COMEDY : A Room of Their Own : Thanks to impresario Mitzi Shore and the Belly Room, for a while back in 1978-79 female comedians had a small spot to work in together, a place where they could be bad, get better and launch careers
There’s something forever tantalizing about standing in an empty room that’s had a past. You can feel the voices, the moods, the forms of human entanglement that have all transpired there and are now sealed off in silence, or dispersed in the memories of strangers. But there’s little you can actually know.
That’s certainly the case with the Belly Room, a small upstairs performance space that seats about 50, located at the center of the Comedy Store on Sunset Boulevard, itself a somewhat labyrinthine complex.
In the fall of 1978, club owner Mitzi Shore decided to convert what was once a room for belly dancers (“and other things,” she says cryptically) to a venue where only women would perform, and where some unquestionably gifted women (such as Sandra Bernhard) did, under a few memorable circumstances. There was, for example, the night when a female heckler in the audience, a few abusive breaths short of being dead drunk, was dragged out by a bouncer and answered comedian Lotus Weinstock’s earnest ministrations by belting her in the chops. To which Weinstock replied, “Thank you for sharing your pain.”
Or the night Judy Carter fell onstage and twisted her ankle so badly that she thought it was broken while everyone else thought she was working on some new fusion of comedy and performance art, and sat back to see how it would play out while she cried for help.
Opinions and recollections about the place, which stayed open the better part of a year, vary so much that it might as well be called the Rashomon Room. Was it a historic antechamber for the current prominence of women in stand-up, or was it a negligible space? To this day, few can say for certain whether it was an idea whose pioneering time had come, or whether it wasn’t a very good idea at all.
“It was a marginal venue that marginalized women,” says writer-performer Emily Levine, creative consultant and head writer for TV’s “Designing Women.”
“It wasn’t to my taste,” says Joanne Astrow, a performer then and an artists’ personal manager now. “I wasn’t comfortable in that situation. For me, it was a gut sense of forced feeling that it’d be good for women. It was duplicitous.”
“It was segregation,” adds comedian Lois Bromfield.
Speaking for the affirmative side, Robin Tyler, who is an activist for the gay and lesbian movement, observes: “The Belly Room was good for a woman’s point of view. We didn’t have to do self-deprecating material. We really grew in that room.”
“It set the precedent that women could be funny around each other,” says Diane Nichols, who remains popular on the club circuit. “Before the Belly Room came along, club owners were reluctant to book us, thinking we’d be too competitive.”
“It was a place where I could bring my ideals and craft,” Weinstock says. “You did not have to compete to be successful. We were very giving.”
Typically, there are performers who worked the room who think both alternatives are true.
“I met a fine group of women and shared a lot of good feelings,” Astrow says. “And the room did highlight the fact that there were still very few women in comedy at the time.”
If Levine takes a dim view of the way audiences were shuttled up en masse between Main Room shows, and similarly hustled back downstairs to catch the headliner, she reflects, “There were people there who created a spirit. It was a place where you could feel safe to experiment and talk to an audience.”
“I was able to develop,” Bromfield says. “I was under the illusion in the first five years (of my career) that being intelligent and opinionated would pay off. But at my age (37), as I look back, it’s almost a blessing that I didn’t get accepted into the little boys’ club that went into television. If I’d ever gotten a sitcom, I could never have gotten to this stage in my material where my own point of view is recognizable.”
One thing is certain. When Mitzi Shore says that “there’s a lot of history in how stand-up evolved,” the Belly Room occupies a small but crucial chapter. “I tell people, ‘If you wanna work the road, work the road. If you wanna be a star, come to Hollywood.’ ”
Stand-up comedy in the mid-to-late ‘70s, when Jay Leno and David Letterman were gaining a toe-hold on their careers, was a relatively wide-open scene, fueled by the youthful energies of “Saturday Night Live” and fine-tuned to the decade’s hapless tone of irony (this was the era of Watergate, OPEC and the Iran hostage crisis). There was still room for disparate voices, and by decade’s end the commercial hunt was on as booking agents, talent coordinators, producers and managers started elbowing their way onto the relatively sparse club scene to hear them.
