In the fall of last year, I found myself back on Kingsridge Drive behind the Dayton Mall. I was on my way to pick up an order from Prime Digital Printing and glanced over at the property across the street from Max & Erma’s. What I saw caught me off guard; “This can’t be” I thought, “It’s a vacant lot.” Sure, nothing lasts forever, and sometimes progress means doing away with the old to make room for the new, but how could they tear down Jokers Comedy Café? It wasn’t just my home as a comedian; it was part of Dayton’s proud history.
I grew up in the Dayton area, and when I graduated from Beloit College in 1990, I returned to Centerville to live in my parents’ basement and pursue lofty dreams of a career in stand-up comedy. I had about seven minutes of rudimentary material and a lot of youthful enthusiasm, but what I didn’t have was the slightest clue where to begin. Like any genius with a newly minted bachelor’s degree, I grabbed the Yellow Pages and looked under “C” for “comedy.”
Moments later, I discovered that Jokers had an open mic night every Tuesday where beginning comics could try their stuff; and even better, the club was holding a contest called the “Jokers Comedy Joke-Off” where comedians could compete to win a contract with the largest booking agent in the Midwest. That would mean (gulp) road gigs and a fledgling career in show business.
It’s important to note, for those who don’t remember, that the late ‘80s and early ’90s were a boom time in the comedy industry. Stand-ups were getting lucrative network deals left and right, and those deals were meaning millions for people like Tim Allen and Roseanne Barr. It seemed that the sky was the limit, and thanks to the Jokers open mic night, such magical things felt entirely within reach.
We members of the open mic crew became a tight-knit group, mutually supportive and coursing with creativity. Mentored by local legend Dow Thomas (the open mic host), we wrote jokes together, laughed together, drank together, and traveled together to perform at the tough “one nighters” at bars and restaurants outside of town. Those were among our first paid gigs, again, made possible by the staff of Jokers.
I was lucky enough to win the Jokers Comedy Joke-Off in late summer of 1990, and as promised, I was awarded a contract with Louisville booking agent Tom Sobol. Mr. Sobol’s company later represented me in LA and landed me a theatrical agent, and that theatrical agent gave me a thrilling career in film and television. They always say in show business that if you are going to succeed, someone has to take a chance on you; someone has to give you the opportunity to try, fail, learn and grow. For me and a whole stable of young comics, Jokers Comedy Café was that someone – the first to let us jump up there and see what we could do.
In 1996 I appeared on the “Bizarro Jerry” episode of NBC’s #1 show “Seinfeld,” and it became a local news story in Dayton.[yframe url=’http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vnXOAWoNADw&feature=related’] I remember seeing the television field reporter standing in the rain in front of Jokers saying “This is where it all began…” Indeed. That might have been the proudest moment of my life. I felt like somehow I had made good for the comedy club I owed so much to.
Dayton has a rich comedy history, which includes natives such as Gordon Jump and the incomparable Jonathan Winters; I believe that Jokers Comedy Café also belongs in our comedy Hall of Fame. During a time of exciting revolution in the entertainment industry, Jokers gave a voice to an entire generation of young comedians and helped the Gem City hold its own.
Editors Note: DMM’s Lisa Grigsby owned Jokers Comedy Cafe. Pat also is very modest above where he breezes by his career in film and television. Best known for his three-year run on Fox’s “MADtv” (1995), Pat Kilbane made his mark on the show with outrageous physical comedy and uncanny celebrity impressions. Among his more memorable characters were Stan the Java Man, the shady Spishak spokesman, and the floppy superhero “Rubberman. Kilbane’s impressions are too numerous to list, but notably his mimicry of Howard Stern and Lyle Lovett fooled some viewers into believing that the stars actually appeared on the show.
After the expiration of his contract with “MADtv” , Kilbane was signed to a two-year deal with Dreamworks, during which he appeared in the movies Evolution and EuroTrip , and on ABC’s hit show “Spin City”. More recently, he appeared on My Name is Earl and Frank TV and in the movies Meet Dave, Day of the Dead and Semi-Pro. Pat’s latest endeavor is promoting a book he co-authored, The Brain Eater’s Bible.
Read other posts in out Dayton Memories series: