Goodbye to Club Bart
To anyone that’s known me for the last twelve years or so, you’ve known one thing – I spent every Thursday night at Club Bart, a restaurant and bar in Ferndale, Michigan. Every Thursday night. OK, I went on the road a few weeks a year, but aside from that, every Thursday was spent at Club Bart. The reason – comedy night.
Founded in 1998, Club Bart’s comedy night was Detroit’s alt-comedy night, the “wild” open mike, a place for new comics to learn the ropes, and a place for comics that the big clubs wouldn’t book. The list of freaks, failures, and weirdos that made an attempt at performing comedy would melt my WordPress database if I tried describing them all. Instead I want to write about my experiences, says some thank yous, and describe why something often described as “truly awful” was actually something wonderful.
Club Bart was a tough room to get a laugh. If the audience wasn’t too drunk to listen, they were too sober to laugh. If the room wasn’t empty, it was too full to talk over the chatter. If there was a crowd, it was often because one new guy brought a dozen friends and they weren’t going to laugh because YOU weren’t their friend. Some comics were on too early, others too late. Comics regularly felt set-up to fail, and they were. But from that failure, came strength. Oh they don’t wanna listen? Hold the mike closer. Get louder. Cut down the boring set-ups. Get to the punchline faster. Talk to the crowd. Personalize it. Make it about them. All these things are not just good comedy advice for performing at Club Bart – it’s good advice to perform comedy anywhere. Club Bart was a tough place to do comedy, sure. But it made you better. Getting a laugh at Bart’s was like getting ten laughs anywhere else. If you could make ‘em laugh there, you could make ‘em laugh anywhere.
If a guy learned his comedy chops at Bart’s, he was a better comic. Here’s an example of that. There’s one well-known comedy club on the circuit that’s without a doubt the easiest place in the world to get a laugh. Seriously, you can stand on stage and read the classified ads of the paper and the crowd will roar. Put two sentences together and you get an applause break. It’s the classic “shooting-fish-in-a-barrel” comedy situation. People pay a steep cover to watch a comedy show, stand in line an hour to be seated, buy an expensive drink with an umbrella, and at that point they’re ready to laugh at anything. They’ve got so much invested that you can’t NOT be funny. It’s classic psychology. So I’m working this club one weekend and a staff member says to me before the show, “Be careful out there, so-and-so (name redacted) got eaten alive by the crowd last week”. “By this fucking crowd?!?!”, I responded. “There’s there’s ten birthday parties and half a dozen party buses parked out back – I could fart in the mike and get a standing O!” And I did. Just kidding. But the show was awesome as always, and then I thought about it. That guy last week, despite being a funny, professional comedian, didn’t spend any time at Bart’s. He learned the ropes at this nice, suburban full-time club, where it was so easy to get a laugh he couldn’t deal with the rowdy bachelorette party, or the too-drunk shift worker who just left the Ford plant. He never saw adversity and couldn’t deal with it. He never did comedy with ashtrays flying at his head or angry hecklers rushing the stage. He wasn’t a Bart’s guy.
I performed my first stand-up comedy ever at Club Bart on November 4th, 1999. I can still remember the day as it was the first week back after the big annual Halloween show. I attended the Halloween show as I read a big article in the Detroit News about Club Bart’s comedy night being the place where young up-and-comers were hanging out and telling jokes. I had never done comedy, and never even been in a comedy club, but I always though I’d be a comedian. I lived two blocks from the legendary Comedy Cellar in New York City when I attended New York University in 1996. Despite the barker offering me free tickets every night as I went to the pizzeria next door, I never went to the Cellar. I was too afraid. Afraid I’d walk in, like what was going on, try my hand at open mike some night and bomb in front of a who’s who of the NYC comedy scene. I’d have a great story – “Hey, I did stand-up in from of Jerry Seinfeld! He thinks I suck !” Anyway, when I made my way to Club Bart for the first time (a page of type-written jokes in my back pocket, just in case) I fell in love right away. It reminded me of vaudeville – OK I’m not that old, but it reminded me of what I always heard vaudeville was like – a tiny stage, a crumbling piano in the corner, and a bunch of weird acts. One guy did impressions. A pair of brothers did Abbot and Costello-style sketches. A middle-aged woman pulled props out of a shopping bag. The show was funny even if the acts weren’t. The three-dozen-or-so people in attendance were fickle in what they liked, but the biggest laughs were reserved for the in-jokes. Comics made fun of the club. Big laughs. Comics made fun of each other. Bigger laughs. I didn’t really get all the in-jokes, but I realized that this was a “scene”. A fun scene. A scene I wanted to be a part of. If I was intimidated at the Comedy Cellar, I wouldn’t be here. No one was famous! Most of the acts weren’t even funny! And the ones that were wouldn’t be funnier than me with a little practice. So as the show wrapped up, I went up to the guy who was the butt of a lot of the in-jokes, Todd – he wasn’t the host, but he seemed to be running the thing – and asked if I could perform next week. He said sure, so I went home, re-worked my jokes came back the following week. I was on pretty late in the show, and I bombed. Really bad. I was drunk and spilled my pint of beer on the stage. The bartender gave me a rag and made me mop up my spill – during my act. I was bombing and doing chores at the same time! If that wasn’t bad enough, the veteran comics that followed me had a field day at my expense. Between my weight, not being funny and my 1990s ponytail, there was no shortage of material for them to bust my stones. I wanted Club Bart to laugh with me, and they were laughing at me. It was hard to go back the next week, but I did. And the week after, and the week after that. Even though I wasn’t getting paid, it became my job. I was now a comedian. Not just any comedian. A Club Bart comedian.
