Posted: 9:41 am Wednesday, February 19th, 2014
By Rodney Ho
From the outside, the Punchline Comedy Club in Sandy Springs resembles a drab edifice amid a sea of asphalt. The inside, with its dated wood paneling, evokes an aging country western bar from the “Urban Cowboy” days. The walls feature decades-old 8-by-10 black-and-white photos of comics, some famous, most forgotten.
Despite the atmosphere – or because of it – the beloved comedy institution survives and endures as it enters its 33rd year of existence this week. It remains one of the oldest stand-up comedy clubs in the country.
Steve Mitchell – a retired radio broadcaster who manned the airwaves on now deceased stations 96rock and Eagle 106.7 – spent three years chronicling the history of the club, calling the documentary “If These Walls Could Talk.” (You can download it on iTunes for $12.99 or Google Play for $7.99 or buy a DVD copy at the club for $14.95. You could also rent it on iTunes for $4.99 or Google Play for $3.99.)
“When I started doing interviews with comics in 2010, Jimmy Shubert said the line, ‘If these walls could talk,’ ” Mitchell said. “It didn’t register. A year later, another comic said the same thing. Then a third comic did, unprompted. By the time John Oliver brought it up, I knew that had to be the title.”
The club’s dingy, beer-splattered walls have heard the voices of thousands of comics and the laughter they’ve evoked. A sampling: Jerry Seinfeld, Tim Allen, Jay Leno, Roseanne, Jeff Foxworthy, Dave Chappelle, Larry the Cable Guy and Louis C.K. Earlier legends such as Robin Williams, Eddie Murphy and Richard Pryor have graced the tiny stage.
The trailer for the documentary:
“It’s a living museum,” Mitchell said. “The people in Atlanta have been coming here so long yet they may not know its history. They are lucky to have it. It’s not known for its food or its decor but it’s a magical atmosphere.”
Comedians in the documentary are rhapsodic about the club’s charms, how the laughter bounces warmly off the walls, how supportive the crowds can be. Mitchell includes in the 78-minute documentary archival stand-up bits from the 1980s (“There are a lot of mullets!”) and a sampling of current acts.
Foxworthy, who lives in Alpharetta, famously started his career at the Punchline on amateur night in 1985. In the documentary, he stands on that same stage more than a quarter century later to tell his story.
“After the thing, this girl said you were funny,” he said. “She ended up becoming my wife…. Kind of met my career and my wife in the same room. Same building, same night.”
J. Anthony Brown, a veteran comic who was on the Punchline stage opening night, said returning there is like “coming home. I still get nervous every time I come to this club. It scares the **** out of me.”
Mitchell was most struck by the comments of John Oliver, a stand-up who recently left “The Daily Show” as a correspondent to start his own HBO comedy show. Oliver grew up as a student of comedy in Britain and had read about the Punchline as a mecca for standup. He was thrilled to perform there.
“It’s my Narnia,” Oliver told Mitchell. When told that bits of Gallagher‘s watermelon remnants had been recently scraped off the ceiling, Oliver chuckled. “Gallagher smashed watermelons on this stage. I’ve made it. We all have our heroes!”
Punchline co-owner Chris DiPetta, an assistant manager when the club opened in 1982, embraced the project and helped fund it. The film is available on iTunes and Google Play. He is trying to convince Showtime to air the film.
As for the club itself, he would love a bigger space. (The current building capacity is about 275 people.) But he said it’s hard to leave: “I’m stuck with this building. I’m afraid to move it. There’s so much history.”
Where is the Punchline? 280 Hilderbrand Drive in Sandy Springs off Roswell Road just outside the Perimeter.
About the Author
I'm the media writer for the Atlanta Journal Constitution and ajc.com. I've been following radio since 2001, TV since 2005. I cover everything from the local radio and TV news scene to shows shot in Atlanta ("The Walking Dead," "Real Housewives of Atlanta") to networks based here (CNN, TBS, Up, Weather Channel) to celebrities who visit town.