Comedy Store feud is no laughing matter

A bitter family legal battle threatens to undermine the future of Hollywood's most famous stand-up venue. Guy Adams reports from Los Angeles

Have you heard the one about the comedy club that launched the careers of David Letterman, Jim Carrey, Johnny Carson, and almost 40 years worth of Hollywood legends? It's a rollicking good yarn, but no one seems to be laughing at the ending. Except, perhaps, a few firms of showbusiness lawyers.

The future of The Comedy Store in Hollywood, one of the world's most famous and influential stand-up venues, has been cast into confusion after the two sons of its owner, Mitzi Shore, became involved in a snowballing legal battle over their ailing 79-year-old mother, who suffers from Parkinson's disease.

In a lawsuit filed at Los Angeles Superior Court, Pauly Shore, an actor and comedian, claims to have been improperly removed from the club's board of directors after his brother Peter began exerting "improper influence" over the still legendary Mitzi.

Parts of the dispute seem almost comically petty (in industry circles, it's being described as "this year's Jewishest court case"). But the family feud now threatens the long-term survival of the venue on Sunset Boulevard, where everyone from Jay Leno and Roseanne Barr to Richard Pryor, John Belushi and Robin Williams cut their professional teeth.

Neither brother has publicly commented on the row. However Pauly's lawsuit claims that after years of running the Comedy Store in collaboration, Peter recently "took unfair advantage of his filial relationship" with Mitzi to fire him from the board. It adds that he has since failed to hand over documents about the state of the company's finances.

"Over the course of the past few years, [Pauly] became concerned as to [Peter's] care and treatment of Mrs Shore, who suffers from Parkinson's disease and other neurological maladies," the complaint says. "Mrs Shore's condition has rendered her susceptible to unscrupulous behaviour and undue influence."

The suit, filed just before Christmas, notes that Mitzi is the sole shareholder in the club, which occupies a valuable piece of real estate on one of LA's busiest tourist areas. Pauly claims to be concerned that his brother has carried out "abuses regarding Mrs Shore's ongoing physical and financial well-being."

Unless the dispute can be amicably resolved – an outcome that seems somewhat unlikely – the future of club's day-to-day operations may lie in an expensive inheritance battle, rather than in the business that contributed to its fame: making people laugh.

Mitzi's ex-husband co-founded the Comedy Store in 1972, just as the alternative comedy scene was taking off. After they divorced, she was responsible for turning it into the west coast of America's pre-eminent stand-up venue, where budding comic performers and writers would hone their skills, and Hollywood agents would scout for talent. For years, she styled the club as a sort of artists' "colony," where comedians would perform for free, in hope of kick-starting a showbusiness career, and she would promote her personal favourites to punters and industry insiders. Many of them, including Letterman and Carrey, would eventually be accorded the honour of being allowed to MC.

Modern times have been tougher, though. Rival clubs have opened up, paying more for headline acts and hence attracting high-profile visiting stars. The Comedy Store, by contrast, has remained true to its artistic roots. Outwardly, the club has also failed to move with the times. While newer venues offer swanky surroundings, the Comedy Store has a somewhat moth-eaten appearance (though aficionados might call it atmospheric) and still neglects to serve food to customers.

Despite the fame that makes it one of LA's principal tourist attractions – and its claim to having staged the world's first-ever "all stand-up show" in the early 1970s – the Shores have also neglected to expand their venue's brand into significant TV and new media operations, leaving it out of step with an industry whose finances are increasingly tied up in Cable TV and web-based ventures such as Will Ferrell's "Funny or Die."

Since 2001, Pauly has taken on many of Mitzi's former duties as the venue's talent scout and impresario, while Peter has been responsible for the management and book-keeping. Tensions are alleged to grown between all three of them over competing ideas of how to drag the institution into the modern era.

Pauly Shore's original summons was filed on 7 December. He is seeking access to company records, together with the right to return to the Comedy Store's board of directors. The suit also seeks legal costs and "further relief, as the court deems just and proper".

Although the legal battle hasn't yet affected the operation of the nightclub, the stand-up comedy community is increasingly concerned at the row. "There's plenty of money for all of them, they do not need to sue each other," Jamie Masada, who owns the rival Laugh Factory, told the Los Angeles Times. "It's a family affair and I think they've got to put pride on the side and work it out in private."

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