s, one could catch a balding barracuda named Don Rickles.

Then, Vegas, fittingly, raised the stakes. The first major casinos, like the Flamingo, sprouted up after World War II and, of course, comics were hired to entertain the customers in between gambling binges. In the early days, according to Dick Martin, “you used to walk from place to place over the sand.” But, with the addition of major hotels like the Desert Inn, the Sahara, and the Sands (the last two opened in 1952), the modern age of Las Vegas entertainment had begun. Vegas had its own rules; no comic could play a set longer than ninety minutes, recalled Bob Newhart, because management wanted the audience back at the gaming tables. There were lounges, open all night, where comics could get their start, and the main rooms, which featured headliners, often earning five to ten times what they could make in New York at the Copa. Rickles, a feature at the Sahara’s Casbah lounge, remembered the thrill when his reputation grew at the lounge: “For the first time, they’ve even slapped on a cover charge. It’s only five bucks, but it makes me feel good. I’m no longer free. You have to buy me.” When Frank Sinatra convened the Rat Pack at the Sands in 1960, it turned Vegas overnight into the top dollar venue for comics and singers, and dealt a fatal blow to the tonier clubs in cities across the country; their payroll simply couldn’t compete anymore. For producer George Schlatter, the 1960s were a golden time for Vegas: “In the old days, Vegas was a thrill. Rickles went on at eleven o’clock at night until two o’clock in the morning and Frank and Dean and Sammy and Marlene Dietrich and everybody would come over to the Sahara and watch Rickles and there was again a sense of community. They all talked to each other, they all filled in for each other, they all went to see each other.”

Luckily, there were places springing up around the country where you could get a few laughs without being a high roller. In fact, some of the best and most interesting nightclubs of the 1950s and 60s were in direct contrast to Las Vegas—small, intimate, and definitely geared to the counterculture. Again, the tone of these clubs followed the tune of the musicians who played there, usually jazz musicians and folk singers. The pioneer was the hungry i in San Francisco, which opened its basement doors in 1951. Its legendary owner, Enrico Banducci, created a venue in complete opposition to a place like the Copa; customers were not allowed to order drinks during the show, table top candles were placed in soup cans, and hecklers were forceably ejected, often by Banducci himself. Still, although there was a heavy focus on folk music acts, the hungry i was a career-making showcase for Mort Sahl, Shelley Berman, Tom Lehrer, Bob Newhart, and Nichols and May, among many others. (Lenny Bruce often tried out material there in the wee small hours, but generally considered the club too “square” for his purposes.) The Purple Onion, also in San Francisco’s North Beach, shone an early spotlight on Phyllis Diller and the Smothers Brothers.

New York had a peculiar law on the books since Prohibition, a cabaret card ordinance which only allowed dues-paying (and bribe-paying) artists to perform in nightclubs. The controversial Lord Buckley had his card revoked in 1960 by the police and died a few months later; the ordinance was subsequently struck down, which opened the flood gates for broader material. The bohemian life of Greenwich Village was the perfect incubator for the kind of club that flourished in San Francisco. The Village Gate, the Bitter End, the Café a Go-Go, and Café Wha? allowed comics from off-the-beaten track to try out a newer kind of material–hipper, more political, more sexual, more idiosyncratic—and certainly without a tuxedo. Comedians such as Lenny Bruce, Joan Rivers, Woody Allen, Robert Klein, Bill Cosby, Richard Pryor, and George Carlin found receptive audiences among the Bleecker Street crowd and their careers flourished at these clubs.

Chicago had an identity all its own by the 1960s. A group based out of the University of Chicago called the Compass Players introduced ensemble improvisations to the club world in 1950; their alumni included Nichols and May and Shelley Berman. That group evolved into the Second City in 1959, continuing a more disciplined version of the comedy improv group. Second City set a very high bar, as comedians such as Robert Klein and Joan Rivers passed through the ensemble in the 1960s, and it continues to provide a fertile training ground for comedians to this day. Perhaps the oddest, but most interesting, nightclub in Chicago was the Playboy Club. Opened by publisher Hugh Hefner in 1960, the Playboy Club was members only, with stiff drinks served by cottontailed waitress with a low décolletage. A key to the Club was, in the words, of comedian Dick Gregory, “a status symbol, like a Mercedes is now.” In 1961, Gregory was a black comedian struggling in segregated clubs on Chicago’s South Side. While Gregory admired routines like Shelley Berman’s airplane bits, he knew such material was off-limits to his crowd: “I could never do that back then in the black nightclub, because less than one tenth of one percent of the patrons had been on an airplane! But I could do the same thing about a Greyhound Bus.” One evening in 1961, when Professor Irwin Corey cancelled on Hefner at the last minute, he brought Gregory across town to do his material at the Playboy Club: it would be the first time a black comedian played in a white club. Gregory was a hit, the evening made national attention (and Gregory’s career), and the Chicago Playboy Club became a groundbreaking venue for artists like Lenny Bruce, Moms Mabley, and Redd Foxx, who required a hip audience that appreciated blue material, but not cheap material.

