Like any art form worth its space on the stage, stand-up comedy has evolved over the years. Mark Ridley has watched it happen from a front-row seat since 1979, when he opened a small, 90-seat version of his now-legendary Comedy Castle in the basement of a restaurant in West Bloomfield.
“We were building the plane while it was in the air,” says Ridley, who fell in love with stand-up while spending time in Los Angeles in the mid-’70s pursuing Hollywood dreams. He found himself at the iconic Comedy Store night after night watching Richard Pryor and a young David Letterman.
Those Hollywood dreams didn’t work out for Ridley, but he knew there was some magic in the stand-up he saw, and he wanted to bring it back to Michigan, where he had a young family waiting for him.
Ridley has stuck around for all these years in one of the more fickle and competitive corners of show business because, in some ways, he’s influenced the craft he now hosts in downtown Royal Oak. He’s largely credited with creating the three-act format that many clubs emulate — the model of a host, a feature act, and a headliner. And he’s kept an impressive archive of those who’ve walked across his stage and made local audiences laugh — or think, or regret bringing a first date to a comedy club.
“I’ve kept every single calendar since I’ve opened,” says Ridley, 70. “I feel like Yoda. If you hang around long enough, it’s like, ‘Oh yeah, the old guy.’”
Scribbled on those calendars are some very impressive names. During the comedy boom of the 1980s, Ridley hosted a who’s who of rapidly rising stars. Fresh-faced versions of Jim Carrey, Jay Leno, Jerry Seinfeld, Ellen DeGeneres, and the late Garry Shandling would do three-night stands at the club for paydays far removed from what they’d pull today.
Ridley still watches all of his club’s sets (often on video the next day). And he still recalls telling little details about the legends who’ve performed there: “Seinfeld always had a notepad with him. Ron White had reams of paper all over his tour bus. I asked Jay Leno where his notes were. He said, ‘What notes? It’s all in my head.’”
Early in the Comedy Castle’s run, comedians with local roots, like Dave Coulier and Mike Binder, helped Ridley make a name for himself. Now, a new generation of local talent is finding its way to his stage.
Ridley lists a few of the local names who have appeared on his marquee and then gone on to do national tours and appear on TV — Michael Kosta (The Daily Show), Dave Landau (Last Comic Standing), and J. Chris Newberg (America’s Got Talent). Among his current local favorites are Bill Bushart, Tam White, and David Dyer.
After decades of navigating the business and watching endless tapes of comedians performing on his stage, Ridley’s love for comedy hasn’t faltered.
This story is featured in the September 2021 issue of Hour Detroit magazine. Read more stories in our digital edition.