The Challenge of Making a Comedy Store Documentary From the Inside

Comedy Store director Mike Binder. Photo: Courtesy of Burt Binder

Two days before his five-part docuseries on the legendary Comedy Store is set to premiere on Showtime, Mike Binder is sitting outside an office park in Santa Monica, taking a break from editing the final episode. On a Zoom call, he looks a little ragged, but that’s understandable. He’s been working for two and a half years on the series, which tells the complicated story of what is arguably the most important comedy club in the world and a place that has played a huge role in his own life.

Binder moved to Los Angeles in the late ’70s, just after finishing high school and auditioned for the Store’s enigmatic owner, Mitzi Shore. She “passed” him immediately, and he became a Store fixture for a decade. He parlayed his stand-up experience into a career as a multi-hyphenate writer, director, and actor in films including Reign Over Me and The Upside of Anger, but this was his first crack at a documentary. “I didn’t realize how hard it was,” he says, laughing.

Binder thought his Comedy Store days were “long in the rearview mirror,” until he got an offer from Mike Tollin, executive producer of The Last Dance, and one of Mitzi’s sons, Peter Shore, who runs the club’s business side today. “I’d never done a documentary,” he says, “but I thought, That’s the right way to do this story.

The four episodes he’s finished are a wildly entertaining if thoroughly unconventional chronicle of the Store’s past. He interviews nearly every significant comic in the club’s history at length, including David Letterman, Jay Leno, Michael Keaton, Jim Carrey, Andrew Dice Clay, Marc Maron, Chris Rock, Bill Burr, Whitney Cummings, Joe Rogan, Nikki Glaser, and Mitzi’s son, Pauly Shore. Watching talented comics spin funny stories of their past misadventures is unsurprisingly engaging, even if comedy nerds may know a lot of this stuff from hearing it recounted on various podcasts over the years.

But Binder isn’t only the collector of these tales; he’s got many of his own. As such, he isn’t just telling this story — he’s a character in it. That can get knotty at times, especially as he covers some of the more contentious moments — like the 1979 strike the comics staged to compel Shore to pay them — and tries to put the Store’s wide-ranging and not always benign influence into context. He repeatedly plays the part of both interviewer and interviewee, and admits he wasn’t always comfortable with his role. “At first, I didn’t like the idea,” he says. “I showed some early cuts to Neal Brennan and he was like, ‘What are you doing? You’re making a fool of yourself.’ But then I thought, It’s got to be someone’s story. I’m just going to tell it the way I saw it.

I know Peter Shore brought this idea to you, but was Pauly involved from the beginning too? Because he gets a big chunk of time in the series, and you’re very nice to him.
No, Pauly was only involved in the sense that he was a comedian that I interviewed. But creatively, he isn’t involved at all. It’s just the Shore brothers that are involved because it’s their family’s business.

Why is he credited as a co-executive producer?
That’s a deal that those guys all made. Peter runs the business.

Peter and Pauly had a pretty public tug-of-war over control of the Store around 2009. Why’d you choose not to cover that?
Because I’m close with all three brothers. I was their babysitter. I just don’t want to air the family’s dirty laundry. They went through a long fight. They’ve worked it out. It’s done. It’s just business. It’s just money. Peter runs it. Pauly is a comedian. I don’t spend a lot of time on the Shore family at all. My focus is on stand-up comedy and Mitzi Shore’s effect on stand-up comedy.

It seems like you had to throw the idea of objectivity out the window from the beginning.
Yeah. I realized I knew too much. Especially for the first part, I was so ingrained in it; I was such a big part of it up until about 1989. Then, the second part, it was bizarre how much I didn’t know, how much a part of it I wasn’t. Then I became a real journalist, really getting in there and sussing out a story.

Which part did you find more difficult as a filmmaker: the part that you did know or the part that you didn’t?
Both. The parts I knew because so many of the people that I knew expected me to tell it their way. And for the new part, a lot of them were really skeptical: Who is this guy? Why is he telling this story? Why should I trust him to take care of this place that I cherish so much? Because the one thing I found is that every generation has this incredible love for the Comedy Store.

Was it hard to tell the story of the strike? Because you were there — you crossed the picket line and sided with Mitzi, and in the series, you say you regret it. 
I do. I was just a kid. Jay Leno was one of my best friends at the time. We’ve never been really close again. Leno was so bummed at me. And Tom Dreesen and Elayne Boosler, all those people hated me for a long time. But the worst part about it was I realized as I got older, you should back your friends. So it was a hard story to tell. I thought it was bizarre how fresh the wound is 40 years later to a lot of people. Even Leno. You could tell Leno has never been back to the Store. I’ll tell you a story I didn’t tell anybody: You know how [in the series] I take Leno and show him the blown-up photo of him on the wall? His blow-up hasn’t been on the wall because Mitzi never had it put back up. I didn’t want him to see that, so I had it done. I made such a big deal: “Is that blow-up ready? Jay’s coming.” And he didn’t even look at it. He just walked through the room.

Ultimately, the strike doesn’t get that much time in the series though.
The truth of the matter is, when I started this, it was four episodes and I went to Showtime and said, “I need eight episodes. I can’t do it in four. It’s too much. I’m moving too fast.” And they said, “No, do four.” Finally, they said, “Okay, five.” But ideally, I could’ve really done eight episodes.

