Mark Ridley: King of the Comedy Castle

Here’s my first interaction with Mark Ridley.  My tenth show was the open mic at the Comedy Castle in March of the year I started.  I didn’t get back on stage again there until eight months later.  For months and months I was convinced I did something to upset Mark and that was why I wasn’t invited back.  Finally in November I built up the courage to talk to him face to face.  I told him my concern.  He laughed and showed me the humongous list of people who call in every week to go on stage.  He assured me that I was fine and then he put me on stage again that following week.  From day one for me, Mark Ridley has been a class act!

Over the years he’s done so many things for me.  He let me and photographer Trever Long shoot my most recent headshots inside the Castle.  My Desperate Houseguys performed there a handful of times for special events.  Last month we shot the opening sequence of Deadpan there with a full cast and crew along with thirty extras!  Most importantly, he’s been a friend and a mentor.  Mark is a straight shooter.  It was a pleasure sitting down with him and talk about the business and the Laugh Detroit Comedy Festival which kicks off tomorrow with David Alan Grier.

Of course, as things go with me, nothing ever happens without a little turbulence.  I flaked and showed up three hours late for our interview, so we rescheduled for the next day.  Ever the gentleman, Mark was very understanding.  And there’s something about that generous Mark Ridley laugh that just immediately puts you at ease!

I am so sorry about yesterday.

I was one of the three people to be honored by the Royal Oak Historical society last October.  And I completely forgot.  It was in my calendar and everything.  It was the second time in 32 I’ve missed something.  I was one of the guests of honor.  I just saw the guy because he comes in once in awhile and he just gives me that look and I’m like, “Jay, I’m sorry.”

Did you make it, but were late?

Not at all!  What I normally do is grab my calendar and look through it to see what I’ve got, but I missed it.  It was in my calendar and everything.  Those things happen.

Now the two most embarrassing things to happen to me in comedy, have happened to me here.  My first week emceeing here was with Jocko Alston, and the last show Saturday I blanked on his name.

That’s old hat!

I was like, “Are you ready for your headliner?”  And it was gone.  I was going through my head Adam, Brian, Carl, David, Ernie, Frank, Gary.

Yeah, how are you going to pull Jocko?  He just died.  A heart attack, I think.  I read it online.  He wasn’t that old, only in his forties.

I was going to start with the Festival, but let me skip to a later question.  Aside from death, what’s the exit plan for comedians?

What is the exit plan?  George Burns and Bob Hope did it the best way they could.  They just kept on working.

Joan Rivers is up there in age, but she’s stayed relevant, which is hard.

It is.  When you think about the number of people out there, not just in comedy, but in music and acting, what happens to them?  It can be difficult, Mike.  What’s the exit plan?  You hope there is no exit plan other than to keep working as long as you can.

Do you think maybe the plan is to just transfer out of the business?

Oh yeah.  After 32 years, I can think of comedians, one who had his own sitcom on ABC and is now a car salesman.   There are quite a few guys who start selling cars and real estate and stuff out in Los Angeles because the jobs are just few and far between.  And also what happens too is they get a taste of success so they start living a little bit beyond their means.   One of the lessons I learned in my third marriage is no matter what happens here, keep you means down here.  So you always have that rainy day fund.

It’s important to have a one year, five year and ten year plan and be able to diversify.  That’s the other thing too.  Like my son Ryan has five different projects going right now.  Even though they’re related, they’re all in different areas.  My other son Adam is doing really well as an editor and his stock is getting out there.  As soon as he finishes a job, there’s another job waiting for him.  He’s had one day off in the month of February.

You’re credited with being the creator of the three man show format.  What led to that?

Mike Binder, the director, said that they were talking about how that came about in LA.  Mike said, “I remember when Ridley was doing that back in the 1980s!”  It was more out of necessity.  There weren’t a lot of comedians.  It was me emceeing.  I’ve got a headliner coming in.  I was able to take one comedian locally and they were able to work.  I was the emcee.  I wasn’t paying myself really.  That comedian would make money and the headliner got paid.

Why has that format worked?

I think because it’s just like a story.  When you write a story you have to have a beginning, middle and an end.  When you think about the attention span of an audience, rather than have someone sit through a three hour show, have them sit through a 90 minute show.

And it’s the length of a movie.

Right.  And I think most people really appreciated that.  Again, out of necessity, I was working in other people’s rooms.  They owned the liquor and the food, but I needed to pay the comedians.  Out of necessity, do this show, get the out of there and bring a fresh audience in.

