Brash, nasal and opinionated, Mitzi Shore took a middling comedy club on the Sunset Strip and for a time made it the center of American comedy. That was the Comedy Store, which she won ownership of in her 1974 divorce. Before she died in 2018, the Comedy Store launched the careers of a bevy of stand-up comics, including David Letterman, Jay Leno, Jimmie Walker, Elayne Boosler and Sandra Bernhard.
Watching them all was her son, Pauly Shore. He gained notoriety as “the Weasel,” a lewd surfer character, and became a popular V.J. on MTV before appearing in 1990s movies like “Encino Man” and “Bio-Dome.” Today, at 51, he’s still a working stand-up and has begun performing a one-man show about his childhood called “Stick With the Dancing.” Backstage after a recent performance in Myrtle Beach, S.C., he shifted out of his Weasel persona and remembered his childhood as an eyewitness to the greatest minds in comedy. Looking back on that scene of the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, he spoke about his mother’s influence — and the breakthroughs and feuds that surrounded her. Here are excerpts:
Mitzi Shore as a Force of Nature
My mom was very loving — but her first love was always the Store and the comics. She owned a limo — a weird-looking limo. Riding in it, I felt like we were the Addams Family. But Mom loved being driven around. She always had comedians drive the limo.
Hiding in the Lighting Booth
Around age 8, Pauly Shore became fascinated with stand-up and spent as much time as he could at the Store, hiding in the lighting booth to watch stars like Redd Foxx and George Carlin and little-known talents like Lenny Schultz.
Lenny Schultz was a P.E. coach with a beautiful body, but he was nuts. He would bring food onstage and say, “The Lenny Schultz diet, what I like to do is put food on the parts of my body where I want to lose weight.”
Then he would strip down to a Speedo and stick handfuls of cottage cheese inside the Speedo. He’d pour milk on his head, rub a grapefruit on his elbow, and smear chocolate pudding on his chest. My little jaw dropped. After a performance, he’d go out to the parking lot to clean up. My first job at the Comedy Store was hosing down Lenny Schultz.
House Calls From Robin Williams
None of the club’s regulars hit it bigger than Williams, who parlayed his sets there into television and film stardom.
Robin Williams was a really sweet guy, but he would run around the club like the Tasmanian Devil. For a while, my mom’s office was at our house. Right after Robin got the “Mork & Mindy” TV show, he’d show up at our house to meet with my mom, wearing the Mork outfit.
Comedians are very sensitive. My mom knew that, and she was like the den mother to all of them. She knew how fragile Robin was, and they had this kindness for each other that was pretty special.
The Gentle Richard Pryor
Pryor rebooted his career at the Comedy Store in the 1970s.
My mom was very close with Richard Pryor — she took him under her wing. I know they had sex one time, but their relationship wasn’t a sex thing, it was a love-intimacy-respect thing.
When Richard showed up at the Store, it was like a wave went through the club: “Richard’s here, oh my God, Richard’s here.” I’d go out to the parking lot and open the door of his car. He’d get out, say “Heeeeey little man!” and shake my hand. He wasn’t socially awkward, the way most comedians are offstage; he was gentle and soft.
Once he got inside the club, I’d fetch him a Courvoisier, he’d light a cigarette, and my mom would sit next to him on a staircase. When the M.C. would announce Richard, people reacted like Jesus Christ was coming onstage. He would get a laugh as soon as he spoke, no matter what he said.
Richard came around whenever he was developing a new standup set; Paul Mooney, who wrote with him, and Jennifer Pryor, his wife, would sit in the back and take notes. And Richard would be terrible at the beginning — the audience would worship him, but he’d do five minutes with no laughs. He’d keep working at it, and it’d get a little better, but still be pretty bad. Then I’d go away for a little while, maybe a month at summer camp, and when I came back he’d be doing 40 minutes and killing.
Mondays at the Club
That was “potluck” night, with performance times determined by drawing names from a hat. Some aspiring comics would spend months performing on Mondays, gaining experience and trying to get in Mitzi Shore’s good graces.
