Houston 101: Where Comedy Greats Got Their Start

In the late 1970s, the explosion of stand-up comedy that eventually led to every half0sized burg having a strip-mall Laff Pit or Jokey McGags, complete with a bare-brick background, had yet to happen.

Stand-up clubs outside of LA and New York were few and far between. That started to change in 1978, when the Comedy Workshop opened in Houston.

Located on Shepherd Street, the small club (the Comics Annex was home for stand-up; the larger Cabaret part of the facility was for bigger acts) quickly attracted raw, edgy comics who went on to big things.

"What made it special, and what gave us such a great reputation that people moved here just to become regulars at the club, was that we totally policed each other and kept pressure on each other to write new material," Mike Vance, who was there from the beginning, tells Hair Balls. "If you stole jokes, you got kicked out. Simple as that. We produced some very good comics and very good writers."

The most famous was Bill Hicks, a local guy who appeared often. You never knew what you'd get -- a white-hot killer performance, or the back wall punched because of his frustration at an unreceptive crowd.

Other alumni included Sam Kinison, Janeane Garafalo and Brett Butler. This obviously wasn't the place for mother-in-law jokes, or Vegas shtick.

Open-mic nights would last until 2 a.m., then everyone would gather in the parking lot to drink, bitch or try to top each other.

"That usually got us dirty looks when a bunch of drunk comics showed up at One's a Meal on West Gray for breakfast along with folks on their way to the office," Vance says.

He's put together a DVD documentary of the halcyon days of the club, which lasted throughout the `80s. Other clubs began to sprout up, with better facilities, and there was always talk about troubles paying rent, so by the 1990s the place was gone.

So now, the place where Hicks learned to rant, where Kinison learned to shout, Garafalo mastered dead-pan and Brett Butler began her rocky road to stardom, is....a dry cleaners.

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