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The King Of Detroit Comedy

In the midst of a national recession and the worst local financial conditions in decades, Comedy Castle owner Mark Ridley decided to completely remodel his successful Royal Oak club, by not just slapping on a fresh coat of paint but tearing up the floors, rebuilding the bar area from scratch, and upgrading everything from the carpets to the seats to the company logo. Recession be damned, Ridley blew right through the yellow lights and proceeded to reinvest, refurbish, and even attempt to grow his company. It's exactly the sort of move you would expect from a guy who has spent three decades laughing in the face of hard times.

The Detroit/Windsor metro area supports five full time comedy clubs, plus a host of open mic nights, semi-regular bar nights, returning weekend shows, fundraisers, and special comedy events. If you extend the map out a little further to nearby cities like Toledo, Lansing, and Ann Arbor, the region boasts of more than a dozen stand up comedy clubs and shows on any given weekend. It's a pretty impressive stat, considering most large cities only have a handful of similar venues. Not to mention that Detroit has been the tip of the spear of the economic meltdown, with the recession leaving deeper and longer lasting wounds here than almost anywhere else in the country.

Yet the region's comedy industry continues to chug along, and while some clubs have come and gone over the years --victims of  misfortune, malfeasance, or indifferent management-- the stronger operations have endured the storms through boom and bust, creating one of the nation's most durable and loyal audience base. Ridley attributes that strength to the area's blue collar character and to the habitual nature that the nine-to-five lifestyle of factory work hardwired into the population.

Hard work often requires hard partying to blow off steam, and the fast pace of a stand-up offers pure, gut busting release. When budgets are tight people tend to seek comfort, be it food or comedy, a fact that Ridley takes seriously - which inspires him to keep the level of quality high in his room.

"It might be their one night out a month, if they do something, so they look for the good value," Ridley says of his customers. "Whether it's movies or live entertainment, we're still perceived as a really good value - which we are. There aren't many places where you can go, whether it's me or the other comedy clubs, and see live entertainment and not spend an arm and a leg on it like you would in New York, L.A.,  or Chicago."

And it's not just affordable according to Ridley, it's cathartic: "Comedy is honesty plus exaggeration, and so people are forgetting about what's going on outside for at least ninety minutes, be it unemployment or family problems or health. We give them an excuse to forget it all for a while."

A history of yucks

Now in his late fifties, but with laugh lines outpacing his wrinkles, Ridley is possessed with an infectious energy that reflects a lifetime of working at a craft he still truly loves. He grew up in the area, and like so many local baby boomers he was a devotee of Soupy Sales, whose mid-fifties Lunch with Soupy show was appointment viewing for a generation of Detroit youngsters. "Soupy was hip, he was a jazz guy, and it came through the TV." 

Still, Sales represented an earlier era of nightclubs and cabaret style entertainment that was dying off in the Detroit area by the mid 1970s, replaced by rock venues like the legendary Grande Ballroom. While there were a smattering of coffee clubs and other odd joints there was no such thing as a "comedy club", and Mark noticed the gap.

While dabbling in stand-up, Ridley became hooked on the then burgeoning comedy club scene that was exploding on both coasts. Like so many Midwestern creative thinkers, he made a pilgrimage to Los Angeles, where he encountered a galaxy of emerging talent, including Jimmy Walker, David Letterman, and Jay Leno. They were packing crowds night after night into legendary Hollywood strip venues like The Improv and The Comedy Store. He wasn't just soaking up the laughs, he was studying the business model. The comedians were not getting paid at these places, but the club owners were making money hand over fist from cover charges and two-drink minimums.

These hot spots were booming, and turning out stars, but the sweatshop atmosphere wasn't always the best thing for comedians struggling for attention.

The grind could also wear out audiences.

"They would put up 20, sometimes 40 guys a night," Ridley says. "And it was just a continuous show, one after the other." He returned to Detroit with what he thought was a better idea.

While it's hard to document such things, many credit Ridley as pioneering the three-comedian format, with an emcee, a feature act, and a headliner to close the show, all paid to perform. Necessity, however, was the mother of invention. "I didn't have the talent," he laughs.