Garry Shandling did over 20 showcases for my mom before she gave him a prime-time slot. She believed in him — if she didn’t, she wouldn’t have let him hang around — but she pushed him really hard. He was a writer and she thought he didn’t have it as a performer yet.
Same thing with Roseanne — my mom told her to wear overalls. To this day, I think Roseanne got her cadences from my mom. Roseanne kind of worshiped her.
Hollywood had the casting couch and the Comedy Store had the Mitzi couch: if you wanted a spot onstage, you needed to kiss the owner’s ass. But when my mom liked you, she would make you a doorman. You could park cars. “You’re great. Now go answer the phones.” You’d be on the payroll, getting comfortable in this crazy environment.
Yakov Smirnoff worked as the handyman at the Store — and at our house. He needed a job, and he was a carpenter. He sanded our doors and built a butler’s pantry.
Late Nights Offstage
Sometimes after the Store closed for the evening, a handful of comics would go to Mitzi Shore’s home.
My mom had afterparties at our house, but I was a light sleeper. From the third grade through junior high, I would wake up in the middle of the night and everyone would be in the living room: Mom, Richard Belzer, Robin Williams, Richard Pryor, David Tyree, other randoms. She’d bring champagne from the Store and there’d be lots of joints.
I’d open the door to a smoke-filled room and say: “Mom. Mom. Mom!”
Then she’d notice me. “What? Oh, hey, Pauly.”
“Mom, I’ve got school in the morning, please.”
Everyone would just stare. They apologized, but the second I left the room, they would start laughing.
Comics on the Picket Line
After Johnny Carson moved “The Tonight Show” from New York to California in 1972, aspiring comics in Los Angeles had a clear career path that involved attracting the attention of Carson’s bookers (who frequented the Comedy Store). However, the comedians weren’t paid for their sets.
My mom saw her role as giving comics a space to develop, but it was obvious she was making a lot of money. The comics wanted to get paid, too. So in 1979, they went on strike.
Mom took it really personally. It was embarrassing to have all these comics out in front with picket signs. They had messages like “No Bucks for Yucks.”
It was hard. One comedian, Steve Lubetkin, killed himself, jumping off the roof of the Hyatt House, landing on the ramp between the Hyatt and the Store. “My name is Steve Lubetkin,” his suicide note read. “I used to work at the Comedy Store.”
The [striking comics] ended up making a deal and got paid a token amount. My mom never really forgave the comedians, but pretty soon the drugs were flowing and people were partying again and everybody seemed to forget about it.
Mitzi Shore expanded the club over the years, but Pauly Shore discovered that if he wanted a stand-up career of his own, he would need to leave.
When I got into high school, I wanted a 100-gallon saltwater fish tank. Mom said she wouldn’t buy it for me, but that I could work for it — she made me the short-order cook on weekends at the Westwood branch of the Comedy Store.
My mom used the Westwood branch for comedians she thought weren’t ready for the Sunset location: Howie Mandel, Paul Rodriguez, Arsenio Hall. Jim Carrey did these amazing impressions of Elvis Presley and Henry Fonda.
Budd Friedman owned the Improv, and there was a feud — comics had to play one club or the other. It was awkward, because me and Budd’s kid went to Beverly Hills High School together. I used to go into the Improv, write down the names of the comedians working there and tell my mom.
My mom also had this tense situation with Rodney Dangerfield. In 1985, he hosted HBO’s annual “Young Comedians Special” — and Rodney recruited them all from the Comedy Store.
My mom didn’t like that he was poaching her comics — but they wanted to be poached! Roseanne did the show, Andrew Dice Clay did it. Sam Kinison had been working as a doorman at the Store, but the spot he did on Rodney’s special made him famous.
Mom banned Sam from the Store because of an incident where he showed up all coked out with a gun, looking for somebody he had beef with. I was hanging out with Sam a lot and she thought I was going to die. We had this intense fight where she told me not to spend time with Sam. I said, “Mom, you don’t understand. I’m not hanging out with him for drugs — I’m hanging out with him because he’s a genius.”
She started crying and threw her keys at me. The next day, I got my own studio apartment and started my stand-up career without her.