New York, Chicago and Los Angeles remain the gateway cities to success in the chuckle business, but from about 1978 to 1990, Houston hosted a surprisingly healthy scene. At one point, the city limits hosted nine thriving comedy clubs that catapulted performers such as Sam Kinison, Bill Hicks, Brett Butler and Janeane Garafalo to greater career heights.
"Houston was a boom town at the time. People were spending money going out, and on top of that, there were some very talented comics here," says Mike Vance, a film producer and executive director of Houston Arts and Media. Vance is currently working on a documentary of the times, Stand Up Story. "And Houston audiences were some of the very best back then. People here loved stand-up," he adds.
Vance himself was not just an observer of the burgeoning scene, but a working comic who gigged all over town, often at the Comedy Workshop and the Comics Annex. He wanted to see this "incredible chapter" of Houston entertainment history given its due. To date, he's completed 20 interviews with comics and club people from the period - including top comic Jim Patterson (now deceased), and Garafalo - with a wish list of a couple dozen more of performers and patrons. He's also tracking down hard-to-find performance video.
"People didn't have video cameras like they do now, so I'm still searching. But most comics had demo tapes made," Vance says. "We have some sets from the Annex, but I want more. You have to include some jokes to tell the whole story."
As to what happened to stop Houston from becoming a huge stand-up Mecca, Vance says as comics got better, many of them (including himself) naturally gravitated to those tent-pole cities, while others dropped out. As for the clubs, he notes that issues like oversaturation, greed, increasing venue rent and poor performers who worked cheap or free started killing the scene beginning in the mid-1990s. When clubs started giving away multitudes of free passes just to fill seats, Vance says the "whole appeal of being in a special place" died.
But Stand Up Story focuses on the glory days. "The film has incredibly funny stories, but there is also the theme of friendship developing," he says. "For those of us who did it for a living, there was an incredible bond created. And we didn't think it was unnatural - even though 200 people had paid their hard earned money and then said to us, 'Make me laugh!'"