The Comedy Store opened on Sunset Boulevard in 1972 on the site of the former Ciro’s nightclub, and it has been a launchpad and mecca for the biggest stars in stand-up ever since. In Showtime’s wide-ranging five-part docuseries “The Comedy Store,” writer-director and former comic Mike Binder returns to the late Mitzi Shore’s iconic club to interview many of those stars and reveal the stories behind the laughter.
Binder spent more than two years sourcing vintage performance footage and conducting new interviews with David Letterman, Chris Rock, Jay Leno, Jim Carrey and Whoopi Goldberg. He also interviewed a host of Jewish comedians, including Jerry Seinfeld, Andrew Dice Clay, Roseanne Barr, Marc Maron, Jeff Ross, Howie Mandel, Bob Saget, Richard Lewis and Sandra Bernhard. The series spotlights great routines and backstage shenanigans, but it also includes comedy’s darker side: feuds, overdoses, a labor strike and the premature deaths of Richard Pryor, Freddie Prinze and Sam Kinison. For the first-time documentarian, it was a massive undertaking.
“There’s hundreds of hours of footage. What to put in and what to leave out? It was just so hard,” Binder said. There was a lot riding on his decisions. As Letterman told him, “Man, you’ve got a lot on your shoulders to tell this story. You better do it right.”
“Everybody is going to have their own version of what the story is and you’re never going to make everybody happy,” Binder said he realized early on. But his personal history with Shore and the Store increased his pressure to try. He was just 18 when he first went onstage there, killed, and became one of Shore’s favorites, babysitting her children by day and working the door by night when he wasn’t telling jokes. “She treated me like one of her kids,” he said. “I learned so much about life there.”
“It’s coming out during the buildup to the election and it’s really good counterprogramming. People are so inundated with all the serious political stuff, and this is just about comedians and laughter. I think there’s so much to love in these five hours.” — Mike Binder
Later, having had a falling out with Shore and becoming more interested in acting and filmmaking, he walked away and stayed away for 20 years. “I was so out of touch with stand-up,” he said. But when producers Mike Tollin and Peter Shore (Mitzi’s son) proposed the idea, he instantly said yes to making the documentary. “I went back there and just fell in love with the place and with the whole group [of comics],” he said. “It was really an awakening to come back and realize that my generation and the generation of today are a lot alike.”
Some potential interviewees hesitated to participate, “but I would call, keep pestering them, [saying], ‘This is the Store. This is our college. You’re gonna wish you had.’ Once they were there, they said, ‘I’m so glad you talked me into it.’ ”
Binder aimed to emphasize the Comedy Store’s importance as both a second home and an important first stop on the road to success, leading to “Tonight Show” appearances and sitcoms in the past and streaming specials and podcasts today. “Each episode shows the different paths comedians take to be seen. It’s a trajectory of comedy in the last 50 years,” he said.
Growing up in a “close but not super-religious” Reform family in Birmingham, Mich., Binder first realized he was funny at the dining room table. “I could make my whole family laugh but I’d get in trouble because I’d go too far. I’ve always loved to make people laugh,” he said, but he doesn’t miss performing.
Other than an occasional private event or the roast of a friend, he’s happy to stay behind the camera, creating, writing and directing films and television shows. “Reign Over Me,” “Man About Town,” and “The Mind of the Married Man” are a few of his credits. His next project is the docuseries “Standup World,” which will focus on different sectors of comedy. He plans to include segment on Jewish comics.
Mitzi Shore died in April 2018 at 87, but her presence still looms large at the Comedy Store and in the memories of the comics she mentored. “Mitzi was a really special woman. She was so ahead of her time,” Binder said. “She was a woman in charge so long before other women were in charge and was all about diversity years before anyone was talking about it.”
The doors of the Comedy Store have been closed since the start of the pandemic, despite ways that Peter Shore has proposed to stage outdoor performances and keep audiences socially distanced. Binder believes comedy clubs should be reclassified as essential businesses so they can reopen. “I think people need to laugh. It’s really important, and I think there’s an absolute demand for it,” he said. “I believe that when this is over, the comedy clubs are going to be packed.”
Binder also believes his documentary is perfectly timed. “It’s coming out during the buildup to the election and it’s really good counterprogramming,” he said. “People are so inundated with all the serious political stuff and this is just about comedians and laughter. I think there’s so much to love in these five hours.”
“The Comedy Store” premieres Oct. 4 on Showtime.