Published October 15, 2012
The Comic Strip is the most famous comedy club in New York City. Since opening its doors in 1976, the laugh lab has launched the careers of Jerry Seinfeld, Lisa Lampanelli, Ray Romano, Jim Gaffigan and Gilbert Gottfried, just to name a few. Now, a new book by longtime comedy writer Jeffrey Gurian is revealing some funny behind the scenes stories about some of the biggest names in comedy, back when nobody knew who they were.
Author of "Make 'Em Laugh: 35 Yyears of the Comic Strip, The Greatest Comedy Club of All Time!", Gurian chatted with FOX411 about the secrets behind the Strip's most famous friends.
FOX411: So how did you come to write this book?
Jeffrey Gurian: I have been writing comedy since I was 12. I wrote for Rodney Dangerfield and Joan Rivers. I've always been into comedy and I started performing myself a few years ago. One day in 2008, I was at the Comic Strip and I was coaching Ann Curry on how to do stand up comedy. I looked at the walls and looked at [owner] Richie Tienken and said we should do a book on the club. He saw that I had more pics on my walls than at the club, I have like a comedy museum in my house, and he agreed. In the end it took me four years there to get all the interviews in the book, and a year to edit because I transcribed it all myself. Most of the stars came to The Strip to do their interviews.
FOX411: Who is your favorite comic of the bunch?
Jeffrey Gurian: Gilbert Gottfried has always struck me. He's exactly what you see on TV, strangely enough. He has a wife, Dana, she's so sweet. He's so unique, he's always been that way. He came to the interview for the free lunch. I interviewed him at Pastis. He kept insisting that he'd never even been to The Comic Strip but that he heard they had great electricity. Gilbert started performing when he was 15. He had been performing at shows around New York and I used to drive him home. He lived with his mom in the projects on 28th Street, even when he was doing well. What people don't know is that he had a very serious surgery when he almost died. His appendix exploded, this was probably 20 years ago. He was near death. He's always been my favorite.
FOX411: In the book you say Ray Romano started under a different name. Why?
Jeffrey Gurian: Ray Romano started his career under the name Jackie Roberts. He did so for about three months until he bombed, experienced stage fright and went back to selling futons for two years. He started under that name because he auditioned for The Improv in New York and they could only let a certain number in. It was a lottery, so to double his chances, he brought a girl named Katie McCarthy and he told her to enter an androgynous name. Of course that was picked and he went on stage that night as Jackie Roberts and he passed the audition. He couldn't tell he lied about his name so he performed under it until he bombed. He stopped performing for two years and went back to delivering futons. During this time he delivered a futon to Larry David, who being Larry David, didn't like it and had Ray go get him another.
FOX411: Chris Rock got discovered at The Comic Strip by Eddie Murphy in 1986. What was the story behind that?
Jeffrey Gurian: That was by accident. Eddie wanted to see a black comic, and Chris was just 19 and setting up tables and chairs in exchange for stage time there. He had only performed in front of six people at 3 a.m. before then. He went up in front of Eddie and he killed it! It was the biggest night of his life, his idol was there waiting for him when he got off stage. Eddie gave him his number and two days later Chris called and Eddie took him to see Spike Lee's "Do The Right Thing."
FOX411: You write that Jim Gaffigan battled serious stage fright for eight years?
Jeffrey Gurian: Yes, to the point where he got physically ill. His only credit is that [fellow comic] Dave Attell thought he was funny. Jim auditioned several times to pass at the Comic Strip. Finally he was so determined he kept on working on his act. They told him "we have enough white comics," but he kept going.
FOX411: Colin Quinn had to quit his bartending job there in order to perform? Why was that?
Jeffrey Gurian: Colin had been a bartender there and had to quit because you weren't allowed to work there and perform in those days. People thought that he was funny and had encouraged him to perform. There was a rule then that you couldn't do both. So he quit to perform and he went on to be who he is today.
FOX411: Chris Rock's brother Tony Rock cried like a baby when he "passed" at the audition?
Jeffrey Gurian: Yes, Tony Rock literally cried on the corner with his cousin, comedian Sherrod Small, when they both passed The Comic Strip on the same night. Passing means you are given the club's number and you give your availabilities and they set up times for you to perform. Both were encouraged by Tony's brother Chris Rock to perform. Tony calls Chris "Chrissy." He was always so impressed with Chrissy. Tony said he and Sherrod made it on the same night in 1998 and they went out to the corner and cried. Tony said we cried like two little girls.
FOX411: You write in the book about Paul Reiser and Jerry Seinfeld having the same girlfriend?
Jeffrey Gurian: Paul describes how one minute he was dating comic Carol Leifer, and the next minute Jerry Seinfeld is dating Carol Leifer, and he never knew what happened. In 1977 he talked to Jerry and said "Let's put this behind us." They shook hands and that was the start of their annual New Year's Day brunch with Paul, Seinfeld, Mark Schiff, and Larry Miller. It's been going on over 30 years now, they have their brunch no matter where they are.