Director Mike Binder on club’s ‘darkness’


Funny man Pauly Shore, whose late mom Mitzi ran The Comedy Store in West Hollywood, describes it as “the Emerald City for comedians.” (Photo: Troy Conrad/Courtesy of SHOWTIME)

Just for laughs? Hardly.

Showtime’s five-part docuseries “The Comedy Store,” (Sundays, 10 EDT/PDT), doesn’t just highlight the howls spurred by the greats at the iconic establishment on Sunset Strip: Richard Pryor, Robin Williams, Whoopi Goldberg, Sam Kinison and new Joe Biden impersonator Jim Carrey. The series also looks at the comedy club’s darker days, its stand-ups’ battles with alcohol and substance abuse and some untimely deaths. 

Sunday’s premiere introduced the business Sammy and Mitzi Shore (parents of comedian Pauly Shore) opened with screenwriter Rudy DeLuca in 1972. Mitzi took ownership in 1974, following the couple’s divorce. “It’s Mecca for comedians,” writer-director Mike Binder tells USA TODAY. “It’s Juilliard … If you’re a comedian, you’re kind of drawn there like a moth to a light.” 

Freddie Prinze was one of the souls attracted to the Los Angeles club, launched after his “Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson” debut in 1973. He was just 19.  

“Good Times” actor Jimmie Walker says in the docuseries that Prinze, starring in “Chico and the Man,” was pushed off of teen magazine covers by a feathered-hair sporting John Travolta, a breakout as Vinnie Barbarino on “Welcome Back, Kotter.” Prinze was so enraged, Walker says, that he bought a crossbow and planned to kill Travolta. Walker says he and Prinze went to Travolta’s apartment building, where Prinze shot three arrows into Travolta’s door. (The actor was not home at the time.)

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Freddie Prinze at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., 10 days before his death on Jan. 29, 1977. (Photo: ASSOCIATED PRESS)

“He would be the nicest guy in the world,” Walker says, “but there was a tremendous amount of times he would just come in and freak out.”

“I’d say, ‘This is getting weird,'” remembers Prinze’s friend, comedian Alan Bursky, in the series. “‘He thinks I’m a spy. He thinks people are listening on the phone because he knows who killed Kennedy…’ Nobody knew what cocaine psychosis was.” 

Binder, 62, says he arrived at The Comedy Store in January 1977, days before Prinze shot himself. Binder didn’t know Prinze, but remembers witnessing “everybody crying” at the club. He says it’s important to include the darker moments, like the deaths of Prinze and Kinison, because of the depths to which those losses were felt by the tight-knit community.

“The first thing that I thought is if I’m gonna tell the funny stories, I gotta tell the sad things too, ’cause that’s what makes The Comedy Store so unique,” he says.

“I think The Comedy Store attracted people that really embraced the dark side and embraced filling that hole in us with darkness and drugs and alcohol,” Binder says. “I think The Improv – they were straighter comedians, the Seinfelds and the Paul Reisers and Larry Millers – even (Jay) Leno was really more of an Improv. But The Comedy Store, there was some kind of darkness.” 

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“He was one of her kids,” Pauly Shore recalls of his mom’s fondness for Prinze. “I remember when it went down, I was there at the house with Mom, and it was dark. There were several dark moments in the house with these comics, and I think that was another reason why it was really hard for my mom to see me go into stand-up comedy.”

Pauly, 52, remembers how much his mom, who died in 2018, truly cared for the talent. “Comics are – I don’t want to say wounded birds, but we’re a weird breed,” says Pauly. “So just to feel that kind of love from her … She had a natural instinct to develop and kind of guide someone that she felt that… had a something special.”

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The “Son in Law” star, who has dubbed his mom “the Mother Teresa of comedy,” remembers “crawling around on the floor” of The Comedy Store as a kid and being “like a hot potato being passed around to different comedians” when his mother was tied up with work. 

Pauly recalls his mom “always at the Store. She just loved it.” She also opened the doors of her home to the stand-ups. 

“She’d always have people over at the house,” he recalls. “That happened a lot when I was young. I’d go downstairs, and you’d see Robin Williams down there or Richard Pryor or Richard Belzer or Gallagher.”

“You remember when when you were a kid, or young, you’d be like, ‘Hey, lets go to Mom’s house. Lets have an afterparty,'” Shore says/ “But the difference is is my mom was the one having the afterparty, and I was telling her to be quiet, that I had school in the morning.”

If you or someone you know may be struggling with suicidal thoughts you can call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255) any time of day or night or chat online.

Crisis Text Line provides free, 24/7, confidential support when you dial 741741.

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