You put together shows really well where there will be a running theme like last time I was here, I was emceeing, Mike Stanley was middling and Tim Nutt was headlining.  It was a show that gelled really nicely because the common denominator was that you had these three guys who were sort of nerdy, but cool.  It was one of my favorite experiences in comedy.  There were five Star Wars jokes on stage each show and I only told two of them!  It seems like you’re very good at putting together shows where there’s either a common thread, or it’s different enough to where there’s something for everybody.  How conscious of that are you when you do the booking?

Very much so.  I really do look at styles and chemistry.  I’ve been wrong, quite a few times and I’ll be the first to admit that.  I’ve had somebody really too strong for the headliner to follow.  Rosie O’Donnell said, “I can’t follow Tim Allen.  It was her second time headlining the club.  Tim was just starting to come back in the fold and she said, “Do you mind if we switch places?”  I said, “Not at all.”  Tim wants to do more time, so we’ll work it out.  It’s happened more than once throughout the years.  I try to be really aware of who’s working with whom to make the show run right.  We always emphasize how important the MC is., not just to get out the information, but to get the crowd warmed up and loose.  The middle act kind of moves up the production notch a little bit and then the headliner takes it home.  There’s nothing worse than watching the MC do their job and the feature do their job and then the headliner says, “Uh oh, I can’t carry it!”  I really do try to be aware of the fact that if it’s going to be a beginning, middle and an end, it has to be a good beginning, stronger middle and really strong end.

Sometimes comedians get upset about emceeing, but even big name people like Jimmy Pardo just emceed a Conan Showcase the other week.

That’s ego speaking when someone says they don’t want to MC because they’re beyond that.  That’s too bad because you’re missing a very important element of the show.  The MC defines what’s going to happen that evening.  It’s a strong glue that binds the whole show.  I did it 14 years.  Yeah, I had my stock stuff, but my forte was playing off the audience, not in a threatening manner, just having fun with them.  I felt what I did then was set the tone for the entire evening.  So when someone says they’re beyond emceeing, they’re missing a very integral part of the whole show.

The way it worked out for me last year was that I got two feature dates from you, so this year it was my first time emceeing in over a year and it was the most fun I ever had hosting a show.  And I think the feedback was good.

The feedback was wonderful.  The one thing about having somebody like Kevin is he’s my eyes and ears when I’m not around until I get the cameras installed and can watch the shows remotely.

Do you really want to?

I really do!  It was one of the things I’ve discussed with my wife.  I want to take more time off, but she’s going to have to put up with me watching shows each day.  I will take the time to watch the show.  It’s so much a part of my life, that less face it, if I don’t do that, how am I qualified to make decisions for the next year or the year after that?

I think it’s nice too that you do have someone here like Kevin Wheeler running things on nights you’re not here because he is a comedian.

Absolutely.  He gives me honest opinions and notes and his input is very valuable.

Working the Castle validates a comedian’s stock with other clubs and booking agencies and helps get us in new places.  You’re quick to discover the new guys ready to work.

You have to look at the up and comers.  As a club owner I owe it to the audience too.

The Laugh Detroit Comedy Festival starts tomorrow.  That has to be a great tool too because you get to see these people live as opposed to just watching a video.  How much of your booking comes from the Festival.

I’m starting to get more.  Tim Nutt came from the Festival and Michael Malone.  Now I’m going to be embarrassed that I can’t think of more names.  I take notes and keep those notes in the drawer and say, “Let’s look at them for next year”.  I appreciate them coming in because they come in on their own dime to be part of this festival.  One thing that’s really cool this year is we’ve had three festivals in seven weeks in Michigan.  I was talking to BJ Hammerstein from the Free Press.  He said, “That says a lot for Michigan, doesn’t it?”  It really does.  We’ve had some changes.  We moved David Alan Grier from the Royal Oak Music Theater to the Comedy Castle.  That was really more of a financial thing and we’re all in agreement on that.  They’re still involved Bob Saget.  We hope as the years go by it grows to where we can include films and maybe a couple more local venues can get involved.

How is the Festival different this year from the past?

We’ve tied it in with Real Detroit Weekly during Restaurant Week.  So they’re helping us by getting the word out more about it.  We’re drawing attention from future possible sponsors so we can make it a bigger festival.  We’ve had it at one level for four years.  Last year we moved it up a notch by using the Royal Oak Theater.  And they want to be more involved, which I think is really cool.  Next year we’d like to say we’ll do it for ten days and have three of four concerts down there.  It’s still a growth thing.  Like I said, you have have a one year, five year and ten year plan.  Next year will be the fifth year.  We had a meeting this morning and the first thing we said is let’s get together in the summer to start planning next March.  You have to plan that far out.

