In 1979, a group of comedians who worked the Comedy Store in Los Angeles banded together to try to force club owner Mitzi Shore to finally pay them for their stage time. In a bizarre bid to end the dispute, comedian Steve Lubetkin leaped to his death from the Hyatt House next door. Jamie Masada, then a 16-year-old Israeli immigrant and comedy hopeful, was part of the comedians’ movement, and Lubetkin’s suicide spurred him to try a new tack: Soon after the tragedy, Masada opened the Laugh Factory with the promise to pay comedians a respectable rate, and soon Masada’s venue became—along with the Comedy Store and Improv—one of L.A.’s most iconic comedy clubs.
On April 9, Masada officially took over Brad Garrett’s former space at the Tropicana, opening a new Laugh Factory outpost, complete with a Comedy Walk of Fame and Stand-Up Comedy Interactive Museum.
Why the Tropicana?
The Tropicana has [had] a lot of comedy [clubs] coming and going, but it doesn’t have an identity. I said it would be wonderful if we can give an identity to the Tropicana. Instead of a wake-up call, you get a joke. Some comedian gets on the phone and wakes you up with a joke.
So your idea is to make the Tropicana the comedy casino?
It could be. You just gave me a billion-dollar idea. When you sit down and start playing, the pit boss tells you a joke.
How did the Comedy Store strike lead to you founding the Laugh Factory?
After I saw Steve Lubetkin jump, I tore myself apart. I went to my friend [director/producer] Neal Israel and said I wanted to open a club. He said, “Well Jaime, you’re not old enough.” I said, “Well, I have an idea how to pay these comedians, so they don’t have to kill themselves. Whatever the money is from the door, I take half and I divide the other half among the comedians.” He said, “I’m going to lend you $10,000. I’m going to rent the place, and I’m going to put everything under my name until you pay me back. Then, when you become 21, I’ll put everything under your name.”
What was the environment like in 1979? Were comedians willing to take a chance on you as a 16-year-old kid?
A lot of times I’d put a Band-Aid on my face, and when people asked, “What did you do?” I said I cut myself shaving. But I was the luckiest person in the world, because on opening night, there was a guy named Falstaff and another guy named Paul Mooney. Falstaff was a wonderful guy, but he took some Quaaludes and passed out behind the stage. Mooney was nervous and drinking cheap wine. I said “Paul, come on,” and he wouldn’t go up. Some of the people in the audience were getting upset. I said, “Paul, you have to come up.” I pulled him on the stage, and he started screaming. “This little Mexican, this illegal alien, you should call immigration and deport him.” Then he said, “Ladies and gentlemen, my great friend, he’s coming here to serenade the club, because this is the only club that pays comedians. His name is Mr. Richard Pryor.” I said, “He’s joking.” Then I looked up, and Richard Pryor went onstage. I had tears in my eyes.
After [Pryor] finished, I tried to give him $3.55 for his half of the door. He said, “Are you kidding me, motherfucker? What’s wrong with you?” He took a $100 bill out of his pocket and wrote on it, “You need this for your rent, boy.” I still have it.
How has comedy changed in the last 30 years?
It used to be there were a lot of powerful people who ran the comedy business. I think today with YouTube, or with Louis C.K. selling his special—if he had to go to Comedy Central, maybe he’d make $10,000 or $15,000. Now he goes and sells his own DVD, and he makes $5 apiece, and he sold over 200,000. The power is changing. If you’re funny and people like you, the cream rises to the top very fast now.
With up-and-comers being discovered on YouTube, and guys at the upper reaches selling directly to their audience, where do you see the role of the comedy club now?
At the time television came out, they said people won’t go to movies anymore. But still, laughter is so catchy. You sit down with a bunch of people, and you’re laughing together. A lot of people go to jazz or blues [clubs]. I go to [comedy] clubs sometimes and just listen to the sound of laughter. I love that sound. I think one way or another the club is going to exist. Is it going to be as seminal as 20-30 years ago? No. But people still want to get together and enjoy themselves.
When people list the greatest comics of all time, they usually put Pryor and George Carlin one and two, either way. Do you have a preference between the two?
Carlin was brilliant, as smart as anyone. I remember one time when he came to the club, he said, “Jamie, I’m coming in. You’re feeding the homeless, and I want to help you out.” He came in Friday night, and I put his name on the marquee. The club was sold out. He took me upstairs and started screaming at me. “What the fuck is wrong with you? You put my name on the marquee, you fucking idiot.” “You told me you were coming,” I said. “What did I do wrong?” He said, “You dumb, stupid ass. If you don’t put my name on the marquee, you have 100 or 200 people in here. They see all of a sudden I’m coming on the stage, they’ll go tell 200-300 more people. Now these people in here, they’re my fans. They came in here to see me. They’re not going to tell anybody [about your club].” He was brilliant. He taught me a lot of stuff about how to market the club.