Chaplin’s: A Club
After twenty five years of business, Chaplin’s Comedy Club closed its doors for good. Chaplin’s is allegedly the place where Jeff Foxworthy riffed on stage and discovered his entire “you might be a redneck” routine. It’s been bothering me that I’m the last person to headline Chaplin’s Comedy Club.
In the year leading up to becoming a comedian I experienced live comedy three times. The entire main stage cast at Second City Detroit horribly embarrassed me by improvising a musical number about how horrible it would be to be on a date with me. Maybe that’s why I have a love/hate relationship with improve to this day! At that moment of sitting in the front row, I vowed that if I were ever on stage I would never humiliate someone like I was humiliated. Well…so much for that!
I also had my life changing experience at Mark Ridley’s Comedy Castle seeing one of my childhood favorites, The Amazing Jonathan. Not having the guts or motivation to actually do comedy myself, I wrote a screenplay about a comedian who emcees for Jonathan at the Comedy Castle and gets Yoda-like advice from him. Some of the themes from that screenplay have made it into our Deadpan television show.
The final time I experienced live comedy before becoming a comedian myself was at Chaplin’s. I don’t remember much of that night. I was on a second disastrous date with a girl. She lived on the east side and I was struggling to find something different and impressive to do. The experience I had months earlier at the Comedy Castle was still in my head, so I thought a comedy show was the ticket! The club was packed! We arrived late and had to be ushered through the bar behind the stage in order to get to our seats, which were at a small table we had to share with strangers. The headliner was already on stage. I don’t remember much about him other than the fact that I wasn’t nearly as impressed as I had been with The Amazing Jonathan. If anything, it made me think, “I can do that!”
Playing Chaplin’s for the first time was a big deal to me. My tenth time on stage was at the Comedy Castle because they nurtured new talent by having an open mic show. In order to play Chaplin’s you had to be a “working” comedian. I didn’t get hired by Funny Business to start emceeing clubs until two and a half years into my comedy career. My first time at Chaplin’s was the week following my birthday in June of 2005. I was emceeing for Manny Shields and Rob Haney. I don’t remember anything specific about that weekend, but I’m going to guess it went fine. I busted my hump leading up to that by performing in some of the roughest open mic shows I could find. Chaplin’s was a very blue collar crowd compared to the sophisticated Comedy Castle audiences or the intellectual comedy fans in Ann Arbor. I could handle blue collar. I cut my teeth in open mic rooms in Inkster, Madison Heights and Warren.
In all honesty, Chaplin’s for a long time was one of the few clubs I dreaded going to. While I could do well in front of those audiences, I wasn’t a fan of them. I always felt like in order to do well, I had to “dumb it down”. Chaplin’s also seemed to be stuck in a time warp where it was always the late 1980s when they first opened their doors. It was the only club at the time where I experienced a dress code and fairly strict language restrictions for the comedians. If I wanted to dress up, I would’ve stayed a manager at Gamestop, who ironically at this time had more of a lax dress code than Chaplin’s! I’ve experienced a handful of rooms who either have written or unwritten language rules and I never got that. Shouldn’t funny be the most important thing? Often times I’d watch comedians to horrifically racists, sexist or homophobic material and that was fine because they didn’t say, “fuck” or “shit”.
Chaplin’s had a great staff. I have a hard time remembering names. Even to this day where there’s actually very little turn over in comedy clubs, I only know a small percentage of employee names. I feel terrible about that too. Chaplin’s had some really stand out people though. I picked up on the fact very early that these people had been together for a very long time and they spent a lot of time with each other outside of work too. Jesse the bartender was possibly the cheeriest person I’ve met working in a comedy club, which was a nice juxtaposition against Billy the manager. Billy had a reputation for being one of the biggest hard asses in the business. It reminded me of when I was making the transition from middle school to high school and I was scared to death of the alleged hazing freshmen would get. More than a few times, newer comedians getting ready to experience Chaplin’s for the first time asked me, “What’s Billy like?”
