When my father was still alive, I’d always resisted running the Comedy Cellar, which was the club he’d started in 1980. I went to an Ivy League law school and worked at a firm in Los Angeles for a few months. Its big selling point was that after seven years as partner you got a one-year sabbatical to do whatever you wanted. I grew up in a house where my father always did what he wanted, and by then I just wanted to play music. So I quit being a lawyer.
My father was a musician and nightclub owner. He opened his first place in 1960, a coffee shop on the outskirts of Greenwich Village in New York. He and his friends played there informally and other musicians hung out too. One of them was Bob Dylan – my father knew him but he never had high regard for him. After Dylan became famous, my father had a hard time believing it, to be honest.
In 1969 my dad opened a restaurant on MacDougal Street in the Village. It had a basement that had nothing going on, so he tried a nightclub, piano bar and folk bar. In 1980, a comedian called Bill Grundfest said, “I’ll bring comedians – you take the bar, I’ll take the door.” That was the start of the Comedy Cellar. It’s where Jon Stewart and Ray Romano were discovered. When Bill left in 1987, my father got more involved, but it was still small potatoes – sometimes they got the waitresses to sit at tables to make it look like there was an audience.
Meanwhile I took over from my father in his band that worked in another club he had opened, the Feenjon. I renamed the room the Café Wha, which it was famous as in the 1960s, and it was a huge success. Then my father got sick in October 2003. He had lung cancer and was dead by the end of December. He left the Comedy Cellar to me and his widow. At the time I was immersed in the Café Wha and wasn’t interested in the Comedy Cellar. His widow ran it for a few years, but she got burnout, so I sold the Café Wha and bought her share. I now have a huge mortgage.
I trod lightly at first. I didn’t want to come across as this guy who inherited a comedy club and was trying to fill his father’s shoes. But the reaction was the opposite – the comedians wondered why I wasn’t sitting at the table with them like my father did. I think they like a civilian to kind of host things. Now my function is to glue conversation together, and if a big star comes in, I make sure nobody bothers them. Sometimes though I introduce young comedians to the famous ones – the young comics get timid.
With the famous comedians my relationship level varies: I know Dave Chappelle very well; I’ve known Chris Rock all along, but we’re not really friends and he’s shy; with people like Robin Williams I don’t know him at all, but I sit at the table with him; and Louis C.K. has been here for years, so I can argue politics with him. Louis has been very generous with us since he became famous, so the real problem is letting him know I appreciate it without fawning over him.
That’s the great part of owning the Cellar – hanging out with the comedians. I don’t think my father was really interested in the club until he started socialising with the comedians. That’s what he loved about it. It’s no sacrifice taking over.
That’s not to say there aren’t difficulties. Sometimes comedians abuse their privileges – with waitresses or getting drunk. And sometimes they behave badly on stage. Recently a comedian called a woman in the audience an offensive word. Her husband hit him – you shouldn’t hit somebody, but it’s a predictable outcome – and the comedian gave the guy a black eye. Then the audience member ended up being arrested. The thing is, I have no control over what comedians do on stage, but the first person who’s going to get a lawsuit is me.