Interview with Richard Tienken The Owner of World Famous Comic Strip Live
By: Laura High
March, 3rd 2016
I just started stand up comedy and had no clue what to do. One comic suggested I audition for Late Night at Comic Strip Live. Comic Strip is the oldest comedy club in New York. I had seen performances there when I was a teenager. I was terrified because this was going to be the seventh time I had ever performed stand up. I got there and found out that there was a panel of judges who will ‘roast’ each of us and let us know if we pass (get hired) in front of a packed room. My heart went in my throat. I went up, and miraculously did well. I had no expectations. One of the judges asked how long I had I been doing stand up, I said this was my seventh performance. Then Richie said, “You’re passed.” I’ve been working on jokes there ever since.
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Laura: You are the owner and founder of Comic Strip Live. When did you open it?
Richie: June 1st, 1976. So, It’s been forty years.
L: So it’s safe to say you know everyone in the business?
R: (He laughs) Pretty much.
L: Who are the ‘big name comics’ who started here?
R: Everyone started here. Jerry Seinfeld, George Wallace, Chris Rock, Eddie Murphy, Ray Romano, Louis CK, Robin Williams, Adam Sandler, everybody. Even Tom Hanks prepped for Punchline here.
L: What was Jerry Seinfeld like?
R: We called him the doctor, ’cause he could fix any joke.
L: How did Chris Rock get his start at Comic Strip?
R: He used to clean the tables here, so I put him up. I also managed Eddie Murphy, and he came in one night. He asked, “Do you have any black acts?” I checked with the manager. He said we didn’t have any, but Chris was there. I didn’t want Eddie to leave, so I put Chris up. Chris was so nervous. I told him, “Just go up. If you don’t think you’re doing well, just get off.” Eddie watched him. When he got off Eddie took him over by the ice machine and talked. After they finished I asked Eddie what happened. Eddie said, “I asked Chris: What do you think about coming out to California and being in my movie?” Eddie changed the script of Beverly Hills Cop 2 so Chris could be in it.
L: When you look back, did you know that those guys were going to rise as much as they did?
R: Honestly, the whole thing is unbelievable to me. Everyone who was here went through the roof. I’m like, “How did that happen?” I knew these guys. We had a softball team. They were just guys to me. The fact that they had that kind of talent was amazing.
L: This was one of the clubs that Robin Williams started at. He seems like such a larger-than-life person. What was he like in a small intimate comedy club?
R: Same way. He was Robin Williams.
L: After being in the game so long, what do you look for in terms of hiring new comics?
R: My attitude towards comics is, “Wow, this is something you want to do. I would never want to do it.” I want to try and help them as much as I can. I just like giving comics a chance. That’s why I’m the only club who still auditions comics regularly.
L: It seems like you really love the comedians.
R: Yeah. When we started the club, comics didn’t get paid. None of those guys made money. One day Larry David came in and asked if he could get a hamburger on the house. I asked, “You don’t have any money?” He said, “No, I spend any extra money I have on notebooks and pens.” I asked, “Are all comics struggling this badly?” He replied, “Yes.” I told him, “You can tell everyone to come here and they’ll eat.”
L: What makes Comic Strip Live so special?
R: I think it’s special because I’m the only club that still auditions people. I audition new comics every week. No one auditions anymore. Everyone does bringers. You know, bring ten people and then you can have a spot. I’m not going to do that. I want to give these comics a real chance. I like being able to say that they started here.
L: Why do you love stand up comedy so much?
R: It’s not so much the comedy as it is the dream. God has been good to me, and if this is something that the comics want to do, then I want to help.
L: What are your favorite Comic Strip Live stories?
R: Adam Sandler and I were talking about golf at 2:00am. He asked: “If you could hit a golf ball down Second Avenue, how far do you think it would go?” I said, “If you hit it straight it could hit Fifty-Ninth Street.” Mind you, the club is on Eighty-Second Street. We talked about it more, then I said, “Come on, let’s to do it.” I set it up, hit it. Now, between you and me it went right, but he didn’t see it. He says, “Where is it?” I said, “Ahh it’s probably still bouncing.” He keeps arguing that he doesn’t see it. So, I put another ball down. Then a cop showed up and started shaking his head. We went back inside after that.
Also, when you come in our club, it’s filled with headshots. Well, Larry Miller didn’t have one. So he gave me an 8’10” of his family sitting shiva. (Richie starts laughing.)
L: Any advice for new comics?
R: Three times. If the joke doesn’t work after three times; good-bye.
L: What did you think of Chris Rock’s performance at the Oscars?
R: I thought he did great. Afterwards I texted him, “Congrats, I’m so happy you started at the Strip.” He texted back, “I’m glad I started there, too.”