Comedy Stop celebrates 25th anniversary in A.C.
A quarter century ago, when a quarter still qualified as a decent daily allowance for a kid, the Comedy Stop Café & Cabaret debuted on a winter night in a 150-seat venue near the Tropicana's main lobby. Successful beyond anybody's expectations, indubitably due to the refusal of its creator to cut corners, the club that would later take credit for launching the careers of some of the top comics in the country moved to a more modern and spacious section of the Trop in 2003 -- The Quarter.
Bob Kephart took a gamble that was risky even by Atlantic City standards back in 1983, opening the kind of club that was untested during a time of year when many other nightspots were completely inactive. Its opening-night sellout would serve as a forecast of what was to come, though, as the Comedy Stop has since earned the distinction of being the longest-running entertainment venue in Atlantic City's history. Whoever coined the comical phrase "age is like being increasingly punished for a crime you didn't commit," was not referring to the Comedy Stop Café & Cabaret.
|Comedy Stop owner Bob Kephart, at piano, along with some of the major talents who started out at his club.|
This Saturday, Aug. 30, a Silver Anniversary Show will pay homage to the Comedy Stop's 25 years in town at the Tropicana Showroom. Kephart and 11 of his top stand-up comedians, many of whom started with him in the tiny lounge they affectionately dubbed "the dungeon," will crack wise following the music of the 10-piece band Cheers.
"The main reason we've lasted 25 years in Atlantic City is because I do things a little differently," says Kephart, who lessened his personal nest egg by $3 million to move the Café into the gleaming, 300-seat site where it is today, and has owned the Comedy Stop Café in Las Vegas since 1990. "Most of the people who open for me headline in other clubs. My belief is, when the curtain goes up and the show starts, you shouldn't have to wait through two mediocre performers to get to the real show. I spend a little extra money to get the big bang from the beginning till the end."
Joe Mulligan is one of the anniversary show's 11 acts, and a comic who first performed at the A.C. Comedy Stop in 1988. He says that A.C. has a reputation for being a town that really tests the mettle of the stand-up comedian.
"Atlantic City is just a little bit different than most places," says Mulligan. "In most comedy clubs you've got about 30 seconds to establish yourself before the crowd decides yea or nay. In A.C. it's about 18 seconds. Maybe it's the number of big stars who come through here that generates higher expectations from the audience. But I guess with some 20 years of returns to the Comedy Stop, either the crowds like me or Bob Kephart gets a kick out of watching me eat it every time."
Tina Giorgi, who will also appear Aug. 30 and estimates she's done upward of 300 acts between both Trop locations, remembers her initial performance under Kephart being less than auspicious.
"It was in the old room and I thought I was going to get fired," she says. "I didn't think the crowd liked me very much. I remember Bob calling me over and asking me, 'How do you think you did?' He is famous for that question. I was too young and too green in the business to lie, so I said, 'I think I bombed.' He laughed and said, 'You'll learn.'
"There are not many club owners who believe that female comics can close a show," adds Giorgi. "Bob has always told me that I had the ability and the talent. He has always been straight with me about when he thought my choices on stage were positive or negative to the performance, and I am grateful that he took the time and gave me the opportunity."
Household names like Tim Allen, Rosie O'Donnell, Drew Carey, Richard Jeni, Lewis Black, Richard Lewis and many others were regulars at the Comedy Stop on their way up the ladder. One comedian who literally got his stand-up start at the A.C. Stop was Ray Romano, star of the multiple Emmy award-winning network comedy series Everybody Loves Raymond.
"We used to do a comedy search in the little room, and in one of those contests Ray Romano won," says Kephart. "That was his coming out, and I knew from the day I first heard him on stage -- and he was very green at the time -- that he was TV bound. The biggest mistake I ever made in my career was having the opportunity to be his manager and letting it go. I was never a Hollywood guy, and management is not my area of expertise, but if I had done it I could've retired and we wouldn't be having this show."
Butch Bradley, born in Atlantic City and raised in Margate, is one of the rising stars that Kephart says has the potential to make it to the top of the comedy hierarchy. Having just performed a string of acts at the A.C. Comedy Stop, Bradley will host the 25th Anniversary Show on Saturday.
"My mom [an original employee at A.C.'s first casino, Resorts, in 1978] brought me to see Don Rickles, Shecky Green, Rodney Dangerfield, Richard Jeni and many others, and when I got a little older I found I had this genuine love for comedy," says Bradley, 38. "I actually went to the Comedy Stop and sat in the back, and remember feeling terrified that somebody would find out that this is what I wanted to do. I remember watching Lewis Black on stage, sweat pouring down his cheeks, and thinking, 'That's what I want to do.'
"Bob gave me a big break," adds Bradley. "Once he started working me in A.C. and Vegas I just started getting so much better working with guys who were at a higher level, and it also gave me the confidence to move to L.A. I feel very proud that he asked me to host such a huge show in my hometown, and glad that the locals are going to get to enjoy it with me."
A.C. takes backstage to no one in terms of the top-shelf comedy talent it now brings in, and not just during the peak tourist season but all year long.
The moment Bob Kephart stepped into the small, non-descript room tucked away at the street level in the Tropicana, he wasn’t fooling around. He knew he was looking at the future of comedy in Atlantic City.
This year we were all fooled into believing spring would arrive early, or at least on time, but sometimes getting fooled can be a good thing, as is the case Monday night at the Tropicana’s Comedy Stop Café.
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