It’s no secret that sometimes comedy is taken a bit too seriously. Comedy obsessives love not just the jokes, but the mechanics and emotions of the comedy world. There are a raft of comedy documentaries exploring comedy and comedians, but do they really have anything significant to add to the discussion? This series looks at comedy documentaries and whether they’re interesting, insightful, and possibly even…funny?
“I only hired crazy people,” says the owner of Brooklyn’s Crazy Country Club at the beginning of the new documentary Warm Beer Lousy Food (the title of the film comes from the club’s tagline.) With that anarchic mentality, the Crazy Country Club inadvertently became the first comedy club in the US.
Subtitled The Untold Story of America’s First Comedy Club and the Genius Behind It, the film focuses on the club’s owner and main attraction Lou Burdo, who founded the club in 1948. The ex-Navy Burdo had spent time working on Coney Island, and incorporated many of the sillier aspects of Coney Island into his new Brooklyn bar. It eventually evolved into a place with kitschy signs, hats falling from the ceiling and funny routines behind the bar to keep people drinking.
In time, Burdo and his employees moved past funny stunts to a planned stage show with song parodies and vaudevillian-style routines. But much of the humor came from interactions with the crowds, which resembled mini-roasts of customers. From their seats, patrons were made the centers of attention and ridicule. “Everybody there was abused,” one employee put it, “and they came for the abuse.”
Because it didn’t set out to be a comedy club, the Crazy Country Club had a completely different feel and vibe to a modern comedy venue. In some ways, it was a combination of a bar-performance establishment (like Coyote Ugly) and interactive theater (like Sleep No More). “Look who’s here!” one of the employees would shout when someone walked in. “Who gives a shit?” the crowd would roar back.
The humor was bawdy and a bit basic, with a preponderance of jokes about the various ethnicities to be found in the city – the crowd consisted mostly of locals from Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island. Press coverage at the time described the club as “like a Marx brothers movie,” saying, “instead of a doorman you get the Three Stooges”
At only 50 minutes, the film doesn’t quite develop a strong narrative, instead serving more as a loving portrait of the club and the men behind it. There are hints at the wider influence of the Crazy Country Club, but the film takes place almost entirely within those walls. For instance, the film mentions, but doesn’t explore deeply, the time spent by Andrew Silverstein, aka Andrew Dice Clay, at the club in the 1970s, and that owner Burdo took him under his wing, even writing some of what would become Clay’s famous nursery rhymes.
Warm Beer Lousy Food is clearly a personal story – one of the club’s employees, Steven Greenbaum, is father of the filmmaker Dena Greenbaum (as well as comedian Harrison Greenbaum). And it contains an impressive amount of old footage that makes the long-shuttered club feel alive, and gives a fantastic sense of the hilarious chaos that drew crowds week after week. And that alone makes the film worth watching, because never again could a place exist like the Crazy Country Club.
And so, in conclusion…
Is it interesting? Yes. Anyone interested in the history of comedy in New York will appreciate how forward-thinking the club was in the city’s comedy scene.
What does it have to say about comedy? Because comedy clubs didn’t exist, the Crazy Country Club made up the rules as it went along, always with the sole goal of entertaining the audience however they could. Lou Burdo, as both headliner and club owner, wasn’t trying to make a name for himself or move beyond this club. He just wanted his regulars to return, weekend after weekend.
Is it funny? Even in his later years, Burdo is funny and incredibly sharp in his interviews. Not all of the footage from the club translates today (the emphasis on ethnic humor in particular feels old-fashioned), but the performers at the Crazy Country Club clearly knew their audience.
Any comedy documentaries you’d like to see discussed? Do let me know.
Elise Czajkowski is a freelance journalist in New York City.