Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Back in 199(coughcough), when Ronald Reagan had only been recently dethroned, and our biggest fear as a nation was that some mustached guy in the middle east might just try to take over some small, little piece of sandy real estate and make it his own (it just dawned on me that an entire generation has known where Kuwait is located for their entire lives), I moved from Milwaukee back home to Chicago in pursuit of a burgeoning career in stand up comedy.

Clubs at that time were like present-day Starbucks: Two for every city block. Seriously, almost every bar/disco/nightclub/honkytonk housed at least one comedy night per week (we once almost convinced a comic that another comic's mom okayed hosting an open mike in her basement. Yeah, THAT prevalent), so every wiseass in Chicago had the chance to give stand up at least a single shot.

Located about 6 blocks from Chicago's O'Hare International Airport were two clubs: The Comedy Cottage and Last Laff (note: misspelling a comedy club's name ensured quality comedians).

The Comedy Cottage (above, pictured: comedian Greg Glienna, probably around 1987) was started by Jay Berk and "Big Ed" Hildebrand, sometime prior to the comedy boom of the mid-80s. At the time of it's inception, it was one of the few clubs outside of New York and Los Angeles, so many soon-to-be big names played a week there en route to either coast. Example: In the late 90s, I once heard that Jay Leno ran into Big Ed and hugged him.

Indeed, they were a big deal.

As the boom began, well, BOOMING, the tiny club (which was actually more of a banquet room attached to a restaurant) drew sell out shows every night of the week, and with it's success, Jay and Ed (not the two most easy to get along with fellas) began butting heads, I think, quite literally at one point. Their partnership quickly fell apart, and Big Ed stayed on to run the Cottage, while Jay, in the most passive-aggressive move in the world of comedy - and that's saying something - opened the Last Laff about 1/2 a block away.

Begun, the club war has.

Mysterious happenings, like rocks crashing through club's windows, began to occur, and it was made clear as a half-emptied bottle of gin that if you played at Ed's, you didn't play Jay's, and vice-versa. Eventually, this "understanding" dissipated, and we were "allowed" to perform at both clubs, with minimal grumbling by the respective club's owners.


If Big Ed ever caught a comic talking during a show in the back of the room at the Comedy Cottage, he would inevitably haul his massive self over to you and bark: "IF YOU WANNA TALK, GO TO JAY'S!" in full voice, interrupting the comedian onstage even more so than your whispering and cackling. This became an HUGE inside joke for Chicago comedians, and we'd riff endlessly and mercilessly:

"If you wanna get laughs, go to Jay's!"

"If you wanna take a leak, go to Jay's!"

"If you wanna fuck my wife, go to Jay's!"

and so forth. To this day, if you meet a comedian who began performing in Chicago in the 1980s, promptly state, "If you wanna talk, go to Jay's!" and you will win a special place in their heart.

As stand up's star began to fade, and the over-saturation of televised comedy began to pull the "art form" further under, Jay was forced to shut down his club, and Big Ed reduced his 5 nights/week to 2, and eventually altogether locked his doors. I don't believe they ever made amends either. Last I heard, Ed passed away in Las Vegas some years ago. Of course, I heard this info from a fellow old-timer comedian, so the riffing - in true 21 gun salute status - picked up right where it left off:

"If you wanna die of a heart attack, go to Jay's!"

"If you wanna cremate me, go to Jays!"

"If you want a tombstone, go to Jay's!"

1 comment:

Unknown said...

This is the funniest thing I've read in years. I miss you guys to this day.

Jay Berk (me) is alive and well. Living in Indianapolis & happily retired. If you want to hit me up on my Face Book page I'd love to hear from you all.