I said goodbye to Club Bart’s comedy night last Thursday. The place was packed. Well over 100 people in a place that the fire marshal says holds 56. I put up about forty comedians that night in a three-and-a-half hour show. I thanked whom I could and ended up crying like a little bitch at the end. It was an amazing, unforgettable, emotional night that won’t be forgotten by anyone who attended.
I’d like to end here by thanking some of the many, many people who made Bart’s great over the years. Firstly, Corey Hall performed on that Halloween show I attended back in 1999. He was the funniest guy on that show. He was the funniest guy on the last show last week. Corey’s a comic’s comic, a sharp mind, and great radio collaborator. He always makes the show more fun, not just on stage, but off, too. The best times I ever had a Bart’s were almost always with Corey – a great comedian and a great friend. PJ Butland was the host of the first show I ever performed at the club. He was the founder of Bart’s comedy night, and became a good friend, too. Thanks for getting it started, PJ. I’m most proud of some of the guys who became working pros by working Club Bart’s open mike. Nate Fridson, Matt McClowry and Adam Sokol were a unique three-headed monster at the club. They met at the club and became good friends and good working comics – all of them. Comics J. Chris Newberg, Marty Butler, Jeff Dwoskin, Russ Brown, John Tortilot, Rob Little, Ryan Ridley, Ben Konstantin and Mike Stanley started at the club, and can be seen in comedy clubs around the country and on TV today. Some of my best buds to hang out with over the years were guys like Gerry McAvoy, Dave Merheje, Torey Adkins, Laura Lukofsky, Mike Lundy, David Lemmon, Joe Connelly, Brian Kalakie, Ken Kline, Pete Weiss, Matt Nicole, Chillian Thomas and anyone else who went out for a drink or on a Como’s pizza run after the show – good times. The guys from the early days that were unforgettable included Mark Goldberg, Derek Stuferiac, Rob Magolan, Marlon Randolph, old Dante, Daylin “Chance” Ceemur, Mike Nadolski, Ann Hubbarth and Chris Oxie. “New” comics who have added much to the show in recent years include Brad Austin, Ron Taylor, Darius Bennett, Jeff Horste, Jeff Scheen, Garri Madera, Amit Jain, Leola, Scott Crossman and Matt Gulley – you guys will be great comics someday, if you’re not already. To all the guys who waited patiently to go on late I understand your frustration and thinking I’m a “dick”. Special mention to Digg Johnson, Jeremiah Pawling, Sefa, Nick Spence, Jeremy Ball, Kirk Wilcox, and Michael Soave for being so patient and being funny when the time came. To the pros and out-of-towners who hit our stage over the years, thank you – Jimmy Pardo, Rich Vos, Geechy Guy, Bill Dwyer, and the late, great Greg Giraldo. The local stars deserve mention, too. Leo DuFour, Steve Brewer, John Heffron, Mike Green, Sal DiMillio, Jef Brannen, Steve Bills and Bill Bushart – thanks for stopping in and showing the young guys how it’s done. Special thanks to Bill Hildebrandt for being a great mentor and always being funny – thanks “Dad”. Harry Artin Berbarian became one of my very best friends from Club Bart and has given me some amazing opportunities in both stand-up and radio over the years, thanks Harry. John Tenney isn’t a comedian, but he’s as funny as anyone I’ve ever met, and a great guy to hang with. Thanks for the “one-clap”s, John. Jeffrey Ford is one of the most interesting, funny and original people I’ve ever met in my entire life – shine on you crazy diamond. Speaking of that, I gotta thank the “crazies” from Bart’s over the years – you know, the oddball acts. Some of these acts made me laugh more than anyone else so thanks to C.C. Dynamite, Erica Lynn, Keith Rodney, The Amazing Ron, Paul Weston, McMike and countless other quirky personalities who added much to the unique appeal of the show. Our regular audience members were always fun, especially Mike the Lawyer who laughed at my jokes even when he had heard them for the 400th time. The Club Bart staff over the years has been a huge asset to me as a host, so thanks to Frida, Jill, Marina, Claire, Jenny, Pete, Joe, Linda, and especially our long-time waitress Laura Keillor and bartender Melissa Smith. You guys worked so hard and put up with so much shit from us over the years, a thank-you hardly seems enough. Heather Kozlakowski, thank you. You’re the best thing I got out of the show – ever. Hopefully you feel the same. To Todd Starks, thanks for giving me my shot back in 1999. You’ve quietly been a great champion of stand-up comedy in Detroit, and I’ll never ever forget that first meeting as long as I live. And finally, to owner Bart Starks, thanks for letting the lunatics run the asylum every Thursday night. Also thanks for letting the show continue during the lean years, when there were five comedians performing and three audience members watching. The club and our show became a staple of Ferndale nightlife and none of that would be possible with your patience and faith in our ability to actually be entertaining. Then again, maybe you just didn’t give a shit. Just kidding! I love you, Bart. You’re the best.
Club Bart was sold just recently and will become some type of European-style bistro. To whomever is buying the club, just know that your overpriced paninis are being served in place rich with history. Where dick jokes were honed to a razor-sharp point in a haze of cigarette smoke and the smell of cheap gin. Where comics fought and cursed at each other over the opportunity to perform to three drunks at 1:30 in the morning. Where I met my best friends, the love of my life, and found my career.
What now on Thursday nights? I’m starting a new open mike at Go Comedy!, an improv theater just around the corner from the former Club Bart. Interestingly, one of the owners and founders of Go Comedy! is a guy I met way back at my first Club Bart show back in 1999, Chris DiAngelo. We hung out before we went on, bonding both in our lack of experience and our giant ponytails (again, it was the 90s). We became friends and remained friends to this day. When Club Bart was sold, I called Chris, and now Detroit’s young comedians and myself have a new home. Thanks, Chris. Another great opportunity that came from Club Bart! Thanks Bart’s, you’ll be missed.