The Comedy Store Strike of 1979: Comics On the Picket Line
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Content Warning: The following includes discussion of a suicide.
If you’re a famous comedian, you’re going to get paid.
In 2019 alone, extremely pale comic Jim Gaffigan took in $30 million bucks. Jerry Seinfeld made $41 million. Kevin Hart topped them all with a wallet-busting $59 million. For Pete’s sake, two ventriloquists -- Jeff Dunham and Terry Fator -- each made at least 15 mil.
Today, even your local comics working the emcee spot get a little piece of the action. But that wasn’t always the case. In fact, it used to be common for comedians to be paid nothing at all. Like the ugliest parts of the Instagram economy, stand-ups were often expected to perform for compensation that never pays the rent: exposure.
But that all changed in 1979, the year comedians went on strike.
Like A Kid In A Comedy Store
Except for the not-getting-paid part, the 1970s were an amazing time to be an up-and-coming comic in Los Angeles.
Carson moved his Tonight Show to Burbank, meaning a good set at a local club could magically lead to a slot on Thursday night’s show. So if you killed at the Comedy Store, one of Los Angeles’ most popular new comedy venues, you could soon be Freddie Prinze, who parlayed stage appearances to Carson spots, a sitcom, and superstardom. Same for Store regular Jimmie J.J. Walker. David Letterman seemingly moved overnight from Comedy Store sets to filling in for Carson as Tonight Show host.
There was only one problem: Comedy Store owner Mitzi Shore viewed her venue as some sort of comedy college, a place to learn one’s comic craft. And colleges don’t pay their students (unless they’re sports people). Shore provided stage time for both fledgling and established comedians. The compensation was the chance to become the next Richard Pryor, Robin Williams, or Jay Leno, all Comedy Store regulars.
In the club’s early days, maybe stage time was enough. Everyone was struggling, but it was a damn good time. Comedy clubs were a relatively new deal -- Mitzi was trying to figure out how to make it work just like the comics. Camaraderie was high, as was most of the wait staff. But then something shifted. The Comedy Store became an L.A. hot spot and Shore started making major cash.
Mitzi got the cover charge. Mitzi got the proceeds from the two-drink minimum. Whispers around the club said she was making regular $20,000 deposits at the bank. And still, she refused to pay comedians -- not even a few bucks for beer.
That’s when comics got together to demand change, according to William Knoedelseder in his book I’m Dying Up Here: Heartbreak and High Times in Stand-Up Comedy’s Golden Era.
Their reluctant ringleader was Tom Dreesen, an established comic who did regular appearances on Carson and in Vegas. The Chicago-born Dreesen was doing all right for himself -- he’d just purchased a silver Eldorado, for Pete's sake. But he was dismayed by instances like when he ran into a fellow comedian after a Comedy Store set. "(The comic) said, it was fantastic, I killed 'em, had the best show I ever had. And then he said, 'Tom, can you loan me five dollars for breakfast?'”
So Dreesen and a few other established comics approached Shore about some kind of nominal compensation, a small stipend that would acknowledge that comics were professionals. “Believe it or not,” Dreesen argued, “for some of these kids, $20 or $30 a week would make all the difference.”
The initial proposals were pretty darn modest, ranging from $5-per-set for gas money to all comics performing on a given night splitting half of the cover charge.
Shore’s response could be summed up in a word: Nope. The comedians had the Comedy Store all wrong. It wasn’t a profitable nightclub, it was a training ground. And she wasn’t going to pay amateurs to learn their craft.
But Shore did pay the wait staff, the bartenders, the people who cleaned the toilets, Dreesen countered. And people weren’t paying a cover charge to see the sparkling porcelain.
“People don’t come to see the comics,” Mitzi said. “They come to see the Store. It’s famous.”
Dreesen said the comics were the ones who made it famous.
“People come for the ambiance.”
Comedians For Compensation
The comics had no choice but to get organized -- Mitzi’s hard-line stance united comics like Dreesen, Leno, George Miller, and Elayne Boosler. Initial meetings found the comics two-to-one in favor of getting paid. Something. Anything.
They named their group Comedians for Compensation (CFC). They weren’t employees so it wasn’t a union, but it was an organized effort. Attorney Mark Lonow (Letterman’s lawyer, recommended by Carson) agreed to help out, letting everyone know that at some point they‘d have to agree to work for free forever -- or walk out.
Could they stick together? Comics like Jimmie Walker and Robin Williams didn’t want to go up against Mitzi but they agreed not to cross a picket line.
One unlikely comic voiced his support in a telegram to Dreesen:
Dear Tom, So glad you’ve arrived. Have cue cards man who does great picket signs. Congratulations, and go get ’em
That was from Bob Hope.
