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Photo ©Copyright 2020 Jason Chatfield

R.I.P. Dangerfields: The oldest comedy club in the world. (1969–2020)

It may have been a bit of a shithole, but it was my shithole.

No Respect, I tell ya.

October 14, 2020

When I moved to New York 6 years ago, I had a notebook with 7 years worth of jokes in it that I’d been performing in Australia. None of them worked in New York. I flushed my notebook down the toilet at the Ludlow Hotel, blocked the toilet and fled as the water rose and flooded the bathroom. A worthy death for a such tired, dreadful material.

Over the following 3 years, I went out every night of the week, did 3–4 spots each night and worked up a new hour of material (ok, 35 minutes of actually decent material, 25 minutes of B and C-grade material.)

I got a manager, an agent, started booking casinos, clubs and doing TV commercials and shows. It was a lot of work, and it didn’t once feel like it. I loved every minute of going out there and building an act.

Auditioning to get ‘passed’ at clubs was nerve-wracking, but I managed to get my foot in the door at a few ground-level places to cut my teeth at some late-night spots. (Getting passed is getting approved to be put on their regular roster of comics. You send in your avails to the booker each week and they give you times/shows that you’ll be on that week. The hardest club to get passed at is The Comedy Cellar; the best club in New York.)

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The first club I got ‘passed’ at was called LOL. It wasn’t so much a comedy club as a converted sex dungeon in Times Square with a cheap vinyl banner that said ‘LOL STANDUP COMEDY’ on it. It had two separate rooms inside running concurrent shows every night, filled with people from the mid-west who, 15 minutes earlier, had been told they were about to see Chris Rock, Louis CK and Tina Fey (not a stand-up comic).

As you can imagine, by the time my schlubby face got up on stage, they had realised how badly they’d been screwed and every night there were people asking for their money back. One time the booker got punched in the face by an angry punter.

I would perform there 2–3 nights a week, sometimes 3 or 4 shows in a night, 10–15 minutes apiece. Sometimes I’d be hosting, other times I’d close out the show. We’d do shows every night. In 100 degrees or in the middle of a blizzard. Working that club taught me to deal with hostile audiences and how to digest uncooked hotdogs. Before long, new management came in and I was turfed out the door along with a swag of other comics who had been working there since it opened.

It was at that point a booker I was working with at Broadway Comedy Club put me up to audition for Dangerfields. He’d been producing outside shows for both clubs and threw me up with a few other comics for consideration. I passed.

Within a month I was performing there 2–3 times a week, and booking road gigs at Casinos through their management company. It was my new home club.

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Photo ©Copyright 2020 Jason Chatfield

The first night I set foot in Dangerfields I felt like I’d been sucked into a time machine. The red velvet curtains, the old carpet, the front bar with overpriced drinks, the dumbwaiter. It had everything you’d expect an old storied comedy club from the sixties to have, and then some.

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Photo © Copyright 2020, Jason Chatfield

The club is obviously named after comedian Rodney Dangerfield and was founded by Rodney and his long-time friend Anthony “Tony” Bevacqua, who still ran and operated the club until today. I remember Tony telling me Rodney lived upstairs at one point. Tony was years ahead of the pandemic; he’d prefer a fist-bump to a handshake on account of the grubby hands of the average comic. If he was at the bar when you showed up, he was always polite and quietly friendly.

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It was the world’s longest-running comedy club.

Back when this club opened in 1969, comics would perform in bars, strip clubs and music venues. There was no such thing as ‘comedy’ clubs, rather ‘clubs that had comedy nights.’

The club opened on September 29, 1969. The Comedy Store in LA opened 3 years later. Kenny Burrell, Thelma Houston, and Rodney Dangerfield performed on the opening night, while Milton Berle, Ed McMahon, Joan Rivers, and David Frost were in the audience. It became a comedy institution and went on to be considered a place for ‘pros’ to work out.

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Steve Martin, Rodney Dangerfield, Robert Klein.

Only headliners would perform at Dangerfields, with no amateur or open mic nights. Performers over the years included George Carlin, Jay Leno, Tim Allen, Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock, Jim Carrey, Andrew Dice Clay, Dom Irrera, Roseanne Barr, Bill Hicks, Sam Kinison, Bob Nelson, Robert Schimmel and Jeff Foxworthy.

Jay Leno lived in the back office for a summer before he took over the Tonight Show, and it was the location of Seinfeld’s first TV appearance.

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The club was home to HBO comedy specials Rodney Dangerfield put on to showcase young comedians and recently featured in Joaquin Phoenix’ The Joker. (above)

Glamourous history aside, the club definitely felt like it was stuck in a bygone era. The location wasn’t great; it was at 61st and 1st Ave, nowhere near a subway line. There wasn’t a lot of foot traffic in the area except for a few locals going to their bodega, so there weren’t many walk-ins. There wasn’t much of an effort to do any big marketing pushes, so by the time I was playing there each week, we were lucky to have 12 people sitting down before we started the show.

