BY RODNEY HOfirstname.lastname@example.org, filed originally on January 8, 2015
After 33 years on Hilderbrand Drive in Sandy Springs, the Punchline Comedy Club is seeking a new location.
The legendary long-standing club, which once housed a country-western bar, is shutting down in April, according to a press release.
“A variety of things lined up with redevelopment coming in Sandy Springs and some exciting things happening around metro Atlanta,” said majority owner Jamie Bendall, in a statement. “It’s hard not to love your original showroom and all of the memories from over the years. Nevertheless, we’re excited for the opportunity a new location offers that will incorporate the best aspects of the current club with some new features.”
He hasn’t actually closed a deal yet on a new location. The club plans to do “pop up” shows in other spaces until a new spot is found, the press release said.
Bendall, who I visited at the club at noon Thursday, said he didn’t have much to add beyond the release and wouldn’t say where he was looking for a new location. He had purchased the club in late 2003 and said he had performed there going back to 1991.
His minority business partner Chris DiPetta, who has been involved with the club for a good part of its 33-year run, said in a brief conversation before bad reception cut us off that “Sandy Springs is building a lot around there and tearing stuff down. There isn’t enough parking. We can’t function without parking.”
DiPetta said he hopes they can sign a deal within 30 days for a new space but it would take at least 60 to 90 days to retrofit whatever space to their liking. And even then, when they re-open depends on when leases are available.
“I was there the first day it opened and I’ll be there when it closes,” DiPetta said. “I hope we can bring the soul of this Punchline to the new one.”
There are plans to build condos and multi-use development across the street from the current Punchline where patrons usually park. The Punchline’s lease expired on December 31, 2014 and Bendall received a 90-day extension to find a new space, according to the original Punchline co-owner Ron DiNunzio, who is helping Bendall find a new location.
Last week, Bendall denied the club was moving or shutting down to me when I asked him about rumors circulating that this was indeed the case. He dismissed the notion that the loss of access to a parking lot next door was an issue when I posed that question.
Over the years, the Punchline has hosted thousands of comics including big names such as Jeff Foxworthy, Jerry Seinfeld, Bill Maher, Ray Romano, Roseanne, Dave Chappelle, Jay Leno and Louis C.K. Legends such as Robin Williams and Eddie Murphy have stopped by as well. Foxworthy, who did his first stand-up set at the Punchline in 1985 and met his wife there, still visits to test out new material.
[UPDATE: Foxworthy sent me a statement: “I am so saddened that the Punchline has to relocate. It is a historical place. Many comedians, myself included got their start there and some of the greatest stand-ups ever have graced that stage. The only positive thing I can think to say is that when they make it a parking lot it will be the cleanest that floor has been in over thirty years! I will miss that wonderful and special place very much. It has not only been Atlanta’s premiere comedy club for decades it is known among comics as one of the best clubs in the nation.”]
“All this mojo has collected in that building,” said Steve Mitchell, who created a 2014 documentary called “If These Walls Could Talk” about the Punchline, available on iTunes and Google Play. (I wrote a piece about his doc last year.) “Every comedian that has ever made you laugh has gone through that room. I’m saddened but I understand.”
The Punchline’s final scheduled show so far on the calendar is the weekend of April 4-5 with Alingon Mitra, a stand-up comic who was featured last year on “Last Comic Standing.”
DiPetta said there will be surprise guests appearing in the coming weeks to bid the space farewell. Among other acts appearing in coming weeks including Sheryl Underwood, Dave Attell, Caroline Rhea and Billy Gardell, who not coincidentally is DiPetta’s client.
Marshall Chiles, who runs the Laughing Skull Lounge comedy club in Midtown and has helped out the Improv from time to time, thinks it would make sense for the Punchline to move Roswell’s’ Andretti’s Indoor Karting & Games, where his Funny Farm club used to be for a time.
The Punchline’s line up has been considerably weaker in recent months. Chiles said the owners of the two-year-old Buckhead-based Atlanta Improv were able to lure acts away from the Punchline by paying more in an effort to draw more patrons to eat and drink in the neighboring East Andrews entertainment district establishments before and after the shows.
The Improv, as a result, has been stealing acts that used to headline the Punchline such as Pauly Shore, Tom Green and Harland Williams, all of whom are scheduled to play the Improv in the coming weeks.
The soon-to-be-departed Punchline location is charming in a rickety sense. The wood paneling feels very “Urban Cowboy.” The ceiling tiles undulate. Old black-and-white 8×10 photos of comics of yore – many forgotten, some household names – still line the walls. Many of the wood chairs are original. The green room – packed with profane graffiti from bored comics – is not much larger than a broom closet.
Jerry Farber, a long-time Atlanta comic who now runs the Side Door club at the Landmark Diner in Buckhead, said he performed at the Punchline as a headliner 26 times over the years. “I liked it because it felt like well-worn jeans,” he said. “It wasn’t shiny like a lot of places. The place was just funky. Some of my best weeks ever were at the Punchline.”
Fellow Atlanta comic James Gregory was the very first person to perform on stage at the Punchline in 1982 as the emcee before Mark Weiner and the Weinerettes, a prop/puppet act. “Without the Punchline,” he said, “I would not be in this business.” He recalls spending quality time with the likes of Seinfeld, Leno and Tim Allen in those early days.
“I hope they’re successful where ever they end up,” Gregory said. “But it’s going to be hard to duplicate that magic.”
“The new comedy clubs being built these days are more than 350 seats and have separate dining rooms that are chef driven,” DiNunzio said. “They are nicer than the Hilderbrand location [which is about 270 seats]. But there is a lot of history there. The acoustics were really good there for some reason. Comics liked it.”
A move can be risky, he added. He remembers a Punchline he had franchised in Jacksonville, FL in the 1980s doing really well until it relocated to a mall spot and business tanked.
Here is a video I did back in 2011 of WSB’s Mark Arum when friends of the late great Royal Marshall held a tribute on his behalf at the Punchline: