'The Comedy Store': TV Review

THE COMEDY STORE
Courtesy of SHOWTIME
Candid interviews and tremendous clips cover for some glaring omissions.
10/4/2020

Mike Binder's five-part Showtime docuseries about Hollywood's legendary Comedy Store features interviews with David Letterman, Jim Carrey and other stand-up icons.

A couple years ago, Showtime aired the period drama I'm Dying Up Here, loosely based on the '70s peak of the Comedy Store in Hollywood. Handsomely produced and full of fun performances and impersonations, the series was often quite good, but it was canceled back in 2018.

More than two years later, Showtime is premiering the five-part docuseries The Comedy Store, explicitly based on the '70s peak (and subsequent 40-year roller coaster) of the Comedy Store in Hollywood. Telling many of the same stories and featuring commentary from I'm Dying Up Here stars like Andrew Santino and Erik Griffin, as well as executive producer Jim Carrey, The Comedy Store occasionally feels like a companion film to a show that no longer exists. But thanks to director Mike Binder's personal investment and access, it's sure to impress stand-up devotees, especially those so blinded by that devotion that they're willing to look past a lot of unquestioning hero worship and minimizing of complications. It's a five-hour commercial for The Comedy Store, but darned if it isn't funny and entertaining.

Binder came out to Hollywood in the mid-'70s as an aspiring teenage stand-up comic and achieved enough success to be at least tangential to an unprecedented rise of stand-up legends over multiple generations, starting with folks like Freddie Prinze, Richard Pryor, Jay Leno and David Letterman. Binder then transitioned to become a fairly prolific writer and director of heart-on-their-sleeve dramedies from Indian Summer (which I like quite a bit) to The Upside of Anger and Reign Over Me.

The reality is that Binder is probably one of the least funny people in The Comedy Store, which surely isn't an insult for a documentary that features extended interviews with, among other luminaries (just working in alphabetical order here), Tim Allen, Sandra Bernhard, Bill Burr, Jim Carrey, Whitney Cummings, Andrew Dice Clay, Whoopi Goldberg, Michael Keaton, Bobby Lee, Jay Leno, David Letterman, Howie Mandel, Marc Maron, Chris Rock, Paul Rodriguez, Joe Rogan, Yakov Smirnoff, Jimmie Walker and John Witherspoon. Those are just some of the big names, and the big names represent only a small part of what The Comedy Store is about, because Binder is just as enamored of crucial early figures like Tom Dreesen and so-called comics' comics like Brian Holtzman. This isn't a documentary that dwells exclusively on folks who became breakout, global superstars.

Of course, the path to global superstardom is one of the things that's very much on Binder's mind and it's largely that path that structures the four episodes sent to critics. It's a pipeline that started with getting a sign-off from the Comedy Store's legendary operator Mitzi Shore to appearances on The Tonight Show back in its Johnny Carson days to an obligatory sitcom deal in the '80s and '90s to our current preoccupation with podcasts as a vehicle to give fans unfiltered access to their favorite comics.

The podcast boom is central particularly to the fourth episode, which gives Joe Rogan the sort of adulation and rhapsodic exposure that might even make a Kardashian blush. But it's part of the spine of each episode as Binder sits down for storytelling sessions on podcasts orchestrated by Maron, Burr and Cummings.

Binder's contribution here is both behind the camera and very much on-camera, and his presence is a decidedly mixed blessing. To start with the generous take, there are people who are present and having these conversations completely because of their comfort with Binder — and it isn't just the more voluble comics who are professionally glib and chatty. There is so much pleasure in watching the notoriously prickly Letterman — unexpected bursts like Letterman's relaxed admiration for Leno's stage genius at that time and wonderful exchanges like Letterman desperately trying to stop Binder from directly repeating one of the Late Show legend's own bits. If you're a stand-up junkie, you'll love how many of these comics sometimes don't even remember their most iconic gags from decades past. Any time somebody doesn't quite recall or can't put together the careful construction of a joke, the archival footage of performances from all of the Comedy Store stages is remarkable.

But Binder can't always get out of his own way, and that's been a hallmark of his features as well. He's a man unashamed of pushing buttons long after the honest reaction has past. For example, Carl Labove is telling the story of Sam Kinison's death and it's beyond astonishing. Labove, brilliantly funny in his own right, recalls his friend's early end with a series of gut-punches and twists and Binder is simply incapable of letting the story play out without lathering the soundtrack with an over-amped recording of "Patience," just one of several music selections that veer somewhere between "over-obvious" and "excruciatingly mawkish." Joe Rogan crying about Mitzi Shore as a cover of "The Boxer" plays, continuing over a montage of Rogan being surrounded by friends as the climax to a 10-minute segment celebrating Rogan and his courageous triumph over the joke-stealing villainy of Carlos Mencia, is especially bad. Generally, Binder is eager to pump up his friends and to pump up himself, right down to name-drops and clips from his own movies.

It shouldn't be surprising, mind you, that The Comedy Store is primarily a love letter. Several of Shore's kids are prominent executive producers, including Pauly, whose deification in the third episode climaxes with Binder's unreserved excitement for a recent Pauly Shore movie (the first time that phrase has been written since 1996, probably). Current Comedy Store talent coordinator Adam Eget is also an executive producer and then is repeatedly presented as the man most responsible for rescuing the venue from the so-called "Dark Days" of 1994 to 2012, an impressively long fallow period that seems to be blamed on Eddie Griffin (commandeering the stage for four-hour improvised sets) and Carlos Mencia.

The documentary isn't blind to many of the ugly sides of the story. The talk of sex, drugs and comic feuds is relatively unflinching, but such things are usually presented in the context of cautionary tales, from Prinze to Kinison. It's interesting that I'm Dying Up Here actually did a much better job of looking at how racism and sexism impacted the day-to-day operations at The Comedy Store. A decision to downplay institutional toxicity may explain why figures like Jeff Ross and Chris D'Elia are seen in passing, but not featured. Then again, there's Louis C.K. just sitting there in a new interview with Binder that couldn't be more generic and less interested in addressing the elephant masturbating in the room. It's bizarre.

Or maybe that will all come up in the fifth episode that critics haven't seen? I don't think there's anything left for Binder to get to in the timeline, but there are plenty of scandals and people still to be addressed. Whether that last hour goes dark and nuanced and smooths out the gaps Binder is previously ducking or it's just another treasure trove of clips and solid interviews remains to be seen.

Airs Sundays at 10 p.m. ET/PT on Showtime starting October 4.