Published Jan. 2012
“So I go to Westbury Music Fair with my father. I’m twelve years old and I’m sitting in the first row to see Don Rickles. I’m excited about going and I don’t know what to expect. As soon as he comes out, he looks at me and says to my father, ‘What kind of a hockey puck are you taking a little kid to a show like this? You probably told him this was Disney Land; now he’s going to pee his pants and you’re going to have to take him home crying.’ That began my love affair with standup comedy.”
As we sit in the admirable Vintage Lounge, downstairs from the main showroom of Manhattan’s Gotham Comedy Club, Chris Mazzilli, co-owner and founder, ponders how he got there.
“The crowd went crazy and Rickles walked over, winked at my father, and shook his hand. Then he shook mine and I remember thinking, ‘He has such a soft hand.’ My father worked in produce, so he had rough hands.”
After completing an associate’s degree at the Fashion Institute of Technology, Mazzilli decided to try acting. He had an in with a talent agency and bombed the audition. Donnie Brasco: My Undercover Life in the Mafia was a bestseller at the time and Mazzilli thought he could wing a monologue from the book after learning what the term “monologue” meant just a week earlier. He had daydreamed for weeks about picking out a Corvette, but after his blabbered rendition of an excerpt, Mazzilli could “fuggedaboutit.”
“That experience taught me to never be unprepared again. And I never was.”
The decision to work had been made. Mazzilli found getting parts a bit easier, but he wasn’t getting his hands dirty as much as he’d wanted. Friends of his would often tell him he was funny, so a move to standup stages followed.
If one takes the “comedy” out of “comedy clubs,” they become pretty miserable places and in the late 80s and early 90s, when people could still smoke inside, they were dark, dank, and ill ventilated. Over tiny square tables, small time comics would contemplate their futures while ingesting chicken fingers out of some basement walk-in freezer and imbibing cheap whiskey. College kids and wash-ups waited the tables and civilizations of bacteria were spawned in the small, still puddles on bathroom floors next to commodes. The owners were cheap bastards and would have to be hunted down by the performers to get their few-dollar-per-head payout.
At 30, Mazzilli, was working, managing, and performing at comedy clubs in the downtown area, and after befriending “a Wall Street guy,” Michael Reisman, he recognized the need for an upscale comedy club “with no politics.” With Reisman having recently pulled in a nice haul from his day job and offering it to Mazzilli as capital, they began to research what the shortcomings of typical clubs were and figured theirs would have none of them. They interviewed patrons and found that virtually all the people, especially women, were horrified by the conditions of the bathrooms. “We thought, ‘Ok, we’re going to have nice bathrooms,’” declares Mazzilli, slamming his palm on the table for emphasis. Using what knowledge of art and architectural design he’d acquired from his time at FIT, Mazzilli anticipated customers appreciating an attention to subtle construction details over the musty boiler room look, eventually settling on a personal favorite “old New York” feel, which also helped spawn the name of the joint. He explains, “‘Gotham’ is really a double-entendre because a hundred years ago New York used to be referred to by that name and the Gothamites of England were the ‘wise fools’ who kept people from invading their town, not by fighting, but by acting crazy. So a standup comedian is like a ‘wise fool.’” Mazzilli vowed to take good care of those fools, saying: “I saw a lot of club owners mistreating the comics and it bothered me.” And coming from a customer service background, Mazzilli, while as young as six or seven, watched his father, who owned the produce store, actually carry groceries out to customers’ cars. “My father told me that if you take care of your customers, your customers will take care of you. And it’s true.” So by May of 1996, the end product’s doors opened with great customer service, a wine list, quality cuisine, reasonable prices, and top-tier talent.
“Opening night I said that either this thing was going to be a big hit or it was going to fail miserably and it came down to the question of: ‘Are New Yorkers ready for an upscale comedy club?’” On that bill were Mike Royce (eventual writer/producer of Everybody Loves Raymond), Paul Provenza, Sarah Silverman, and Dave Chappelle, who they paid $1,000. “We didn’t have a lot of money, but just from how the crowd reacted, I said to myself, ‘I think we can make this work.’”
Rent was $5,000 dollars a month, they sat about 140 people, Catch A Rising Star had just opened a location in the neighborhood, and Mazzilli found himself putting in 100-hour weeks. “As an owner you have to wear many hats,” he points out after admitting that sometimes, while still performing on his own stage, he’d see empty glasses and think to himself that they needed to be filled. “After my sets I would walk off stage and throw guys who were acting like jackasses out of the club. They’d say, ‘Wait a minute, you were just the comedian, now you’re throwing me out?’” Eventually, Mazzilli gave up the jester hat and focused his attention solely on being the club’s “problem solver.” Money was incredibly scarce, but Mazzilli describes many nights there as “magical.” So, despite not having a personal income for the first couple of years and making “maybe $30,000 the third year,” Mazzilli’s confidence and work ethic compelled him to stick it out.
Crediting the name, the logo, and the design of the place, Mazzilli claims that people often presumed that Gotham Comedy Club had been open for decades as opposed to just a few years. It was quickly gaining a solid reputation, which skyrocketed when the biggest name in comedy decided to stop by and try out some new material. “I remember thinking while watching Jerry Seinfeld on stage, ‘It’s incredible being in this business.’” However, that Tuesday night almost didn’t happen because the person who was answering the club’s phones said that some “asshole comic” had called, pretending to be Seinfeld asking for some time. Instinct kicked in and after checking it out with mutual friend Colin Quinn, who three years earlier had stood on a milk crate in Mazzilli and Reisman’s empty space, estimating how high the stage should be, the club naturally allowed Seinfeld to work and film his eventual documentary Comedian whenever he liked. The magic continued as Robert Klein began to warm up there weekly for an HBO special. Having been a fan and admirer, Seinfeld went to watch Klein on the same night that George Carlin happened to be in the audience. When the microphone was silent, spontaneously, the club’s crowd gathered around the bar that seated the three comic living legends, who had begun a conversation about the world of comedy. Mazzilli recalls an exasperated woman exclaiming: “‘I’m from Ohio! These types of things don’t happen in Ohio!’” Soon Robin Williams would begin appearing along with other big names and Gotham Comedy Club had become truly established.
These days, at the grand, gorgeous new club on 23rd street and 7th avenue, which opened in 2005, with the old place having been remade into the Metropolitan Room cabaret, Mazzilli still logs in about six days a week. “The body feels good. I don’t smoke. I don’t drink. Never did. Never even wanted to. But I need some more personal time. I’ve hired some good people who I trust, so in one out of like ten weeks for a family thing I’ll take a Saturday night off.” He says that people don’t believe him, but in all of his years he has yet to wake up and think about his looming14-16 hour day as “work.” Still, there are challenges. “It’s hard. With the economy being what it is, people don’t want to come out and spend money.” But the time he spent as a comic pushes him to take chances on lesser-established acts, even with the heightened risk of a poor night of business. “It’s very gratifying,” he offers. “I try to get out there and see new faces. I want to be the guy who breaks the next big name.” It’s likely then that, because of the help, guidance, and work of Chris Mazzilli and crew at Gotham Comedy Club, at least a few others will find themselves on stage shaking their soft hands inside those of countless admirers.
Do go to http://www.gothamcomedyclub.com or call them directly at (212) 367-9000 for info and tickets to many of their upcoming shows.