Can Chicago’s Laugh Factory roll with the punchlines?
By MIKE THOMAS Staff Reporterfirstname.lastname@example.org August 28, 2012 6:54PM
Jamie Masada owns the Laugh Factory, 3175 N. Broadway. It's finally having its grand opening six months after its soft launch in late February. | Rich Hein~Sun-Times
† Thursday through Sunday (show times vary)
† $25-$34 ($5 more at door)
† Sept. 6-8 (show times vary)
† $20-$30 ($5 more at door)
of the Month
† Starring several local female comics, including Megan Gailey and Denise Ramsden
† 8 p.m. Sept. 16
† Sept. 27-29 (show times vary)
† $25-$35 ($5 more at door)
Updated: September 30, 2012 6:13AM
When comics famous and obscure hold forth at the various branches of Jamie Masada’s World-Famous Laugh Factory — in Hollywood, Long Beach, Chicago and Las Vegas — the last things he wants to hear are clichés.
But the comedy industry veteran and often exuberant impresario (he’s a hugger whom recent Laugh Factory performer Kevin Nealon likened to “your uncle”) might be OK with this one: Better late than never.
After more than a year of extensive, expensive (as in, millions) and sporadically interrupted building — of rehabbing the century-old structure Laugh Factory inhabits in Lake View East, of assembling and reassembling a staff, of culling talent and corralling patrons — the Los Angeles-based institution’s local outpost at the corner of Belmont and Broadway rolls out a merely figurative red carpet Wednesday for its much-belated grand opening. Six months after it actually opened. (Sorry, the bash is invite-only).
“I think they’ve been holding back a little bit because they wanted to make sure that everything was right with the theater,” says Maureen Martino, executive director of the Lakeview East Chamber of Commerce.
Even in the absence of great fanfare, she says, businesses in the immediate vicinity have seen “a significant increase in their bottom line” on show days.
Debbie Smith, the manager at Wilde’s Bar and Restaurant (3130 N. Broadway), confirms that’s true to some degree for her establishment.
“Just being in the neighborhood, you see there’s a lot more people around going to and from the Laugh Factory, so it’s definitely a good impact.” Masada says other area eateries have sent him gifts as tokens of thanks.
Things finally got off to an auspicious start in late February, when internationally renowned comedian (and one of several Laugh Factory Chicago investors ) Russell Peters dropped by for a series of well-attended shows to help softly launch the mahogany-trimmed space.
Mostly, though — to employ another apt cliché — it’s been an uphill climb since day one.
From setbacks with contractors and failed city inspections to employee turnover (Masada dropped his first marketing director and is on his third publicist) and sparse crowds, the Laugh Factory’s local entrance has been somewhat less than graceful.
Masada, however, is no stranger to stumbling. His now-iconic L.A. spot — which opened in the late ’70s during what amounted to America’s high renaissance of comedy and was located near the already booming Comedy Store and Improv — took a couple of years to catch on. The early backing of superstars like Richard Pryor didn’t hurt, nor have cash infusions from longtime business partner Quincy Jones.
“It was very rough sometimes at the [Chicago] opening,” says Scott King, who performed and booked talent at Laugh Factory Chicago during its first months of operation. He’ll likely return before long to bust guts and run a weekly showcase. “I remember one time I literally did every show for the first two months, and on Monday or Tuesday there were one or two people in the crowd once in a while. I have never been more devastated. But [Jamie] put his arm around me and was like, ‘Hey, it’s OK, things are going to pick up. Don’t worry about it.’ ”
Even when there’s cause for worry, King says, Masada isn’t one to freak out. At least not publicly.
“He’s not going to have a breakdown and be wandering nude through the streets of Chicago. ... No matter what’s going on, he’s going to keep that smile on till he’s earned it.”
Putting more butts in seats isn’t simply a matter of booking more big-name talent, King thinks, though it’s helpful. Masada says he might do so “once every two weeks ... to spark, to get it going.”
Still, headliners or not, 375-plus seats are tough to fill consistently. In Laugh Factory’s case, Zanies Comedy Clubs Executive Vice President Bert Haas has an idea why.
“They have a 400-seat room that they’re booking like a 50-seat room,” says Haas, who has been a central figure in the Chicago comedy scene for three decades and who, by his own admission, has never seen a local Laugh Factory show. “They’re trying to fill it with new talent nights. Well, that’s not a sound business model.”
But Masada isn’t backing off his support of resident funnyfolks. He claims that “clever” and “inventive” marketing ploys are key. So is building word-of-mouth buzz. And for the most part, he claims not to feel stymied by the competition — which, besides Zanies, includes Up Comedy Club in Old Town and, to a lesser degree, the 400-seat Improv in Schaumburg.
Harvey-born comic Tom Dreesen, another Laugh Factory investor (he’ll emcee the grand opening) and Masada’s Chicago comedy consigliere of sorts, says he’d like to see more well-known names on the costly marquee. Ongoing neighborhood outreach is crucial as well, he has advised Masada, along with targeted e-mail blasts and social media promotion.
And perhaps this most of all: Letting go.
“Jamie has the problem that most people who’ve busted their ass to develop something [have]: They can’t give up authority,” Dreesen said. “It’s hard to let go of your baby. But you’ve got to let go. You’ve got to put people in there and hope they’ll do the best they can.”
Masada’s trying, though finding “the right people who think the way you think” and pass muster ethically “is going to take time.”
Above all, the avuncular hugger says, there must be passion.
“If you’re passionate, the reward comes.”