Sadly, we've recently experienced some endings that make it feel as if a comedy era has come to a close. On a national level, many (including myself) felt great sadness with the recent passing of Johnny Carson. I think most comics, however, first felt this ache back when Carson retired, because they knew they wouldn't have the major life high of being seen by him (and, hopefully, being beckoned over for a handshake or offered a seat on his famous couch). Luckily, there are still late-night-show bookings to strive for, but there will never be anything like that first "okay" hand signal from Johnny. His passing is a reminder to go back and take a look at his great sketch characters, timing, and especially his ability to recover when a bit wasn't working. NYC's Museum of Television and Radio (www.mtr.org) is a good place to start.
Speaking of the end of an era, performing as part of "Eating It" at Luna Lounge (produced by Jeff Singer and Naomi Steinberg) has been a goal of most NYC comics since the show began over eight years ago. After nearly 300 shows, they are losing their current home location at Luna—but not to worry. As one era ends, this time, thankfully, a new one begins. On Feb. 28 at 8 pm, "Eating It" moved to a new monthly (instead of weekly) Monday time slot at the Zipper Theater in NYC. And now all you 18-to-21-year-olds will also be allowed to see the show. I'll have more details in my next column; in the meantime, visit www.eatingit.com to keep posted.
Another important era in comedy ended recently when Lucien Hold lost his long battle with scleroderma at the age of 57. While most press blurbs concerning his death listed him as the owner of the Comic Strip in NYC, many of us involved in comedy also respected him for his role as the club's talent coordinator. His eye for talent when booking for the club, and for his own management company (the Holding Company), could not be beat. Many major industry nights, showcases, and festival auditions chose his venue as their NYC home.
Getting "passed by Lucien" was one of the main business goals and reach-for-the-stars dreams for most of the thousands of comics I've worked with or written about, both in the '90s, when I was the talent booking manager and publicist for the Duplex in NYC, and now, as I write about comics and comedy clubs. As Jerry Seinfeld once told columnist Liz Smith, "When you are a kid starting out as a stand-up comic, you don't dream about the cover of Time magazine. You dream about the 9 o'clock spot on Saturday night at the Comic Strip."
So what was being "passed" at the Strip about? Comics would line up around the block, no matter if it was raining or snowing, just for the chance to be part of the Strip's famous lottery and for a five-minute audition in front of Lucien Hold. Typically, there was one held in winter and one in summer. (If you call the club, they'll give you the exact dates, as this will still be how they continue to find new talent.) At 6 pm, the doors opened and each person picked a number at random. That number was also an audition date, taking place on a Monday over the next six months. I've heard lots of passing and failing stories. That's how I first learned about Hold when I started booking comedy. He was the first person I called for advice then, as well as the first talent booker I asked to be a comedy panelist and resource for Back Stage when I started writing this column. He was always a class act and never too busy to answer my questions. This was especially impressive to me because his club could gain little from this column in advance publicity, as he booked performers very close to the night of their sets (instead of weeks before, as many other clubs do). This made it impossible for me to write about his club's shows in advance, since I often have to hand in columns weeks before they run. Instead, I wrote after the fact about the many wonderful industry showcases that happened at the Comic Strip. I always came away with at least one new performer I wanted to tell you about; sometimes it was five, 10, or more. If you've never experienced the Comic Strip, you can visit www.comicstriplive.com to read my profile of the club, which it features on its home page.
Hold's reputation among those he passed was as a mentor and friend; for the many more who listened to his advice and observations (usually delivered in a booth in the front bar), he was a tough but fair booker. Some comics have told me how, if there was someone important in the industry who wanted to see them ASAP, Hold would let them have a spot at the last minute, even if they weren't in his regular booking rotation (and occasionally even before they'd been passed). Sure, you will also find some comics with a different "Lucien story," those who weren't passed and felt they weren't treated fairly, or passed comics who felt they weren't booked enough. Some of these stories are from very talented performers; they just didn't fit what Hold was looking for. But you don't last 28 years and develop as good a rep and as many comedy stars as Hold did without there being many more positive than negative stories.
The most well-known story is how Chris Rock was given a spot (even before he had been officially passed) so that he could be seen at the club by Eddie Murphy (who was also originally nurtured at the Strip). Rock feels so strongly about the club's early support that he stipulated that his major press and "60 Minutes" interviews be done at the Comic Strip. I mention Rock because his story is an example that illustrates the best advice Hold ever gave me. Hold felt that a booker shouldn't just get caught up in the excitement of how talented a comic is. You also have to consider whether that performer makes you believe that when everything is on the line, he or she can consistently deliver, be it the check spot in the last show, a dead night working for five people, or a packed industry or press night. Many talented comics can't give you that consistency (and it can break a booker's heart and spirit to watch the self-destructive supertalents who can't). Hold knew that Rock would deliver for him. So now I'll ask you: Can you deliver no matter what, and do it in five minutes of material? If not, there's your goal for 2005. I am truly sad for each of you who will not be able to have being "passed by Lucien" as a future goal and dream. And I hope those of you who were passed will honor Hold's memory by sharing what you learned from him.