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Photo ©Copyright 2020 Jason Chatfield

…But when we did Saturday night shows, they packed that room out. It felt amazing. The red lamps, the velvet lounges, the baby grand on stage… there was nothing like it. It was the only club where I could regularly get up and do 25–30 minutes; ample time to sneak some new material into each set to try it out.

I once performed to a bunch of kids who had decided on Dangerfields for their ‘afterparty’ from Prom. They’d all arrived in a cheap limo and sucked down Shirley Temples until their heads exploded.

I did the same for a bar mitzvah the following night. One time they had a pianist on stage, sitting at the baby grand playing comics on and off… and I managed to improvise a duet about the guy in the back row from New Jersey who wouldn’t stop yelling out “Make America Great Again!”

One hot summery Saturday I rode from Brooklyn to the club on a bike. I turned up sweating profusely and wearing shorts. When I finished my set, Ryan Reiss rightly lambasted me for wearing shorts on stage. It’s true… Even in the middle of summer, it’s still not okay to wear shorts on stage. A lesson every comic should learn.

I bombed. I killed. I did okay. I did every kind of set you can imagine at this club. I once stayed up there so long I ran out of material and started improvising a new act out of pure desperation (the next comic hadn’t shown up yet and I was padding for 45 minutes. You learn a lot from sets like that.

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Christmas Day. Because where else would you want to be? (Me (left), Vince Chang (Right)

One Sunday night I invited MAD Magazine’s Art Director, Sam Viviano and award-winning comic strip cartoonist Rick Kirkman to come to a show. “It’ll be fun!”, I said. They ended up making up 66.6% of the audience.
Sundays were quiet.

My set was basically me talking to them as if we were back at the bar… and one other guy from Pittsburgh who had fallen asleep into his $27 cheeseburger.

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Click to read article.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the inimitable Chario Antonio. The 77-year-old waiter who has worked at Dangerfield’s since 1970 (seen above). Chario fancied himself a bit of a comedian himself. Once in a while, he’d jump up on stage between comics and tell some wildly off-colour jokes that would have made people blush back in 1970, but he was part of the furniture. The room wouldn’t feel the same without him.

He would often cross in front of stage during your act, blocking the audience’s view of the comic. Once in a while someone would say, “Hey! Down in front!” to which I’d respond, “Wait… can you guys see him, too!?”

I’d call Chario the Ghost of Dangerfields. He would often turn around, flip me the bird and say “Aaah, goh fack yoself, you pizzosheet.”

He was a lot of fun.

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Chario (Left), Wall (Right). Photo ©Copyright 2020 Jason Chatfield

Chario’s grumpy demeanour would crack if you asked him to tell you a terrible long-winded joke (and if you stuck around for the punchline). He’d often tell me the same joke about Australia (hint: the punchline had something to do with someone going ‘down-under’.) — but I’d still laugh every time because of the way he told it in his thick Greek accent.

He had a mouth like a sailor and the heart of a comic. I worry about how he’ll spend his days now that the club has gone tits-up.

The business was so old, they still paid every comic by check. Even if it was only a quick $25 spot, it would be handed to you on an old check, paid by Rodney Dangerfield inc. I kept my first paycheck from 4 years ago:

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Every night I’d show up, they’d have my goofy headshot from 4 years ago pinned to the corkboard, surrounded by framed pictures of every successful comic who’d ever played there over the past 50 years. (It was a stark contrast!)
I’d prop up the bar ’til it was my time to jump up, and more times than not I’d stick around to talk shop with the other comics and then see who was closing the show (comics would often show up moments before they were to go on stage.)

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Dante Nero doing some crowd. Photo ©Copyright 2020 Jason Chatfield

A trip downstairs to the bathrooms was a trip back in time to the glory days of Rodney Dangerfield and his ilk. Photos and posters up from his movies, tv-appearances and promotional photos. There was an ATM from the cretaceous period still glued to the wall. The tiles in the bathroom were the same ones they’d laid before the club opened in ’69. My grandparents had the same ones in their house.

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When COVID crippled the city in March, every gig in my calendar dried up. I was due to perform at Caroline's in April which I was really excited about, but alas, it, along with every other comedy club has been hit hard by the shut-down. I don’t know when or if they’ll open again.

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New Years Day… A gig I always knew I’d have each year.

When I woke this morning to see that Dangerfields was now closing after 50 years, I’d be lying if I told you I didn’t feel a twinge of disappointment. It was the place I learned a lot about being a comic, grew my act, and spent a lot of nights watching the best and worst of the industry. I’d spend Christmas day there every year… and New Years Day… and any other night when a comic pulled out last minute and they’d call me as a backup.

By the end, it was a bit of a shithole, but it was my shithole.

Footnote: I’ve just found out that while I was offline sick with COVID-19 I’d missed the news that Chario passed away on April 2nd.

Jason is a cartoonist and comedian based in New York.

New York-based Australian Comedian & Cartoonist for the New Yorker. Obsessed with Productivity Hacks, the Creative Process, and the Oxford Comma.

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