It was not a great decade for women in stand-up. If six minutes on the “Tonight Show” represented the entrance to comedy Valhalla, host Johnny Carson’s general disinclination to finding women funny was a matter of public record.
“In those days if you were fat and/or ugly you could do comedy,” Carter recalls. “It was Totie Fields or Joan Rivers to talk about how ugly she was.” Adds Shore: “The ratio was 30 guys to one female comic. It was too competitive. New female comics couldn’t go up against the male heavyweights.”
The Comedy Store had first opened in 1972 when comedian Sammy Shore, then Mitzi’s husband, took over the cocktail lounge of Art Laboe’s, formerly the legendary Ciro’s. Mitzi was awarded the club in a divorce settlement, and in 1976 purchased the entire building. For years, hanging out with her husband, she had listened in on conversations with the likes of Corbett Monica, Shecky Green, Don Rickles and Jackie Gayle.
“Comics felt very belittled in those days--they always had to work with a singer,” she recalls. “When I got the club, I wanted it to be all comics. No jugglers and magicians. I wanted to give them respectability.”
Except for the commercial headliners, however, what she did not want to give them was a regular paycheck.
There are people who have considered Mitzi Shore naive, or cynical, or a peculiar combination of both, but to this day she maintains that her creation of the Original Room was an attempt for comedians to workshop in a collegial atmosphere, for the purposes of art-for-art’s sake that money could only corrupt. This sentiment in 1979 was to lead her into a bitter conflict whose scars remain unhealed, but her purported idealism extended to performers of her own sex, whom she felt were getting short shrift. Hence, the creation of the Belly Room.
“At the time, the girls were having a very bad time in the workshop. The feminine quality is very important to me. By that I mean the opposite of being a tough broad. Rita Rudner is an example of the type I like. So, I reopened the room and brought in Lotus Weinstock, Sandra Bernhard, Emily Levine, Lois Bromfield, Diane Nichols, Joanne Astrow, Roberta Kent, Dottie Archibald, Donna Jean Young and a woman named McHen.”
Accounts of this vary. Carter remembers a woman named Toad. Merrill Markoe passed through before she became head writer for David Letterman, and for a while his girlfriend. Shelley Bonus is chiefly remembered for having been linked to Richard Pryor. Gail Mathias (now Gail Worth) was snapped up for “Saturday Night Live’s” 1980 season.
Nichols remembers Maureen Murphy (one of the few who did well early on the “Tonight Show”) as a charter member, followed later by Lucy Webb, Karen Webb and Joanne Dearing. Several women, Isabelle West and Annie Kellogg among them, left the business, as the saying goes. But most went on to greater success, if not all of it was in show biz.
Weinstock, who had once studied at the Philadelphia Dance Academy and was a musician as well as a comic, was generally conceded the role of den mother (she sometimes emceed in a bathrobe). And why not? She was 36 when the Belly Room opened, and had been writing and performing since the age of 10 (“when I wrote a song called ‘What Good Are Memories?’ I think I had one memory at the time”). She’d also been engaged to Lenny Bruce.
“At that time there was only one woman who could make it in a decade,” Weinstock says. “You had to out-clever each other. That was not the case in the Belly Room. Mitzi realized you could be funnier in an hour than you could in 10 minutes. Lenny told me, ‘The more you are the longer it takes to become it.’ He also said you can’t be funny if you’re out of touch with your sexuality.
“We had to redefine a lot of things,” she adds. “There has never been an upside to women this side of childbearing. People thought it was sexist, but it was born out of sexism, to give women a place.”
Carter wrote a book on comedy and started a stand-up workshop in Venice, which is still going strong, and has recently resumed her career in playing political gatherings, AIDS awareness benefits and non-commercial venues. She has fond memories of the Belly Room and what it entailed.