But he did begin to have a following. For the first several years the Castle lacked a permanent kingdom. Ridley operated as a sort of vagabond, bouncing from one venue to another, sometimes for months or sometimes just a few nights. His pitch was simple: "You've got an empty room, can I produce the show and fill it up." 

Ridley would rent the P.A. speakers and microphones on a weekly basis for about 25 bucks, and haul them along to wherever he could book his own show. One of his first headliners was Birmingham native Mike Binder, who went on to become a writer and the director of films like The Upside of Anger.

In time more talent filtered in, and Ridley's shows became a launching pad for local talent like Tim Allen and Dave Coullier. Eventually, by 1989, Ridley had enlisted some investors to help him secure a permanent location in the massive former Daily Tribune newspaper printing press /warehouse (269 E 4th St in Royal Oak). It proved to be a perfect match, as sleepy downtown Royal Oak would transform over the next decade into one of Southeast Michigan's hottest entertainment Meccas, with restaurants, bars, and nightclubs sprouting like weeds.

As the club grew in space and reputation the Comedy Castle became a favorite spot for a who's who of comedians, with everyone from Jerry Seinfeld, Jim Carrey, Lewis Black, Bob Saget, and Ellen Degeneres passing through. Their headshots line up in the Castle's hallways like a museum of funny. Still, Ridley continued to push the local guys whenever he could, supporting rising names like Mike Green and Last Comic Standing winner John Heffron, who grew up in South Lyon. To this day, Ridley devotes Wednesday night to open mic, where anyone who calls in and makes it on the list has a chance to get stage time.

The punchline

Ridley considers developing talent for the future to be vital. "It's just something I always thought was an integral part of having a comedy club," he explains. "Open mic is not a money maker by any stretch of the imagination." The fees are low on amateur nights, around three dollars, and the audiences can sometimes be spotty. "If you look at what it costs to keep the doors open and compare it to what we take in on any given Wednesday night, by all practical purposes we should keep the doors shut. But to me a farm club is important." 

But it's not generosity that has fueled Ridley's recent upgrades. In these troubled times people need a reason to laugh and so the Comedy Castle finds its product in increasing demand.

"When we compare the numbers to 2008, it's [2009] actually a better year. But for all intents and purposes it shouldn't be. Entertainment does thrive in hard times."

And so it made sense for Ridley to evolve his club's worn down stereotypical '80s look and create a place that feels fresh and inviting. New touches like Marx brothers statues and a Blues Brothers mural in the lobby make clear that laughter has always been the most important currency at the Comedy Castle.  

Ultimately, it was Ridley's new wife, Sara, who convinced him that reinvention is a necessary part of survival when it comes to business. Of course, it helps that she has experience as an interior designer.

"It just looks like you don't care," Sara told him. "I know you do care, but you can't tell by the looks of it." 

Ridley knew she was right and made the investment. He even went so far as to turn his club into a non-smoking venue, something that would have been unthinkable a decade ago.

Still, when asked why he chose to renovate at the height of an economic crisis --with lending institutions hoarding their remaining money-- Ridley chuckles, "Thank you president Obama. No seriously, after the crash of last year he made it easier for businesses to get an SBA [Small Business Administration] loan."

Even then it wasn't a slam dunk, despite a 30-year track record of success, some financial institutions were gun shy to lend Ridley the cash, primarily because he doesn't own the building. Eventually a northern Michigan bank did come through and Ridley bought out his partners and proceeded to roll up his sleeves. He's now carefully booking the acts that will keep not just audiences but himself laughing.   

"Somebody just asked me how long I want to keep doing this," Ridley relates. "I just signed a five year lease. We'll see how that goes. I may do another five after that. I'm in no hurry to retire. if you love what you're doing itís not like work."

Corey Hall is a freelance writer, stand up comedian, and film critic for Detroit's Metro Times.  His previous article was Grace & Wild: A Studio Success Before Hollywood Came Calling


All photographs taken at Mark Ridley's Comedy Castle - Royal Oak

Portrait of Mark Ridley

All photographs by Marvin Shaouni
Marvin Shaouni is the managing photographer for Metromode & Model D.

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