Mitzi Shore, the impresario and owner of L.A.’s legendary club The Comedy Store, where comics like David Letterman, Jay Leno, Robin Williams, Jim Carrey, Andy Kaufman, Richard Lewis and pretty much everyone else you can think of launched their careers and cultivated their material over the years, died Wednesday, after a long battle with Parkinson’s disease. She was 87.
It’s impossible to overstate the influence Mitzi Shore had over comedy as we know it today. From the time she took control of the Comedy Store in 1974 (a parting gift from her ex-husband, founder and comic Sammy Shore, who gave her his ownership stake in the club as a way of mitigating his alimony payments), she put into practice booking and managerial techniques that seem obvious now but at the time were revolutionary: Holding comics to tight 15-minute sets; allowing comics to consist of an entire bill, rather than mixing them in with jugglers and acrobats and other vaudevillian novelty acts; thinking out a line-up so there would be a variety of voices heard in a single evening.
But she was more than just a booker (and a merciless one at that; Louis C.K. recalled having to audition for her before being booked, even though he was something of a name, having been performing for more than two decades; given his recent troubles, we can’t know what that audition consisted of), she was also something of a mother hen to the comedians whose careers she fostered, inviting them up for meals or to stay at her mansion above Sunset, getting involved in their love lives (sometimes, by many accounts, having flings with them herself), or pressing them into service baby-sitting her three children (one of whom is comedian and MTV personality Pauly Shore.) For many young comedians, Mitzi was everything: A kind of Jewish fairy godmother who would pluck you from obscurity, feed you and clothe you, and set you on the road to fame and fortune (everything short of actually paying you; comics at the Comedy Store famously performed for free or almost free, a condition Mitzi claimed was intrinsic to its value as a comedy laboratory, a place where it was okay for a promising newcomer to take risks and sometimes fail.)
But the comedians I named above, who credit Mitzi Shore for giving them the breaks that led to their spectacular success all have something in common, besides being talented and funny: They’re all men. On female comedians, her legacy was decidedly more mixed. In 1978, Mitzi Shore opened the Belly Room at the Comedy Store, a small room upstairs devoted solely to showcasing female comedians. The first of its kind, it was on its face a major turning point for women in comedy, who struggled to get stage time in a business that 40 years later, remains a notorious boys’ club. In practice, it served–according to many of the women who performed there–as a form of de facto sex segregation, a place female comics would get booked instead of the Main Room, where the important people went. There were exceptions (Marsha Warfield, who would go on to play the unflappable bailiff Roz on Night Court; Elayne Boosler, who flat out refused to be relegated behind the mechitza and had enough of a following to get away with it), but never on the same bill, which would have gone against Mitzi’s version of diversity: Every comic in a given line-up had to be unique from the other; two women, no matter their style or viewpoints or material, would be too much the same.
“I don’t think Mitzi ever really liked a lot of women,” comedian Sandra Bernhard, a regular Belly Room performer, said in We Killed, Yael Kohen’s 2012 oral history of women in comedy. “She might have had a couple of favorites but she liked to be like the queen bee.”
In that regard, at least, Mitzi Shore was a product of her time, the woman who believed her power was contingent upon being the only one who did. Still, it’s hard to begrudge that of someone who brought so much talent–and so many laughs–into the world. Comedy wouldn’t be the same without her. And a memory is a blessing, even if it’s a mixed one.