With the greater presence of comedy on television screens—talk shows, variety shows—comedians became much more in demand in the 1970s; also, the popularity of rock music made it difficult for the old-time crooners and saloon singers to attract audiences. It also proved a tough time for the Catskill resorts. The New York urban population had fled to other parts of the country, and air-conditioning and cheap airfare allowed customers to go somewhere else for their holiday vacations. The Borscht Belt style was also getting out-of-synch with the new generation. Comedy writer Alan Zweibel, who got his start writing jokes for various Catskill comedians while still in his twenties for $7 a pop, recalled, “There’s a joke that I had written for those Catskill guys about a new movie that was coming out–a porno movie with an entire cast of Hasidic Jews and it was very unusual because during the orgy scene, the men were on one side of the room and the women were on the other. But I was going nowhere because it was all piecemeal stuff for interchangeable comedians, none of them with a defined persona.” By the late 1970s, the Borscht Belt–with all its stuffed cabbages and one-liners—was on an irreversible decline.

Something new and different was needed to bring the next generation of comedians forward. In 1963, impresario Budd Friedman opened a nightclub on West 44th Street called the Improv; initially, the club followed the traditional alternation between singers and comedians, but soon its stage hosted only comedians. The Improv was the first comedy club in the country and it gave important crossover spotlights on David Steinberg, Robert Klein, Jimmie Walker, Andy Kaufman, among many others. The concept of a two-drink minimum to watch comics, young and old, experiment with their craft proved surprisingly appealing and “open mike” nights allowed a lot of beginning comedians to work on their material. New York soon played host to such groundbreaking clubs as Catch a Rising Star and the Comic Strip; comedian Rodney Dangerfield inaugurated a club of his own in 1970, Dangerfield’s, which continues to present comedians to this day.

The elimination of the singer in a standard nightclub and the concurrent spotlights shone exclusively on comedians behind a mike gave rise to a new and ubiquitous term: stand-up. The life of a stand-up comedian is no easier than it was in the 1940s—the rigors of touring, finding material, hecklers, and so on—but at least they no longer have to worry about the band, or musical arrangement, or putting on the kind of extended performance in Vegas that Bob Newhart said “required planning—you had to plan the whole evening.” The sheer technical ease of performing a stand-up act changed the nightclub landscape. Robert Klein observes:

Before you knew it there were more young people standing in front of brick walls with microphones than you could shake a stick at– if that’s your idea of a good time, as Groucho would say. And what happened is that comedy clubs began to open, specifically comedy, and there were no longer elegant nightclubs with martini glasses. As it turns out, a kind of Darwinian process happened and a lot of clubs folded and then a lot of comedians who probably should have been in living rooms were put out of work, and a lot of working comics resented that.

The middle ground of the sophisticated nightclub of the Copa days by this time is a thing of the past. The lure of gambling casinos had increased the number of hotels across the country—Lake Tahoe, Atlantic City, Foxwoods—that need a big attraction floor show. High profile comedians could still get a huge payday in these venues, but they lacked a certain kind of charm and intimacy. The performers—and their performances—become a commodity. Dick Smothers remembers seeing George Burns backstage at Caesar’s Palace when the comedian was still being trotted out in front of the high rollers in his late 90s. “He’d be ready to go on, he’d have a martini, straight up in one hand and a cigar in the other one. ‘Show business is great, Dick,’ he says ‘Great. Sing a few songs. Tell a few jokes. Fifty thousand dollars. I love it.’ They’d applaud him for being alive.”

For those audience members with hundreds of dollars to blow, Vegas and the other casinos will continue to offer impressive floor shows featuring top-notch, if undemanding, comics. The nightclub and cabaret life of the postwar era is as nearly extinct as the Catskill resorts; it’s nearly impossible to maintain a high-class boite for the very best singers anymore. Standing on top of the heap—on many heaps, actually, all over cities in America—is the stand-up comic. The quality of stand-up comics at these comedy clubs varies enormously; you might get stuck with a college sophomore up there, but, hey, you never know when Jerry Seinfeld or Chris Rock are going to try out some new material. Comedians should enjoy their new-found triumph in comedy clubs while it lasts—they certainly put up with enough crooners and combos over the years. As Budd Friedman put it, “But, you know, stand-ups have become stars. Stand-ups get the women now. Except for a handful of Milton Berles and Sid Caesars, stand-ups were basically opening acts and the singers got the girls. Well, comics are getting the girls now.”

— Excerpt from Make ‘Em Laugh: The Funny Business of America by Laurence Maslon and Michael Kantor. Copyright 2008 courtesy of Hachette Book Group.

Produced by THIRTEEN    ©2023 Educational Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved.