NEW YORK - In May of 1975, The Comic Strip Live opened at the same location on Second Avenue at 81st Street where it still lives today, thanks to a Bronx bartender named Tony who invited his boss to come watch him perform stand-up in Manhattan.
"And I'm saying: 'Tony, I hate downtown. I don't want to go down there,'" Comic Strip owner and founder Richie Tienken said.
Richie left home at 13 after stealing a car. "And I got caught," he said. "And they wanted to put me in reform school."
After traveling the country, Richie returned to the Bronx to run the largest Bingo hall in the world, which he parlayed into buying his first bar and then six others, one of which employed Tony, who dragged Richie to his first comedy club, where the eventual founder of The Comic Strip Live found a packed house all paying to watch unpaid performers.
"And I said: Well, now I'm interested," Richie recalled.
After more than four decades, the walls of the Comic Strip now hold a museum's worth of comedian head shots.
"George Wallace, Jerry Seinfeld, Ray Romano, Adam Sandler, Chris Rock, Eddie Murphy," Richie said.
All performed there, along with many hundreds of others—many well before finding fame or financial success.
"Larry David came into me one day and asked me if he could have a hamburger," Richie said. "And I said: 'What?' And he said: 'Yeah, I haven't eaten.'"
From that day on, Richie fed and sometimes clothed his acts. "Come on," he said. "I was making a lot of money. I could at least buy them a hamburger." And the comedians repaid him with their loyalty and friendship, returning to the club to shoot comedy specials and to speak with comic and comedy writer Jeffrey Gurian for the two books he wrote on the club.
"The Comic Strip was the first club to give comedians a schedule for when they should go on stage," Gurian said. Otherwise, comics sat around all night and waited to hear their name called, or not called if a bigger act arrived to take their place.
Eddie Murphy later asked Richie to manage him. And after denying two or three times, Richie accepted.
"I've made a lot of money in comedy because I was Eddie Murphy's manager," Richie said.
That stability allowed Richie to run a comedian's comedy club for decades—the only club in the city, he says, that still holds auditions.
"I tell the acts now: You want to be a good act? Watch Seinfeld," he said.
Seinfeld has joked about buying The Comic Strip Live someday. The New York Post reports the future of the club now in jeopardy, thanks to a legal battle between Richie and his former business partner's widow. Richie denies any rumors the club might close. "This club's not going anywhere," he said.
Richie calls comedy an addiction. "The minute somebody laughs," he said, "it's like they put a needle in their arm." And says he feels an obligation to the comedians who've performed here in the past and will perform here in the future, in this business he arrived at by chance and learned as he went along.
"I like to hear people laugh," he said. "I like to laugh myself."
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