I know he wouldn’t want the world to know, but that’s too bad. Billy was actually a really sweet guy. Yeah, he had a loud bark and stubbornly wanted things his way. Yeah, he’s not a guy without faults, but once he knew he could count on you, he was a really good man. I was booked at Chaplin’s in November 2008 on the week end that we had our miscarriage. I’m professional to a fault. The day we found out, 7:30 rolled around and I realized I forgot I had a show. I had no time to get a replacement although I know I have friends who would drop anything in a heart beat to help me. I went to Chaplin’s, did my half hour and came straight home. Chaplin’s was only about 15 minutes from my home, so I was away for a grand total of an hour and some change. If you can’t tell, I still feel guilty about leaving that night. The next day when everything in our personal life became…final…my closest comedy buddy Bob Phillips filled in for me. He was prepared to do that Saturday night as well. Christine was worried that if I didn’t go on stage Saturday I’d never go on stage again. She may have been right. My world ended that week. I’m fighting tears now thinking about it because I really want to finish this piece. That was the worst week of my life and I’ll never get over it. Saturday night I took the stage with a giant sized chip on my shoulder just looking for a fight. I got one. I get heckled and I viciously tore into the guy like I’ve never tore into anyone before or since. I was out for blood and I got it. I hit below the belt, I verbally wish atrocities on him and his family. And it came out in a flurry of words banned from the Chaplin’s stage. With less than five minutes left in my act, somehow I bounced back and regained the audience so I didn’t ruin the show for whoever was following me. Billy was cool about it. That week is a blur and I only remember what I remember because I took notes. Besides exploding, I also remember Billy earnestly urging me to go home and just be with Christine.
Ever since that week I felt a new closeness to him. He still busted my chops, but it always felt like it was coming from that curmudgeonly uncle. One week I asked to get paid before the Saturday night show ended so Christine and I could go to a Toys R Us so I could be there for a midnight launch of some Star Wars merchandise. Billy never let me live that one down! And yeah, he paid me early so I could be there!
In the final year of operation Chaplin’s started catching up. For the longest time Billy was resistant about doing an open mic show. He finally ended up turning Thursdays into a place where new comedians could not just work on their stage legs, but also experience the strict runnings of a business. Open mic at Chaplin’s was unlike open mic at Ann Arbor, Joey’s or the Castle. If you fuck up at Ann Arbor by going over your time, Roger just won’t put you on stage for awhile. He has no interest in conflict. Bill Bushart doesn’t know the meaning of the word “no”, it’s pretty hard to screw up at Joey’s. Bill loves chaos and he’s all heart. The Castle open mic stage turned out some big names in entertainment from the ones we all know about like Tim Allen and Dave Coulier, but also some you may not like film makers Mike Binder and Paul Feig. The Castle lets you do what you want to do because they realize some day it may be great. Chaplin’s open mic tuned you into exactly what you’d need to do in order to work Chaplin’s. Billy wanted that night run as professionally as any other night.
The final week that Chaplin’s was open I was excited that I was bringing to stage a show I put together from start to finish. Emceeing was my friend Jeff Scheen. I met Jeff earlier that summer when I started hitting open mic shows during slow time so I could force myself to write new material. The new crop of open mic guys really made me feel like I was experiencing performing comedy again for the first time, when it was all about creating, hanging out with friends and not yet worrying about the pressure of booking and earning a living. Middling the show was my buddy Dave Merheje. Dave and I started roughly at the same time. While us Detroit guys would hustle to create open mic opportunities in the metro Detroit area, Dave and his fellow Canadians were scrambling to come up with stages for us to fill in Windsor. Dave since moved to Toronto and this was a huge reunion in my mind. I closed the show and I was proud of what I managed to put together. From start to finish it was a show I would’ve liked to see. With a ton of other things going on in the “real world” I tried to promote the show the best I could. Turn out was mediocre at best.
During the final show of the weekend, Billy instructed Dave not to talk to a table near the front because they already showed up drunk. Had he not let them in, about a quarter of our audience would be missing. We had maybe twenty people tops. Dave didn’t listen and engaged that group. While Billy wasn’t a comedian himself, he knew how to read people. It went just like he thought it would. It wasn’t good. And because Dave didn’t listen, Billy had no intention to go in and fix things. I took the stage and shamed the leader of the group of drunks into being quiet for my show. About fifteen minutes later, I had to remind him that the night wasn’t about him. The show was what it was.
This was the week before Christmas and I was supposed to be back two weeks later for New Year’s Eve. I decided that I would never work New Year’s Eve again unless it was either with someone cool or at some place cool. I agreed to this gig as a favor to the booker who seemed like they couldn’t fill it. I turned it down three times, but ultimately caved. I couldn’t believe the club I waited over two years to work couldn’t find anyone willing to perform.
New Year’s never happened because right after Christmas Chaplin’s closed down. Could anything have changed that? I don’t know. For the longest time I felt like they should’ve maybe gotten with the times and offered the cutting edge comedy of the other clubs in the area, but honestly, I don’t know if that’s what the people in Clinton Township, Michigan would’ve gone for. Chaplin’s was located in an area surrounded by automotive plants… closed automotive plants. They certainly tried, from time to time, to bring in the big guns who would do well in front of those crowds like Frank Caliendo and Dave Attell. Would embracing electronic technology like Twitter, Facebook, and, at the very least, a website have helped that much? I don’t know. I couldn’t have hurt. Chaplin’s is gone and more than anything, I miss that family of employees. I hope Jesse, Lori, Billy and everyone else land on their feet somewhere and are doing well.