“Mitzi was very supportive,” she says. “I was performing at the Comedy Store before she had her liquor license. Steve Landesberg was beginning to happen then. Jay Leno was there. That was before the Improv opened here. The ‘Tonight Show’ wasn’t happening for any of us yet--it had all these old-style comics.
“What happened then was that some women were getting interested in stand-up, but they weren’t good enough for the Main Room. Mitzi wanted to encourage women, even though a lot of them weren’t ready. Women worked differently. With guys, it was setup and punch. A lot of the women preferred to tell stories, or talk about their kids. It was a different approach with different rhythms. Some of it was hard-hitting, some was just soft and cozy. In the Main Room, they’d be decimated. It’s still that way. It’s still, ‘Are you ready for a girl ?’ So that you go on feeling ‘What am I, a stripper?’
“In the Main Room you had to be smooth and professional. But in the Belly Room you could be outrageous; you could do things together. You don’t see that now, where everything is ‘it’s my act.’ It was always fun. A lot of people say a lot of things about Mitzi, but if you look at the unique people who’ve come up in comedy, like Sam Kinison, Bobcat Goldthwait, Sandra (Bernhard), even Andrew Dice Clay, they’ve come through the Store. It takes a while to find out what you’re doing. You fail so much.”
A number of women agree with Emily Levine’s contention, “The reality was that you didn’t have a normal audience. You’d get one that was shoveled up before the second show in the Main Room and then was sent right back down again. It was an addendum to the other rooms. It was a room specifically designed for women to help women, but their values were undermined by the setup.”
Levine, like Astrow and Dotty Archibald, was already a mature, even precocious performer who worked the Belly Room as an adjunct to her main-stage appearances. An honors graduate from Radcliffe, she taught emotionally disturbed children in Brooklyn before coming to Hollywood with the comedy troupe the New York Stickball Team (which included Alan Uger, Martin Braverman and Steve Landesberg) and is one of those rare figures who has expanded comedy’s potential for commentary as well as amusement.
“From early childhood, comedy meant truth-telling to me,” she said. “I wanted to be the Delphic Oracle.” Aside from her television writing, she’s also a political activist and is prominent in Los Angeles’ intellectual life. Currently she’s performing a comedy routine at venues such as Caltech and Scripps Institute called “Chaos, Paradox and Ballroom Dancing,” based on her contention that “the way we look at the universe determines the way we organize our society. Quantum theory is now inextricably connected to our ethics, our cultural, social and political values.” In true oracular fashion, she also takes questions from the audience and weaves them into her act.
Clearly, the Belly Room’s effect on Levine’s development was negligible, if nonexistent. Not so in the case of Sandra Bernhard. At the time, she had very little that could be construed as an act. But she also had an extraordinary feel for the culminating narcissism of the period, which has crested through the ‘80s and early ‘90s in the cult of celebrity and public obsession with the world of entertainment (which fueled her attention-getting performance in “The King of Comedy”).
Like her onetime pal Madonna, she sensed better than most that stardom, in the modern context, was more an expression of aggressive self-display than it was a byproduct of beauty and talent. You didn’t need an act; all you needed was attitude. This did not go over in the bear-baiting atmosphere downstairs.
“Everybody always walked out on Sandra,” Shore recalls. “But I enjoyed her. She was a manicurist during the day, and when she came in here she did what she damn well wanted to do. I knew she’d be a star--she was so different.”
“She’d do her Vegas routine, completely obnoxious,” Weinstock says. “I’d say, ‘I’ve spent 15 years transcending my anger, and dealing with you it all comes back in one night.’ We’d wrestle to the floor and roll around and around. Then she’d get up and say, in the California style, ‘I feel so close to you.’ ”
Already Bernhard had perfected the tone in which show-biz hypocrisy and earnest sentiment are eerily blended. More recently she starred (no other word will do) in a fascinating Off Broadway sendup called “Without You I’m Nothing,” which was later made into a film. She’s now a regular on “Roseanne.”
