It may not seem as devastating as Woodward & Lothrop’s demise, but a few blocks from the shuttered department store, another D.C. landmark is vanishing. After 18 years, the Comedy Cafe on K Street NW is giving stand-up the hook. Owner Dan Harris plans to bring in billiard tables and integrate the third-story space with his second-story club, Fanatics Sports Bar.
Having recently won a “Night Life of the Year” award from the Washington Restaurant Association, Harris believes that he was “only successful because I would never give up. I’m not giving up now, that’s not the right term.” He quotes Kenny Rogers: “You gotta know when to fold ’em.” By voluntarily bringing the ax down on yuks, Harris is simply recognizing the fact that the comedy club boom years are long gone. The business is in trouble with a capital “T,” which rhymes with “P,” which stands for “Pool.”
“Comedy is a lot of work,” says Harris wearily, reciting the procedure he has endured since 1977: “[Each] comic has a manager, a road manager, a PR agent, an agent for movies, an agent for comedy—millions of people. It’s very involved.” And after the contracts are signed, “acts have to be picked up in limousines….You have to take care of them like a rich, sick relative who comes in from out of town to determine if you’re gonna be in the will.” Harris chuckles at his analogy, then adds, “Most of them are very, very nice, very easy to get along with.”
The list of sick relations who have descended on the Cafe over the years is chronicled by a wall full of autographed 8-by-10 glossies that greet customers as they climb the stairs to the club. From the primordial Soupy Sales to an almost juvenile Jay Leno, it’s an impressive pantheon. “A lot of people started out here,” says Harris. “Leno was here three times. He was just a baby. No one knew who he was.” Jerry Seinfeld was booked once but canceled the day of the show, according to Harris. “He was scared an ex-girlfriend would do him bodily harm,” the club owner claims laughingly. Sounds like a Seinfeld episode.
About the only now-famous act not to play the Cafe was “the tool guy,” says Harris, momentarily forgetting Tim Allen’s name. The semifamous Jake Johannsen called to express regrets. “He was very saddened,” says Harris. “But he’s still gonna come visit. You become friends with these guys over the years. Fifty-two weekends, over 150 comedians a year coming here. They become part of your family.”
Andy Evans, a local stand-up who works nationally as “The Comedy Counselor,” considers himself a family member and the Cafe his home base. “I hate this club closing,” he says. Evans compares the Cafe to “a good jazz club,” praising the intimacy the 180-seat room offered. “You could see sweat coming off the comic’s brow. You don’t have to know if you’re bombing, you can just read the crowd’s eyes,” Evans says. “I don’t know what will work in big places unless I see how it goes in the little places.” Being able to share the “emotions of comedy” in such close quarters, Evans maintains, meant that if you could succeed at the Comedy Cafe, you could succeed anywhere. “It’s the best place for comics.”
Comedy Cafe also hosted one of the area’s principal open-mike nights every Wednesday, another loss for aspiring comedians and others with attention-demanding disorder. “You can’t go to the Improv and big clubs and say, ‘I want to go up and do some time,’” says Evans. The Comedy Cafe “was the only club in town that had that feel.”
John Johnson, general manager of the Improv, expresses regret at the closing, but contends that his venue will pick up many of the nationally-known-but-not-yet-sitcom-star-level-talent bookings that Harris specialized in. Chip Franklin, who books the Headliners chain, echoes those professional sentiments but admits to the “double-edged sword” of competition: “It kinda sucks to see another club close, but it will be good for me.” The open mike Franklin runs at the Bethesda Headliners may now become the first-choice option for stage-hungry stand-ups.
“I was sad at first,” Harris sighs, “but now I feel like a great weight is off my shoulders.” The club owner proudly reports, “I personally sat everyone who came to these shows,” adding, “it was the biggest stress in my life,” having to cater to upwards of 1,200 anxious smoking-or-nonsmoking, near-the-stage, away-from-the-stage patrons over a weekend. “It’s like having guests in your home. It’s a very stressful business.”
Harris plans to alleviate that stress with a trip to Fort Lauderdale to go boat shopping and then island-hopping. “I could never do that with comedy.”
Though Harris wanted a quiet transition, he bowed to his staff’s wishes. There will be a roast of Harris and the Cafe on Thursday, Dec. 14, and a final goodbye show, organized by Andy Evans, the following evening. “Let’s go out with a bang,” declares the enthusiastic comedian. Yes, and hopefully not a bomb.CP