Was the Festival an idea that Dave Moroz had or did you guys come up with it together?

Initially it was Dave and Kevin.  Dave went to Kevin with it, and then Dave and I became partners.  There is risk involved.  With risk there can come reward and there can come failure.  Again we have to wait until the festival is all over.  It’s Dave’s baby basically when he came to me four years ago and wanted to have it here.  And it’s worked out so far.

Last year having Lewis Black as part of it was pretty phenomenal.  One of the things I’ve noticed with you is you’re the first person who’ll bend over backwards for your friends, but you never ask for anything in return.  Because of that people are always quick to return the gesture for you because they feel that huge debt of gratitude.  For example, Lewis Black came in under his usual fee for you last year.

He did me a favor and that was nice.  From the time we sat down and said how about Lewis Black, I shot him an e-mail and within thirty minutes he said yes.  Count on one hand those types of people.

You’re not the person who ever has a “what’s in it for me?” mentality.  You always seem willing to try new things.

Yeah, we’ve done a show or two together!  To me it’s the excitement of seeing what’s out there that’s different.  What’s possible?  It’s not that I haven’t fallen on my face.  I’ve faced bankruptcy a couple of times.  I literally didn’t draw a pay check for seven or eight months at one time.  And I worked a day job, just to keep the club going.  It hasn’t been a bed of roses for me all the way.  I believe in karma.  If you do something nice it will come back to you, but it’s not like I expect it, Mike.  If I do this for another eight years that’ll be 40 years in the business.   Could I absolutely totally retire?  I don’t know.  There are times when I really, really love it and there are times when I’m wondering what the hell am I doing here?  And I find myself working more during the day now than during the night.  When you talk about Kevin there’s also Julie and Mary.  Between the three managers there’s over sixty years of experience with me.  You can’t buy that.  I have loads and loads of gratitude for them.

You must be doing something well because your staff seems to last for a really long time.

There’s very little turn over.  My wife Sara who’s in charge of human resources basically said, “Your average employee stays with you for five years.”  And that really says a lot right there too because in the bar business it’s you’re here today and gone tomorrow.

This is something Bill Bushart said about you when I interviewed him.  You are so calm and cool.  There was a night when one of the televisions above the bar fell of its mount and destroyed hundreds of dollars worth of liquor on the way down.  You just came out, laughed and said, “Well, it looks like it’s time to get flat screen high definition televisions now!”  You didn’t lose your shit at all!  Are you heavily medicated?

I might be!  Maybe I am, but I just don’t realize it.  I don’t know.  In this last three weeks two headliners have had to cancel.  Just this week I sent an e-mail to an agent in Los Angeles for [his guy’s] flight information.  He called me from home and said, “When I saw your e-mail, my heart sunk.  I don’t have him in my book this week.”  I had it in ink in my book.  So we both tried to take the blame because we’ve known each other for so long.  It’s one thing to panic and go, “What am I going to do?”  Or you can have your back ups.  That just comes with experience.  You can’t let that kind of stuff freak you out.  I’ll tell you what freaks me out.  I got a phone call and a water pipe burst on Third Street a few weeks ago.  We had two sold out shows that night and I didn’t know if we’d be able to open.   They had the whole building shut down.  You can freak out, but I just said, “Okay, call me when you think it’ll be ready.”  About an hour later they called and said they’d be ready by 3:30 and we were ready to seat at 7:00.  I freak about littler things than that, so I guess I do lose it from time to time, but it’s not worth it.

On the other end of the spectrum do you freak out in a good way when potentially big things happen?  I remember Kathy Bates came here to scout locations for the movie adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s “Pagan Babies”.

That’s all fine and good.  If they keep the film credits, I’d like to be part of that.  People are people.  It was a pleasure to sit and talk with Elmore Leonard about the business and the art of comedy.

You’re in “Pagan Babies” and you have that great story about that from when you were on vacation.

I was in St. Martin with a guy from Canada and he asked, “Well, how popular is your club?”  And I said, “Hold on.”  You couldn’t have scripted this any better. We were right by a book nook, so I grabbed a copy of “Pagan Babies and opened it up to that page and said, “How’s that?”.  And he said, “Oh my God!”  That to me is cool when something like that happens.

Those are moments that I’ll remember and are very, very cool.  I had the good fortune years ago to be an extra on a movie back before they were doing movies in Detroit.  It was “The Betsy”.  I was in a crowd scene of over two hundred men.  The guy walked over and said, “You, you and you come over here, you’re going to yell at Sir Laurence Olivier when he comes in.”  All I could think was, “Sir Laurence Olivier!”  He put it in perspective.  We’re standing there and I said, “I just wanted to tell you that it’s an honor to meet you Sir Olivier.”  And he said, “Call me Larry.”  And I said, “Call me Mark!”  And we all laughed and it was just kind of cool.  They don’t look at themselves as bigger than what they are and it just kind of puts things in perspective.