“The great thing about that space is that people looked for the unusual,” Bernhard says of the Belly Room. “It gave me the opportunity to explore and express myself. It was a jazzy atmosphere.” In true star-trip fashion, which she manages to satirize and embody simultaneously, she came forward with a quote on her Belly Room days after her agent said, “She doesn’t wanna be lumped in with those people.” Still, for her vaunting airs, her difficulty in getting started is implicit in her observation, “You have to go through trial by fire if you’re going to have something original to say.”
The Belly Room came to a premature close in the spring of 1979, after a group of comedians went out on strike to protest Shore’s no-pay policy. On the surface, the action seemed fairly jovial. In a Welsh accent, Jay Leno yelled from the picket line, “I’m not going back into that hole until they Shore it up.” And the group chanted to watchful police, “Use a pun, go to prison.”
But in fact, in an atmosphere of charge, countercharge and angry denunciation, the strike created schisms that remain to this day, particularly between those comedians who went to work for Budd Friedman at the Improv and those who remained loyal to the Store (not to mention the somewhat benign but ongoing status of Friedman and Shore as rival comedy warlords). Too, the 1979 suicide of comedian Steve Lubetkin, who leaped to his death from the roof of the Continental Hyatt adjacent to the Store, sealed the enmities of some beyond repair.
Says Shore: “My whole philosophy after the strike changed. Fortunately, I had Garry Shandling, who worked for me for seven years without pay. When David Letterman came out, he really didn’t like stand-up, so I helped him develop as an emcee. Craig T. Nelson, Charles Fleischer, Jeff Altman, Richard Pryor--all worked for nothing before 1979. Their idea was to get into TV or the movies. And for a lot of them, it worked. Richard Pryor got ‘Lady Sings the Blues’ after being seen here.
“It was really a showcase for the industry. But after the strike the comedians looked on the art as a business. The art left when they began fighting for money. It’s all commercial now.”
“People were strong about their opinions,” Diane Nichols says. “How do I put this? I got phone calls in the middle of the night saying, ‘You’d better not cross the line.’ I kind of represented a group. I didn’t cross. I went to her face and told her I was striking. It was the most difficult thing I’ve ever had to do.
“Things changed after that. The strike ruined a lot of friendships, but in the long run it was a necessity because she felt no one should get paid. The comics would see her get a cover and a two-drink minimum from a packed house, and they didn’t like it. Some were already professionals, opening for people like Tom Jones. After Steve Lubetkin died, there were a lot of people who never forgave those who crossed the line.”
The Belly Room has reopened periodically since, and now has a gay and lesbian night, a solo performance night, a Skip E. Loewe variety night, and “Latinos de la Noche” on Sundays. In 1984, a young woman named Karen Johnson looked in and came back to play it as Whoopi Goldberg, where she became a hot ticket while working on the characters she was to take to Broadway.
But clearly the identity of the room has changed, its charter members scattered. Bromfield has been woodshedding, though she expects shortly to hire on as a writer for one of television’s top sitcoms. The inveterate Weinstock will still play virtually any venue, though she has been a playwright and actress, and in the early ‘80s came out with a book of comic observations called “The Lotus Position.”
The question remains: Does the Belly Room hold any lasting importance?
Mitzi Shore herself doesn’t think so. “It wasn’t open long enough to have real influence. Besides, who could follow a Sandra Bernhard?”
Others, characteristically, disagree.
“I think the room dispelled the myth that women can’t work with each other,” says Nichols, who has remained successful on the club scene.
“Maybe Mitzi feels she hasn’t affected things in a big way,” Carter says. “But she affected us, and we went on to affect a lot of other people.”
Perhaps it would be closer to the truth to say that if the room itself wasn’t significant, the generation of women that went through it is. As Weinstock says, “Our equality is in our right to be as different as anyone else. That’s what the room gave us.”