When you think of women in comedy, names like Lucille Ball, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Wanda Sykes, and Tig Notaro come to mind.
Ironically, one of the most influential women in comedy wasn’t even a comedian, writer or entertainment executive. Yet, Mitzi Shore was the driving force behind some of the biggest names in comedy like Robin Williams, Andy Kaufman, Garry Shandling and Elayne Boosler. In the world of comedy, Mitiz’s The Comedy Store was a rite of passage for up-and-coming talent.
Finding herself pregnant in 1950, while dating co-worker, Sammy Shore at a mid-west lake resort, Mitzi quickly married Sammy who was a fledgling comic. He took his act on the road and young Mitzi stayed at home to mother the four children they had in quick order. But Sammy’s long road trips and wandering eye made their union a bit difficult.
In 1972, Sammy bought a nightclub to use as a platform for his comedy act (Sammy’s most famous gig was opening for Elvis Presley.) More of a variety show venue, the club became The Comedy Store and both Sammy and Mitzi ran it together. Eventually, they divorced and Mitzi got the movie star mansion (once owned by actress Dorothy Lamour) they had shared and the nightclub.
After acquiring the club in 1974, Mitzi wanted to move away from the variety show acts and showcase comedians as legitimate entertainment. This was risky in the early 1970’s. But then, Johnny Carson moved from New York to Los Angeles, and The Comedy Store soon became the hot spot for young comics who wanted to break into the big-time. Success at Mitzi’s club made you a sure thing for a coveted spot on The Tonight Show.
Because Mitzi felt the world of comedy did not garner the respect it deserved, she filled that gap for many comics over the years. She often referred to the club as an artists’ colony, always available in her office or the club’s back booth to advise and encourage the young comics.
Still, a woman on the business side of the often-seamy night club world was unusual at the time.
But a coveted slot on one of her stages could turn an artist into a star. The comics worshipped Mitzi and would do just about anything to secure a performance slot.
A young Jim Carrey worked as a doorman at the club waiting for a chance to go on stage. David Letterman babysat Mitzi’s kids and Jay Leno, a new arrival from New York slept on the club stairs his first days in Los Angeles. Can you imagine what it must have been like to have Robin Williams and Richard Pryor hanging at Mitzi’s house after hours?
Many of those comics gave Mitzi respect for her unerring eye for talent. She would pay rents, host dinners, give loans, and offer advice and choice spots on her stage. But the one thing she wouldn’t do was pay them. If she did, they would be employees and her free-wheeling, bohemian environment would be ruined. Over time, the up and comers felt slighted when they saw the headliner acts getting paid, so in 1979 the comics famously picketed outside the club. They won the right to be paid, and Mitzi who felt the comics had betrayed her agreed to pay them.
Mitzi extended her tough love mentality even to her youngest son, Pauly Shore, who wanted a career in comedy. Mitzi gave him no favors and made him go to other clubs to get experience before she deemed him ready for her club. Nobody was above Mitzi’s treatment and methodology for “prime-time” readiness.
In the 1980’s comedy turned a bit darker with acts such as Sam Kinison and Andrew Dice Clay. Mitzi added two additional clubs including one at The Dunes in Las Vegas. The Comedy Store still attracted major names like Eddie Murphy, Richard Pryor and Whoopi Goldberg. In fact, Mitzi’s success was the impetus for franchising comedy clubs nationwide and her stable of comics soon thinned out because comics could perform in their hometown area clubs without having to travel to Los Angeles.
Comedy sitcoms hit new heights at this time with shows like The Cosby Show, Roseanne and Seinfeld. Getting a spot at The Comedy Club leading to a spot on Johnny Carson’s stage was replaced. Everyone wanted to be on television, which was the ultimate audience.
Mitzi was said to be personally hurt by her “kids” leaving her and famously didn’t stay in touch with her proteges once they succeeded. Perhaps, she felt like a stepping-stone after investing so much of her time and energy in these talented people. Or, maybe she simply moved on to the next fresh batch of comics.
It’s difficult to know for sure but, no doubt, Mitzi Shore will be remembered as a savvy and influential force in the world of comedy during one of its most prolific times. She reigned at The Comedy Store from 1972 until her death in 2018. Today, it is still a destination comedy club on the West coast and her sons, Peter and Pauly, have continued in her footsteps. There’s a sign in her office that captures Mitzi’s tough spirit,
“It’s a sin to encourage mediocre talent.”