Paul Mooney shared a similar message from another comedy icon:
To the comics of the newly formed comedy union, I write these words of support because I believe your cause to be just and wholly within the concept of management and labor. It is not only immoral to work for nothing, it is also illegal. Slavery was banned with the signing of the emancipation proclamation over one century ago. I believe it is within the artist’s rights and privileges to receive proper compensation for his or her efforts. I want you to know I would honor your picket lines if need be. I am sure that most fair-minded artists in the community would be supportive of you also.
With public support building, Mitzi finally agreed to pay -- but only the headliners. That idea was a no-go. After all, it was the newer comics who needed the cash.
More negotiations meant more dead ends. Dreesen woke up one night with a brilliant idea, one he couldn’t believe he hadn’t thought of before. He pitched it to Mitzi: Just add $1 to the cover and give it to the comics. It will cost you nothing!
“No, Tommy. Like I keep telling you, the Store is a workshop and in that environment, the comics don’t deserve to get paid.”
Tanks For The Memories
With picket signs bearing terrible jokes like “No Bucks No Yucks,” comics began picketing the Comedy Store. Comedians like George Carlin contributed to the strike fund. On the first night, Jay Leno even showed up in a tank. He was being funny but also sending a message: This means war.
Mitzi Shore couldn’t believe her children (and that’s absolutely how she saw “her” comics) were turning on her. She closed the Comedy Store for a week, then reopened with virtual amateurs playing to rooms that were only 25% full.
For the most part, the bigger names stayed off the picket line but that changed the night David Letterman decided to walk the picket line. The shock of seeing Letterman carrying a protest sign was enough to persuade Mitzi to make an offer: $25 per set except for Tuesday through Thursday nights, which would feature “beginners” who would work for free. Established names would get even more for playing the bigger rooms.
But the comics once again rejected the offer. No one works for free. More proposals went back and forth, but nothing worked for both sides.
So what finally brought about an agreement? It took Jay Leno getting hit by a car.
Biff Manard was a Mitzi loyalist, one of the few comics still performing at the club. One night, he made a speech to AFTRA to get the group’s support for Mitzi Shore, but saying “artists don’t deserve to get paid” didn’t go over well with an actors’ union. Knowing he’d blown it, he motored away from the meeting in a huff.
Manard drove like a demon back to the Comedy Store, screeched into the parking lot, and veered toward attorney Lonow and Jay Leno. The two jumped out of the way, but there was a loud THUMP and Leno crumpled to the pavement. Manard freaked out, running inside the club to confess his sin.
Leno for his part was moaning on the ground. Dreesen knelt next to him, afraid his pal was badly hurt. “Jay, can you hear me?”
Leno opened one eye and winked.
Lonow, thinking like an attorney, cautioned Dreesen not to let everyone in on the joke, not yet anyway, explaining that employers were liable when a picketer is injured on the line. The gambit worked, they had 'leverage' -- Mitzi found Dreesen immediately and said “Let’s settle this now.”
It took all night, but by 5 a.m., they had signed an agreement: Comics would get half the door in the Main Room, and $25 per set in other rooms. The funny folks were finally getting paid.
Nice Guys Do Finish Last
But it didn’t take long for the deal to crumble. The contract stipulated that Mitzi wouldn’t retaliate against the performers who’d organized the protests, but that’s exactly what she did. If you were on CFC’s executive committee -- even former headliners like Miller or Boosler -- time slots at the Store were no longer available.
For bigger comics, that was aggravating. For struggling comedians like Steve Lubetkin, it was career-threatening. Before the strike, Lubetkin felt like he was on the verge of headliner status. But now his mental state declined as he found himself blackballed and broke.
On Friday, June 1, at approximately 6:40 p.m., Lubetkin threw himself from the roof of an apartment building across the street from the Comedy Store.
Paramedics were unable to revive him. Police investigators found a handwritten note in his left hip pocket. The note began:
My name is Steve Lubetkin. I used to work at the Comedy Store. Maybe this will help to bring about fairness.
The note continues with words of love to his family and friends. Then he concluded:
To the CFC—I guess nice guys do finish last.
To the world—Fairness, fairness, fairness, please, before it’s too late.
To all comedians—Unite, it’s in your best interest.
No revenge, please, only love.
Bohemia Became Bottom Line
Even the Lubetkin tragedy didn’t end the struggles. More terms of the contract weren’t honored. As some comedians got paid more than others, the unity among performers fractured and a common goal wasn’t as easy to agree upon.
According to some comics, the protests ended L.A.’s golden era of comedian camaraderie.
”The strike changed Mitzi forever,” says the Comedy Store’s website. “The strike turned Mitzi into a driven businesswoman, and an era had passed into history, a happy-go-lucky partying era known as the late 70’s in Los Angeles. It would be business from now on. Bohemia became Bottom Line.”
But the comedians have no regrets.
“We had to have that negotiation,” says comic Byron Allen in Showtime’s documentary The Comedy Store. “And we achieved what we needed to achieve.”
“If you look around the United States now,” says Letterman, “there’s not a club where comics are working free.”
Top image: Sunlight Productions