Cheers! Even though you’re technically only half Chicagoan…
What do you mean I’m half Chicagoan?
You live here but also in L.A. near the original Laugh Factory on Sunset Boulevard.
Well, I want to meet the rest of Chicago. Let me ask you a question, are both of you available? I need another half of Chicago! [Laughs] By the way, you said, “Cheers,” but in my language I say, “L’chaim!” meaning, “To your life!”
In that case, l’chaim! It’s an honor sit with you in front of such an iconic stage. How did this all come about?
When I was a kid, [The Comedy Store] strike of 1979 was going on and one of the guys during the strike had jumped out of the Hyatt House and killed himself. I told myself then I wanted to be the first club to be able to pay the comedian. Comedians weren’t getting paid before that. I used to perform when I was 15 years old and in return they would give me a cigarette. I don’t even smoke cigarettes! The next thing you know I said, “What can I do? How can I do something?” So I went to a friend that I had met, Neal Isreal, and said, “Neal, can I borrow some money? I want to open a club.” He said, “Why do you want to open a club?” I explained that I had came up with an idea for how to get comedians paid properly and he asked how I would do that. I said, “Well, it’s easy. I want to give half of the door and divide it between all of the comedians and [the other] half the comedy club picks up because comedy clubs make their money from the drinks.” He said, “That’s a genius idea! How come nobody has came up with that?” I said, “Hey! That’s why you call me genius!”
This all came to you at the age of 15?
Yes, and I’ll drink to that! After I came up with the idea he asked if I had a location. I said I had a location on Sunset [Boulevard] and he asked how much I needed. I told him I needed to borrow around a couple thousand dollars. He found out the rent was $1,800 a month and said, “How will you open up a club with only a couple thousand dollars? They want first and last month’s rent. Here, I’m going to lend you $10,000.” He knew I was a young person so he said, “I’m going to put everything under my name and when you turn 21 I’ll give you everything back.” Then he said, “First, come up with a name. If you come up with a name that I like, I will do it.” So I came up with the name Yolks and Jokes. It was a place where you could go and get some omelets and scrambled eggs and listen to some jokes. He didn’t like it. I said, “Listen, we can franchise it all over the world. Everybody likes eggs, everybody likes jokes!” But he said no.
What led you to name it Laugh Factory?
It was 3 o’clock in the morning. I remember it was raining and I was walking around the building thinking, “I have got to come up with a name for this building!” I kept saying, “Groucho Marx, Groucho Marx.” I thought about how Groucho Marx made millions of people laugh and this was his building. The next thing you know I said, “This is a factory making people laugh,” and I’m standing out there and I’m looking up as the rain is coming down on my face and I remember saying, “Laugh Factory,” and that is how the Laugh Factory was born.
Were you nervous on the first night you opened your doors?
I was on edge in the beginning of the night because one of the comedians was stoned out of his mind and the second comic came in and he was a little bit drunk. Then Paul Mooney went on and afterwards it became full of friendliness, Richard Pryor went on and people were screaming and laughing and I thought, “Oh my God, this is just the best time.” Everybody was laughing and I had a great time.
What other memories stand out from that very first night?
I didn’t have a liquor license. I was serving 7-Up and Coke and I would take 7-Up and give it to people and charge 50 cents. They would give me a dollar and say, “Keep the dollar.” I remember thinking, “Oh my God! I’m making a lot of money!” Richard performed about 40 minutes and after he came off the stage I wanted to pay him $3 and some odd cents and Richard put his hand in his pocket and brought out a $100 bill and wrote, “Use this for your rent, boy,”and signed it, “Richard Pryor 1979.” I took it and said, “Richard, where did you print this from? I wish in America they made $100 bills.” He looked at Paul and said, “This guy is so stupid and innocent, Hollywood is going to eat him alive. We better do something, we better look after him,” and that was the first night of my business.
Many young comedians have come through your doors and gone on to achieve success and stardom.
Personally what I enjoy more than anything is discovering great talent. I’m always looking to see somebody. Dane Cook came in 16 years ago, he was emceeing for me at the time. He was a person who was really passionate about what he was doing and I love to find people who are passionate about what they want to do in life. If you find passion among people, that is the best thing you can find. Dave Chappelle came in as a 17-year-old kid, he didn’t have enough money to eat. He would say, “Can I borrow some money from you?” A lot of people take credit for discovering people but I actually think most of the comedians that became famous were not because of me, what made them where they are today is their talent. If it was not the Laugh Factory they would go on the corner or go by Lakeshore and start telling jokes, that’s what it is. I remember one time I was in Los Angeles, it was 3 o’clock in the morning and we went to a restaurant, Ben Frank’s. We had a couple of drinks earlier and we go to have some breakfast and the next thing I know a guy stood up on his table and starts performing. He knew I was in the restaurant so he started doing his whole act. They restaurant called the police and they came in and kicked him out of the place but I knew this guy had a talent.
[Cell phone starts ringing]
Oh, Sorry! Sorry!
