So a man walks into a comedy club …
A portrait of Mark Ridley as a young fan: Twenty-something budding producer from Detroit visiting the West Coast during the late 1970s. Good days to drop in at the Improv or Comedy Store and catch both top talent and newcomers — from Pryor to kids named Seinfeld and Letterman.
Ridley was certainly no stranger to the entertainment world; he’d been raised by a piano-playing mother and competed for attention against entertainer siblings.
“It was kind of in our blood,” Ridley says. “Our family reunion always had a cover charge.”
Good one, Mark. Dangerfield would be proud.
Ridley saw something out there in California, had an idea, and came home inspired. He leased a room, booked talent on little more than a hunch, and he’s still getting laughs three decades later.
Ladies and gentlemen, put your hands together and give it up for Mark Ridley’s Comedy Castle: a mecca for comics, a launching pad for A-list careers, and a supporter of local charities with few rivals for longevity and success.
Building A Reputation
Ridley learned early in life — he’d grown up in Walled Lake “back before it was developed” — that everyone likes to laugh: family, friends, and even would-be foes.
“I was the one that used class-clown antics to avoid getting beaten up,” he says. “Or shaken down for lunch money at school.”
As a teenager Ridley took to comedy albums with the same passion his peers held for rock ’n’ roll records, influenced by Bob Newhart and Bill Cosby routines. He then went on to formally study communications at Wayne State University.
“You could listen to [comedians] and they would paint that picture, like reading a book,” Ridley says. “It’s the same with stand-up, just listening to the art of the words.”
His path was chosen, and Ridley served a local apprenticeship as a stagehand before producing a few shows here and there. In California he scouted landmark clubs including Budd Friedman’s Improv and Mitzi Shore’s Comedy Store, thinking: If it worked there, why not here?
“I thought it would be a great thing to have in Detroit because of what I’d seen in L.A.,” Ridley says. “We had a good base to start with. People just needed a gym to work out at.”
There were, Ridley knew, more than enough comics in need of a stage. The Castle soon outgrew its original West Bloomfield room, moving first to Berkley before, in 1991, settling in Royal Oak. Thousands of shows later the Castle walls are lined with head shots from past performers that make up a Who’s Who of Contemporary Comedy — the stage having equally welcomed nervous novices and the top names in the business. (See page 2 for more).
There’s no real secret, he says, other than providing dependable laughs to an audience that appreciates live entertainment and needs to share laughs with friends. He’s been often told how a show helped end a long week or lifted someone’s spirits, even during tenuous times that closed the curtain on more than a few local venues.
“People still go out,” Ridley explains. “I kind of expected a drop [during recessions], but instead saw an increase. They need to have some laughter … it’s a great healer.”
Comedy’s Healing Touch
Maybe that’s why Ridley keeps giving back, both to performers and the community at large. He’s long been the go-to guy for Detroit comedy whether providing talent for Dick Purtan radio-thons or opening the Castle doors to charity groups.
More than 30 nights a year the Castle is turned over to a variety of efforts. A modest fee rents the room and talent for a range of beneficiaries: organizations that make it an annual event or small groups hosting a one-time-only show for a critical need. (Events include fundraisers for the Furniture Bank on Oct. 23, and South Oakland Homeless on Oct. 28. Information and calendar available at comedycastle.com.)
General Manager Mary Coyle — herself a study in loyalty having started as a waitress at the club nearly 30 years ago — coordinates the shows with the same courtesies given to top-shelf comics and packed Friday showcases.
“We want them to feel comfortable. People want to come out and laugh, to forget about their troubles for a day,” Coyle says. “We have a great staff; everyone pitches in from Mark on down. He wouldn’t be in this business if he wasn’t a nice person.”
Ridley glossed over a long history of supporting local charities, pleased that a night out can bring relief or help a cause in need. Give a good show and people will turn out, a realization unchanged since he’d had an idea back in the day.
He also thinks comedy is an easy marketing tool.
“We have the perfect combination: laughter and alcohol,” Ridley says.
The man knows his punch lines. Having recently renewed a five-year lease, Ridley doesn’t expect to take a final bow any time soon, even after a recent heart attack that required a few lifestyle adjustments.
“I love doing it,” Ridley says. “I’ve seen hundreds if not thousands of comedians. I still watch open mic night. They may have to drag me out by the heels.”
Pause; wait for the right moment.
“Or in a box,” Ridley laughed.
Good night ladies and gents … and don’t forget to tip your waitstaff.
Where Stars Were Born
There’s something about Mark Ridley’s Comedy Castle that keeps ’em coming back for more — audiences and comedians alike.
Witness the loyalty shown by homegrown talents Tim Allen and Dave Coulier, who both debuted on Ridley’s open-mic stage in early 1979. When the Castle staged a 1991 grand re-opening, Allen took time out from his Home Improvement TV schedule to do a show. He also did a surprise set this summer, for which Ridley didn’t bother upping the Wednesday $3 cover.
Allen credits Ridley with keeping comedy alive at the Castle, even if there remains a good-natured beef over the price of a tile that went missing from the stage: Allen calls it a souvenir, Ridley a case of larceny.
“I’ve known Mark a long time,” Allen says.
“He is family and a pioneer — a courageous guy who kept this art form going in Detroit. He is a mentor and he protected us. But let me be clear, we are still arguing over $25 bucks.”
Coulier, all of 19 years old when he made his Castle debut, ranks Ridley alongside Mitzi Shore and Budd Friedman, an impresario who made his and others’ careers possible.
“Anyone can get a sound system and put a microphone on a stage in a bar somewhere,” Coulier says. “But it’s very rare when someone has the foresight to build a world where a comedy star can rise from obscurity.”
Ridley provided more than just a stage. He offered “sage advice and encouragement or constructive criticism,” Coulier says. Ridley arranged test gigs for Coulier in L.A.’s “extremely competitive comedy market,” going up against newcomers named Leno, Shandling, and Saget. When the time was right, Coulier was encouraged to leave.
“Mark pulled me aside and said, ‘I’ve got to talk to you about something,’ ” Coulier says. “My immediate thought was that I had done or said something wrong. Mark basically said it was time for me to leave — and that I could do really well in Los Angeles. I was scared and exhilarated, but excited as hell that Mark believed in my talent.”