Funny Business

Once upon a time Houston was a hot spot for comedy clubs. Now it's anybody's guess on who'll turn out on any given night

A two-drink minimum is standard, especially if the owner is giving away free tickets.

"You've got to paper the room [give out free tickets] or forget it, you're not going to stay in business for very long," says Danny Martinez, owner of The Comedy Showcase out on Fuqua.

Martinez says in the early '90s, the game totally changed. "It was difficult to sell it, when you can get it anywhere, you can get on cable, you can get on regular television, you can it anywhere -- free. What's the point?" says Martinez. "We had to add phone lines and hire telemarketers to start giving away parties to businesses, to colleges, give discounts to NASA and other industries around here."

..."it's the only thing that feels right."
Photos by Daniel Kramer
..."it's the only thing that feels right."
Bill Hicks is one of a handful of comedy legends who came through Houston's Comedy Workshop.
Courtesy of Jay Lee
Bill Hicks is one of a handful of comedy legends who came through Houston's Comedy Workshop.

Mark Babbit, former manager of the Laff Stop, says, "There were so many stand-up shows on TV that, my theory is, it depressed the market for live comedy." The rise of comedy specials on HBO, BET and especially the introduction of Comedy Central encouraged more people to try their hand at stand-up -- not always successfully. Pressed to fill time slots, the networks, Babbit says, "were just throwing people up there thinking that it was good for comedy, and it wasn't."

"I'd like to make you laugh for about ten minutes though I'm gonna be on for an hour."

-- Richard Pryor


Mark Babbit took over the Laff Stop in May 1995. He had never run a comedy club before, and the only experience he had was in bars and dance clubs. Babbit says he was determined to rekindle Houston's interest in stand-up.

"There was a learning curve on my part, and by going to different comedy festivals and looking at tapes and talking to bigger agents and listening to advice from the manager who was there, who had experience with comedy, I managed to learn quite a bit," he says. "I'd say between 1998 and 2002, we really hit our stride. We had a national reputation for good crowds and intelligent crowds."

The history of the Stop shows this appreciation. Comics such as Mitch Hedberg, Joe Rogan and Dane Cook all recorded albums there and the stage has been graced by many notables including Chris Rock, Dave Chappelle, David Cross, Elayne Boosler, Jim Gaffigan, Garofalo, and Butler. Almost as famous as the acts on the stage was the Stop's Monday night open mikes.

"Houston comics nationally have one of the highest reputations for quality of material; they're nationally known for that open mike," says Ralphie May, who got his start in Houston and says the open mike nights at the Laff Stop were one reason he moved here from Tennessee in 1990 and was able to go on to bigger things like Last Comic Standing.

"Any Monday night there will be 100 comedians doing spots -- that's crazy," says Ralphie. "It's unheard of," says Bob Biggerstaff, another local comedian who has traveled all over the country doing stand-up. Biggerstaff says comics in places like L.A. have to either call in advance for open mike time or put their names in a hat for a chance onstage. "They pick maybe ten people who get to do two minutes each," Biggerstaff says. "There is no crowd; they're horrible."

"When I first got there, [open mike] was doing $50 worth of business and there were about five people, and I was paying the bartender more than we were taking in in liquor. So, initially, I stopped it," Babbit says. He started it up again with about ten people and maybe $125 in business, Babbit says. "What I assumed, without a doubt, was that it was not only marginally profitable to do it, but additionally what it did was it created a camaraderie among comics."

Babbit says the open mike nights helped develop local talent along with his Black and Blue Shows or Showcase Shows on Wednesday or Sunday nights. The events would feature ten to 12 locals who would do ten to 15 minutes of material each, so Babbit could see if they were ready to host or feature in front of headlining acts.

Babbit says his priority was developing talent, not profits. As a result, he says, he had a falling-out with the Laff Stop's owner. He left, returning to comedy in December of 2003 when he opened The Improv, but left less than a year later in May of 2004, and now renovates hotels.

Eddie Brito worked his way up to assistant manager at the Laff Stop during Babbit's tenure, but left soon after new owner and manager Pete Prelli started. Brito was hired on as a sound guy at The Improv in 2003 on Babbit's recommendation and eventually became its manager.

The Improv is part of a chain of comedy clubs booked by a corporate office out of Los Angeles. The Improv's move into Houston affected mom-and-pop venues like the Stop, because with 17 venues throughout the country, The Improv can promise more than just a local booking.

Prelli says this has made it harder for him to book larger acts and that he has done his best to keep the Laff Stop open.

Many local comics, however, don't see it that way. They say the reason the Laff Stop is struggling is that Prelli isn't really interested in comedy. They point to the fact that he doesn't ever show up to open mike nights, with telling results.

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