Was that why you didn’t get into the story of the Improv burning down during the strike? Because the rumor going around back then was that two Store comics who crossed the picket line, Ollie Joe Prater and Biff Manard, might have torched the Improv to please Mitzi.
They didn’t. I can tell you for a fact they didn’t. But you’re right. The problem is the strike should have been a half-hour, 40. But if you knew Biff or Ollie Joe, if they’d done something like that, they’d have come back to Mitzi bragging. And if you knew anything about Mitzi, she would’ve turned around and called the police. Mitzi was not a gangster.

She was a polarizing character though. Even the people who loved her have always acknowledged that. What was your relationship with her like?
Well, listen, I had a falling out with her. I didn’t talk to her for years. I had done this HBO special in like ’85. George Carlin executive produced it, and she wanted to executive produce it. And I was like, “Mitzi, he’s my childhood idol.” My buddy, who was a doorman at the Store, was like, “You’re not gonna believe this, but I was told the next time you come in to throw you out. You’re not allowed here. You’re banned.” She took my neon light down. Took my name off the wall. Took all my pictures off the wall. To her credit, she called me later and said, “I overreacted. Just come back.” And I went back, but it was never the same.

By the same token, coming back and doing this thing, and seeing a lot of these guys that wait six, seven years to be regulars now, and realizing I came out here from Detroit knowing nobody, and the first time I went onstage, she made me a regular. She gave me a job. I was at her house for all the holiday dinners with her family. She cut off probably five or six years of struggling for me. She used her power for me to cut the line in a big way. She changed the destiny of my life. Then, eight years later, she said, “I want to be a producer. You got a big HBO deal. I want you to help me out.” And I said no. So maybe she was right and I was wrong. And I wasn’t the only one that did that. Everybody did that. She was asking all of us to help her get into producing at the time, and none of us would. We all had managers and agents that said Mitzi is a fucking club owner; she doesn’t know what she’s doing. She would shoot these horrible fucking specials at the Comedy Store. That was the reason we wouldn’t let her produce this stuff. But the truth is, I could’ve said to Carlin’s production company, “I want Mitzi to have a credit.” But I wasn’t savvy enough.

Comics’ relationship with Mitzi seems to mirror their relationships to the Store itself. Even those who love it acknowledge it could be a dark, fucked-up place. Mitzi is dead now, and hasn’t really run the Store in many years. Do you think it’s still a reflection of her?
Yeah. It’s odd. Iliza Shlesinger really pegged it the best. She said it’s like an abusive boyfriend: “Why do I keep going back?” The comedian Eleanor Kerrigan told me this amazing story: She was a waitress at the Store and Richard Pryor came back. He’s in a wheelchair. They carry him to the stage, but when he gets to the stage, all his energy comes back. He’s Richard again. It’s packed. Whoopi and Rock and [Eddie] Murphy are sitting on the floor watching. She’s trying to serve drinks and she’s got a martini for Richard that Jennifer Pryor gives her, but it’s water. She hands it to him and Richard goes, “See that waitress right there? She gave me a martini. It was water. She’s a bitch!” She goes, “Oh my God! Richard Pryor just called me a bitch in front of the audience at the Comedy Store. This is one of the best days of my life!” [Laughs.] That’s the difference between someone who gets the Comedy Store and someone who doesn’t.

In the series, when you recount the story of Andrew Dice Clay and the backlash he faced, you pretty much let him narrate it. Did you consider letting someone like Nora Dunn explain why people were upset with him back then?
Not right now. I don’t really care what they think at this point. Dice is a good friend of mine. And I think Dice is really relevant right now because they worked out cancel culture on Dice’s back. And he deserved it. Because you can’t just innocently say, “It’s a character. It’s a joke.” The flip side of it is, comedy is comedy. It was a time when America was figuring out how far the edge of the stage goes. But it’s not my place to answer those questions in this particular project.

The Store had a huge impact on the overall culture around comedy. And guys like Dice and Sam Kinison played a big part in creating a testosterone-heavy, boys’ club atmosphere. Now people are starting to reexamine that culture, especially as other comics, guys like Louis C.K., Chris D’Elia, Jeff Ross — all of whom have their own relationships with the Store — have faced questions around their treatment of women offstage.
That’s the big difference. To me that is everything, and I think it was everything to Mitzi. You should be able to say and do anything you want onstage. She didn’t have a problem with anything like that. What you do offstage, you’ve got to pay for that. As far as if someone’s in trouble offstage, every case is different, because a lot of these guys are going through these scandals that they haven’t been given due process for. They haven’t even been charged with anything. And they are Comedy Store people — people that have done a lot for the Comedy Store. So you can’t just say, “No, you’re not allowed at the Comedy Store because a bunch of people on Twitter are mad at you.”

If we’re going to laud the Store for its impact on comedy, don’t we also have to acknowledge the dark side of that too? Isn’t part of the Store’s legacy — the boys’ club atmosphere that has become such an issue in the comedy world?
Yeah. We deal a lot with that in the fifth episode. But there’s another thing the Comedy Store had that was 40 years ahead of its time. Mitzi was ahead of her time in terms of diversity. Long before anyone was using that word, thinking about that, Mitzi was making sure Black performers and gay performers and women had a stage. So they can complain all they want about the Store, but you know, funny has always spoken really loudly there.

The Challenge of Making a Comedy Store Doc From the Inside