Mitzi Shore, owner of L.A.’s famed Comedy Store, passed away Wednesday at the age of 87, following a battle with Parkinson’s disease. For decades she was an icon in popular culture, an unapologetic businesswoman in a male-dominated industry, an uncanny scout of talent, and a compassionate “second mother” to many struggling young comedians.
One of those comedians was Yakov Smirnoff, who first met Shore in 1978. He and his family had just immigrated to the United States, settling in New York, and he paid a visit to L.A. as a long-shot attempt to break into the entertainment industry.
“My friend knew a producer for Three’s Company. I translated some of my jokes from Russian into English and lined up a showcase at the Comedy Store so he could see me perform, but the producer ultimately couldn’t make it. I was really disappointed, but I did the show,” Smirnoff recalls.
While the producer hadn’t been in the room, Shore had caught the set, and was impressed. She sent her assistant to bring Smirnoff to speak with her.
“I sat down next to her and she said, ‘You should stay in Los Angeles. There is always a place for good and different,'” Smirnoff remembers. “I had no idea who I was talking to. She told me to come back the next day and watch her show.”
The talent that played before him the next night reads like an all-star roster of the greatest comedians of the era, if not all time: Robin Williams, Billy Crystal, David Letterman, and Richard Pryor. They were all performers Shore knew well and had cultivated, and who could often be seen on the Comedy Store stage during that golden age.
“I realized I had died and gone to heaven,” Smirnoff says. Shore was so convinced of Smirnoff’s talent and potential, that she helped his whole family relocate to Los Angeles, hired his father as a carpenter, and rented him a room in the home she owned behind the club, where he would become roommates with a couple of other comedians: Andrew Dice Clay and Sam Kinison.
The Comedy Store, founded by Shore and her then-husband Sammy Shore in 1972, was both a beneficiary of and a contributor to a cultural moment that saw the center of the stand-up universe shift from New York to L.A. The same year the Comedy Store opened, Johnny Carson moved production of The Tonight Show to Los Angeles, and the gaggle of young comics vying to be discovered and given a few minutes on the show followed. Soon, the Comedy Store became known as the place to perform if you wanted to be seen by Carson’s folks or other Hollywood influencers.
In the ensuing years, Shore and her famous eye for talent would keep the club booked with soon-to-be star after star. Jay Leno, Jim Carrey, Bob Saget, Richard Lewis, Andy Kaufman, and, eventually, even her own son, Pauly Shore, would springboard from the Comedy Store’s famous stage.
“Because of her I had a family of comedians,” Smirnoff says. “She was like a mother figure to all of us. She nurtured us. She grew me from somebody who barely could do a five-minute set, to becoming a headliner, to making movies, television, appearing at the White House,” Smirnoff says. “I would never have had any of that if she didn’t say, ‘There is always a place for good and different.'”
Not everyone was a fan of Shore’s practices. In 1979, a group of young comedians protested her policy of not paying opening acts, expecting them to perform for free in exchange for the potential exposure. She would eventually agree to pay almost all comics that took the stage, but the club suffered in the wake of that bad P.R., as well as the opening of the Improv just down the street. Her sometimes blunt manners weren’t for everyone either, and she was known for not softening her takes on comedians who failed to impress, even outfitting her office with a placard that read “It’s a sin to encourage mediocre talent,” according to a story in the Los Angeles Times.
The Comedy Store will continue on without Shore, though the exact details of who will control the legendary property remain somewhat unclear. In her later years, she had stepped away from daily responsibilities and her sons Pauly and Peter were primarily operating the club starting in the mid-2000’s, but Pauly Shore filed a lawsuit against his brother in 2009, which is said to have followed a period of in-fighting between the two.
While the suit was resolved privately and both brothers remain involved in the business, it was a difficult time for the club. The allure of the old Sunset Strip had diminished, and stand-up as a live entertainment was in a downturn, something which some attributed to the rise of comedy on cable television. Ironic, perhaps, as it had been none other than Mitzi Shore who incorporated the Comedy Channel in 1982, a television company that would eventually become known as Comedy Central.
But as the cultural pendulum swings back toward live comedy, things may be brightening back up for the club. Many younger comedians continue to feel drawn to the Comedy Store and Shore’s influence. “Mitzi Shore created a place that was safe for us as comedians to share our ideas on stage in front of an audience,” comedian and actor Chris D’Elia says. “It very quickly became the most important and greatest comedy club in the world and it still is. Her energy resonates throughout that building even when she’s not there. It is, without hyperbole, my favorite place.”
“I don’t know what the family has planned for the future, but the place seems to have been doing so well again in the last six or seven years,” Smirnoff says. “They’re in tune with the times. I find it still to be the Mecca of comedy. When you walk into the Comedy Store, it’s packed with young people who have no idea who Mitzi is, but they’re laughing their butts off, because she created a space where you can come and forget all the problems and challenges of your world.”
Whatever the future holds for the venue itself, Shore’s legacy will clearly live on in the many artists she helped go on to move popular culture, and the many people she deeply touched.
“I just saw her Sunday, I stopped by because they knew she wasn’t going to last for very long,” Smirnoff shares. “I told her how significantly the world changed because of her.”