I heard that one of your pet peeves is comedians who bring alcohol with them on stage.

Yes.  It really is.  It’s great that you’re relaxed, but it’s still your job.  From my perspective and maybe from an audience member’s perspective if you mess up something or do not do very well, and they’re going, “Well he’s drinking on stage.  How much has he been drinking?” I’ve already done that.  I messed up because I was drinking before I went on stage.  And I’ve seen other comedians do that through the years.  So to me, there are guys who go out in suits or sports jackets and ties because that’s the way they approach it professionally.  Tim Allen was doing that long before any other comedian was doing that.  People would say, “Boy, he really takes this seriously.”  And that’s not to say every comedian has to do that because everybody has their own style and their own look.  Drinking water is one thing.  Drinking a beer or a cocktail is another thing.  It’s a little too casual then.  It’s my pet peeve.  If somebody comes up to me and asks, “Is he drunk?  Or is she drunk?”  Well, why do you say that?  They had a beer and they just asked for their second shot on stage.  I’ve seen that happen too.  I just think it’s better if you leave that backstage.  Or dress it in some way so they don’t know.

You and Roger Feeny, who runs the Ann Arbor Comedy Showcase, don’t have a whole lot of cross over with the headliners you bring in.  Is that something you both work out together or is it just a matter of knowing what works and what doesn’t?

Roger is in a university town.  There are acts that will work much better in a college town than in Royal Oak.  I don’t think I ever really consulted Roger and vice versa.  The only thing we ran into was several years ago, John Heffron wanted to play there because he started there.  I don’t have a problem with that.  John is still a big draw for me.  I said tell John, I hope he doesn’t mind, but I’ll just bring him in once here so he can play Roger’s as well.  We have a good symbiotic relationship.  I don’t care where anybody plays.

My attitude is if you give it three months between jobs, okay that works out.  Don’t ask this much from me if you’re going to there two weeks before.  That was when radio was prevalent in helping bring in the crowds.  It’s not like that now.

Now that radio is kind of gone for a promotional tool, especially here because Dick Purtan was a huge supporter of comedy and especially the Comedy Castle, what tools are you using to market the club?

Social media.  Even at 60 years old, it’s never too late to teach and old dog new tricks.

I’m doing what I can.  The brand is there like I said.  That’s why I’m working more days.  If I’m here during the day then I can get things done with networking and social media.  I’m running five or six different accounts putting the things that are really important out there.  Those are the things that will get me into my old age.

I felt I was ready to move up from open mic level to getting paid was right about the time that you gave me the call.  I remember immediately calling Christine and my mom to tell them, “Oh my God, I’m working the Comedy Castle now!”  What are the things you and Kevin look for when you decide who to start booking?

Honesty in their material and finding their own voice.  We’ve come across several imposters or people emulating styles and taking material.  The thing about comedy is you really know what’s out there and who’s doing what. Don’t be afraid to come up and ask me or ask Kevin if you’re on the right track.  I’ll be honest with them.  Listen I know, there are comedians who have been doing this for a long, long time and I’m sorry, but I’m charging good money to a crowd and I have to recognize if that comedian is going to click with the crowd out there.  To me, one of the toughest nights to work is the open mic night.  So I take that in consideration too.  I’ll be in the back, and Kevin will be in the back.  We’ll make marks and we’re looking hard at who’s working hard at their craft.  Somebody like Trevor was a real natural and just came out swinging and did real well.

Oh he pisses me off!  That son of a bitch!  I’m glad that he actually started a long time ago on the other side of the state and didn’t just step on stage once as a natural!

He got to practice in a college town too!  It is important.  Years ago it was like, let me see your photo.  Let me see your bio.  Let me hear your cassette tape.  Literally I used to listen to cassette tapes for auditions before video tapes.  Really, people would send me cassette tapes!  God, it’s surprising I don’t have hieroglyphics in my drawer!

I heard you’re booking Amon Tep!

Yeah, hacking away at the stones, “Here’s your calendar!”  I think, Mike, it’s really just who’s serious about it.  Who shows up and clicks with the audience.  There’s a lot to be said for sitting in the back of the room.  I like sitting in the back of the room and watching to see how the crowd is reacting.  That’s my barometer.

Anything else you want to add about the Festival.

Sales have stopped on Wednesday because we’ve sold out.  Monday and Tuesday are just about sold out.

