History of the 1979 Comedy Store Strike


Harmon and Scott dive into the history of the 1979 Comedy Store strike - which was lead by comedians David Letterman, Tom Dressen, and Jay Leno.

It was a pinnacle moment in comedy history, when comedians walked out of the Comedy Store and demanded that they get paid for performing; changing the face of modern comedy history.

audio Block
Double-click here to upload or link to a .mp3. Learn more

Here's some factors that lead to the 1979 Comedy Store strike:

In the early ’70s, stand-up business revolved around two cities: Las Vegas and New York.

An old-school comic named Sammy Shore opened the Comedy Store in April 1972. The space was a 99-seat room in a building on Sunset Boulevard that once housed the legendary nightclub: Ciro’s.

In May that year, Johnny Carson moved The Tonight Show to Burbank. A 1973, at a set at The Comedy Store won Freddie Prinze a spot on The Tonight Show, and shot him to stardom.

As a result of a divorce settlement, Sammy Shore's ex-wife Mitzi Shore, began operating the club in 1973 - she was able to buy the building in 1976. Sammy gave her the club to lower his alimony payments.

Mitzi rebuilt the room to focus attention on the stage, took out the bar, and made customers order drinks from the waitresses, establishing the standard comedy club two-drink minimum.

The Comedy Store became ground zero for stand-up in the late ’70s: Jay Leno, David Letterman, Richard Pryor, and Robin Williams - would often frequent the club. Hollywood talent scouts also lurked: the prizes weren’t only shots on Carson; but also networks were signing comics to develop sitcoms.

Mitzi saw herself as the scene’s den mother. She equated performing spots at The Comedy Store - to going to college for a comedian. She considered the club a “showcase” room, an opportunity for comics to develop their acts and get discovered. Basically, she wasn't paying performers - and making boatloads of money. 

She maintained her club was a “college,” and stand-ups who performed at her spot didn’t even deserve $5 for gas money. Yikes!

Led by former loading dock teamster, Tom Dreesen, these comics patterned the strike after the earlier labor unions that lobbied for workers' rights throughout the 60's and 70's.

Dreesen went to Mitzi and tried to negotiate a plan for paying all the comics he suggested simply add $1 to the $4.50 and split that extra dollar among the comedians. if a couple hundred people were in the club on a given night, that meant $200 split among the comics. Mitzi turned him down flat.

Comics such as Letterman and Leno, picketed alongside their less well-known colleagues. After guest hosting The Tonight Show for the first time, Letterman would go back to the picket lines. Mitzi felt betrayed.

Tensions grew. One of the anti-strike comics tried to drive a car through the picket line and knocked down Jay Leno. On May 4th, a settlement was reached, on essentially the same terms that Mitzi had rejected earlier. Performers would get 50% of the door in the main room or $25 a set in the smaller original room.

The strike had a bitter legacy. Leno and Dreesen never worked in The Comedy Store again. A distraught comic named Steve Lubetkin, whose mental state became unhinged during the strike, climbed to the roof of the fourteen-story hotel next door, and leaped to his death into The Comedy Store parking lot. His suicide note read: "My name is Steve Lubetkin. I used to work at The Comedy Store."

In the end, the comedians changed history and club owners could never get away with calling an institution a “school” and become millionaires while only paying wait staff and not the comedians.