Is that Dane Cook?
No, it’s not Dane Cook but it’s close to Dane Cook.
Sounds like Jerry Seinfeld!
No, be nice! [Laughs] Okay, where was I? The guy that got up on the table and did his act for me became one of the big acts at that time. He would go on to have two sold out shows at Madison Square Garden. That particular guy that had stood on the table was Andrew Dice Clay.
Comedians get a lot of heat for their controversial acts. Do you think it’s off when they are criticized for being insensitive?
I think comedians are the most giving people in the world. The times they are on the stage, they give so much of themselves to the audience, making those people laugh. Of course they have pain that goes through them too. People don’t know comics, they make judgments that they are this or that but no, they are the most giving people because they give so much of themselves. They make people happy and make people laugh and that’s the hardest thing in the world to do. I call all comedians doctors of the soul because they make people forget about their life and their problems for two or three hours. That’s the most inspiring and giving thing someone can do for somebody. I really think comedians are one of the rarest professions in the world because if you think about it, how many billions of people are there in the world? Almost eight billion people. You know how many good comedians there are in the world? Maybe about 50 or 60.
Is there a line they shouldn’t cross or is everything fair game?
I think everything is on the table except what Michael Richards did on our stage. That came from hatred and I don’t promote hatred.
Do you still make it a point to get to know every comedian that is coming in and out of the Laugh Factory?
I actually have established new relationships with new comedians because I think I have an obligation to find the next Seinfeld, the next Chris Rock, the next Dave Chappelle. They are getting older, so who is the next one that is taking their place? And [new talent can be] older as well. Remember, Rodney Dangerfield was 58 years old when he broke into the business.
It must be such a high to be on stage making a room full of people laugh.
I remember one time Rodney Dangerfield called me and he said, “Jamie, I’m coming into the club!” Jim Carrey, Adam Sandler and I had just saw him that afternoon at UCLA [Medical Center] where he had just had brain surgery so I said, “How can you come perform?” He said, “They release me today at 4:30, I’m coming tonight.” When Rodney started walking on stage his face was really white with no coloring in the lips. He goes on the stage and he’s shaking and he starts telling his first joke. People are applauding and laughing and during his second joke the next thing I know the color is coming back to his face, his lips are getting pink, his heart starts pumping, he came alive. I tried to walk him to his car and he elbowed me and said, “Get the f-ck away from me! I can walk!” Real comedians get energy from the audience.
One comedian whose legacy will never fade is Chris Farley. What is one of your fondest memories from your friendship?
Chris Farley was one of the most creative people but he was a little bit too smart and too much of a party animal. His brother Kevin Farley comes in here all of the time and performs, he’s a very funny guy. I remember I was at the Aspen [Rooftop] Comedy Festival and a bunch of comedians said, “Come on, we’re going to teach you how to ski.” We went all the way up to the top and you see Chris Farley and he’s saying, “Jamie! Come on over!” It was freezing and I had gloves and everything on but when I saw Chris—I’ll never forget it—he had no top, no hat, nothing on and he’s on the top of the mountain. Everyone else is drinking soup but this man, he loved danger.
What is one movie that always can make you laugh out loud?
“The Three Stooges”. When I was young we were poor and my father had taken me to this TV repair shop, I remember I watched this little black and white TV and “The Three Stooges” was playing. I didn’t know how these little people had existed, and they put them in this little box! I was a kid and I sat on my dad’s lap and he made up this story because we couldn’t hear and I was laughing so hard that I was crying, peein’ in my pants. The story my dad told was so funny, so hilarious I could never forget that. Then my dad said, “The greatest deed you can do for any human is make them laugh.” That was the best moment of my life. My dad was the best storyteller. I’m the luckiest person in the world, my father taught me so much by giving. He was so giving.
Have you ever been married?
No, I lived with a girl but she broke my heart.
Do you want to have kids?
Yeah, I want to have all of that. From life you have so much knowledge that you want to pass it out and pass it on to somebody else.
What did your parents tell you before they sent you to America to make a living?
They said, “You’re going to go to America, you’re going to make money and support us. You’re going to make us rich,” and I said, “Okay!” And I did. I gave them everything they ever wanted. I remember my first paycheck for two weeks of work was $28. I was sleeping in a garage. I sent $25 to my parents and gave $3 to myself.
Do you remember your first impression of the United States?
I remember before I came to America my parents said, “You don’t have to work in America, the money is on the street. You can just walk down the street and make money.” I remember I had a pound cake in my hand—I’ve never told this story to anybody—and I’m looking around and I see a phone booth and a $5 bill was under it and I said, “Well I’m not going to work today! I’ll work tomorrow!”
If you could have a drink with anyone, who would it be?
I would want to meet the first person who ever invented laughter or the joke. One time I heard about a caveman who was walking and picked up a big huge stone. He dropped it on his feet and he started screaming and everybody started laughing. I’m wondering, who was the first person who invented laughter and made people laugh? That’s my dream. I want to find out how laughter started. I always think about it.
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