Who’s on Wednesday?

That’s Karen Rontowski hosting that showcase.

She’s fantastic!

Auggie Smith is on Monday.  Brian McKim and Traci Skene are on Tuesday.  We’ve got the seminar going with Jeff Singer.  That’s doing really well.  Of course Lynne Koplitz is wonderful

Like you, she’s one of the nicest and generous people.

Very much so.

She just brought me to do a theatre with her up in Lapeer and was asking me about my plans.  I told her that I need to try to tackle LA and New York.  And she just jumped at that.  She was like, “You want to do New York, schedule it when I’m out of town and you can stay at my place and watch my dog.”

It’s like I said, there aren’t too many people that you can count as friends in the business.  So when you have someone like that or Lewis or Kathleen…Kathleen only plays a couple of clubs, and I’m one of them.  I told her, “Kathleen, when you think it’s not right, let me know.”

Bill Engval recorded his first two CDs here.

Yeah, one of them went Platinum and one of them went Gold.

And you had them hanging on the wall right by the entrance to the box office.  That has to be one of those things that you even on a rough night, you just look at and think, “Wow, this is really cool!”

It has been cool.  Ron White was at the Fox Theater and came out here to see Dave Attell.  We haven’t seen each other in years and it was the biggest bear hug in the world.

There are moments that just define what this business is all about.  You can use the term “friend” as much as you want and there are genuine friends.  Mike Binder was my very first headliner.  Everyone once in awhile I’ll get an e-mail from him.  His nickname for me is “Pops”.  He sent me an e-mail, “How you doing, Pops?  I was just thinking about you.”  You get those kind of warm and fuzzies and it’s just nice.

There are so many people who started here like Paul Feig, Mike Binder, infamously Dave Coulier and Tim Allen.

Yeah!  Joe Nipote who’s doing the comedy slams across the country was on that show Viper and in the movie Casper.  The Amazing Jonathan.

He’s the reason I got into comedy.  I saw him his last time here before he got his Vegas gig.  Then when I was heading on to Vegas for a day job thing, I shot him a message on Myspace and he invited me out to a show and gave me the full VIP treatment.  After the show we sat down and he asked how things were in Detroit and if you and Chaplin’s were treating me well.  He was just a great guy!

Oddly enough, the reason I just thought of him too is his sister just called the other day to do a fundraiser which he’ll headline.  Mary takes care of all the fundraisers so when she gets back hopefully we’ll set that all up.  So hopefully we’ll see him here soon.

I know that fundraisers are generally clean, so this will be an odd way of asking, but if you let me open for him, I will suck your dick!

With the fundraisers we tell people you can have your choice.  We’re like a Chinese menu.  You can have faith based or you can have dirty and everything in between!  We’re trying to push that more for people.  We’re going after those off nights for non-profits.  I know Bill (Bushart) does them.  It’s a good thing because it really does benefit a lot of charities out there.  I think this year, Infant Mortality, this is their 16th year they bought out the room for Kathleen Madigan on a Thursday night.

And it exposes people to live comedy who might not go otherwise go to shows.

That’s why we have the disclaimer at the door about the content.  I ask people when they said they were really offended by the material on stage, “What was the last movie you saw?  How many people were killed and how many people had sex?”  It shuts them up right there.  There’s nothing on stage that will hurt anybody.  It’s comedy.  There are no sacred cows.

Should there be?  How do you weigh in on the Gilbert Gottfried thing?

That was really a poor decision on his part.  First of all he probably took a quarter of million dollar hit.  Second of all it was done way too soon.  There are some things you can talk about, but they take place further down the road. You now what, let’s just shelve it and not talk about it because it’s just too harmful.

I worked with a guy who made a joke about our miscarriage right about the time the baby was due and I was furious.  I didn’t want my feelings to affect the show, so I waited a week and sent him a message about that.  His attitude was just, “You’re a comedian, learn to take a joke.”

There are some things that are just too personal.  I’m sorry he was like that.

I accept the fact that words are words and they can’t hurt you unless you let them.  I also accept the fact too that I may say something that someone takes the wrong way too.

Or you may show up three hours later for an interview!  (La u ghs) Zing!

To find out more about the Laugh Detroit Comedy Festival or any of the other great shows at Mark Ridley’s Comedy Castle you can click here!


About Mike Bobbitt

Sometimes professional storyteller.

Posted on March 26, 2011, in Interviews and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. What a great, insightful, and honest interview. Great job, Mike and as always, Mark, as usual, is such a class act! Great going and hopefully many more interesting articles on the way!

    I’m off the mike!


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