The Rise and Fall of Pips
Updated: 3 days ago
By Brian Schiller
I recently read that Marty Schultz, the former owner of Pips Comedy Club, had passed away in 2013 at the age of 58. RIP Before I even finished the obituary, my anxiety kicked in when I thought about his younger brother, Seth, who had died seven years earlier.
In the art of stand-up comedy, a good misdirection can lead to laughter if it is constructed with the right amount of irony and truth. I just never thought it could lead to tears. In 1962, George Schultz, a former stand-up comedian, opened Pips on Emmons Avenue in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, New York. Located across the street from the bay itself, Pips was the first comedy club in the US, even before Bud Friedman's Improv. Major forces in the field, Billy Crystal, Rodney Dangerfield, Stiller and Meara, Joan Rivers, Woody Allen, Robert Klein, David Brenner, Richard Lewis, Elaine Boosler, Larry Miller, Jerry Seinfeld, Adam Sandler, and Andrew Dice Clay had either graced the stage or made their name at Pips. Andy Kaufman also got his start there. In fact, Seth made a documentary about Kaufman, capturing what is believed to be the only footage of him not in character, just being himself. After I finished college, having moved back to New York in 1991, I started doing open mics all around town. I lived in Queens, and while it was a hike to that part of Brooklyn, I just had to make the pilgrimage and break my cherry on Emmons Avenue. Driven by curiosity and respect for comedy history, I wanted to walk in the shoes of some of my influences even as I intended to blaze my own trail in the world of set-up punch.
Coincidentally, just months before I got there, George had passed on to the big comedy club in the sky and his sons, Marty and Seth, who had managed the club for years, became the new owners. Growing up in the family business, they seemed destined to keep the fun times rolling and introduce the Pips' brand to a new generation of comedy fans. Yet, in spite of Pips’ unique history and vibe, the brothers were unable to build on their legacy. The audiences just weren't coming out to Pips as they had in the 60s and 70s. The changing demographics of Sheepshead Bay and the surrounding areas probably played the biggest role in the club's decline. There were even whispers that the brothers might have to sell.
For comedians too, Pips had fallen off the comedy map. By the mid-1980s with the comedy boom in full swing, places like the Comic Strip, Catch a Rising Star, and the Comedy Cellar formed a circuit within the city that was fast and easy for comedians to traverse. Conceivably, you could try out some new material at a 7:00 pm open mic in midtown, leave there by 8:30 pm, take a five minute subway ride and arrive with time to spare for your 20 minute 9:30 pm set at the Comic Strip, leave there by 10:15 pm, and then take a ten minute subway ride to the West Village, grab a slice at Ben’s, and try to get a late night spot at the Comedy Cellar. For any comedian living outside of Brooklyn, you might consider Pips for an open mic every once in a while, as long as you were willing to brave a long subway ride each way.
And if this starts to sound like a Hunter S. Thompson novel, it's only because some of the characters that flowed through their doors came straight out of Gonzo Casting. Let's face it, after 1990, every Dice Clay wannabe could find refuge at the Pips’ open mic. Professional amateurs and amateur professionals. Side show freaks & college geeks. Carnival clowns who should have been on lock-down. Gimmick guys searching for a gimmick; hobos and bozos that now held clinic. Didn't give a whit about wit, but if they bought a drink, they could sit wherever they wanted to sit. Did I say Hunter S. Thompson? I meant Dr. Seuss. Whoever their muse, Marty and Seth offered them a Brooklyn domicile, and this rag-tag motley crew of mutant jesters was more than willing to embrace it.
Inside the club, Marty handled all the business and Seth was the guy out front. The impresario. The ringleader. A PT Barnum with a rhythmic Brooklynese that made you think he either borrowed it from Arthur Fonzarelli or Henry Winkler borrowed it from him. His sense of humor was quirky and broad, no doubt inspired by his friend, Andy Kaufman. As the MC of the Pips open mic night, Seth's "closer" was a pantomime of Joe Theisman famously being sacked by Lawrence Taylor on Monday Night Football. The key to the bit was the crushing of a plastic cocktail cup behind his back to imitate the sound Joe Theisman's leg made during that gruesome tackle. He destroyed a lot of unsuspecting plastic cocktail cups not to mention more than a few Brooklyn audiences witnessing that gag for the first time. Although, I have to admit, the joke was so unapologetically crass and corny, I laughed every time.
Outside the club, the Seth I remember was always editing the documentary footage he had on Kaufman and other Pips' luminaries while simultaneously writing, directing, and acting in his own pre-Funny or Die kind-of short comedy films. In fact, I’m proud to mention my appearance in his minimus opus, a spoof entitled “Kubrick, Fran, and Ollie,” performing the role I was born to play, Al Pacino as Michael Corleone dressed as a Bar Mitzvah boy at a Catholic Baptism for a male baby doll. Given all the "Godfather" and "JFK" assassination references throughout, the only thing more bizarre was Oliver Stone's reaction to the copy Seth sent him -- he said he didn't get it! From the man who two years later brought us the cartoonish bloodfest that was "Natural Born Killers," his puzzlement was a little hard to believe.
Notwithstanding Oliver Stone’s apparent pass on “Kubrick, Fran, and Ollie,” with all the contacts Seth had from Pips, one had the feeling he would catch a break someday. At least that was my thinking and I'm sure the thinking of all the other comedians who volunteered to work on the film for free. I'm guessing I wasn’t the only one who wanted to believe my participation just might be the beginning of a professional association that could pay dividends down the line. The thing motivational speakers never explain is that some dreams are impossible to fulfill. Sure, some are relatively easy for the dream fairy to deliver like getting a motor cycle, or visiting France, or learning how to play golf; but next to becoming an astronaut, sustaining a career in comedy is nearly impossible. For every stand-up, sketch actor, or filmmaker that gets a transformational gig that leads to more work, thousands fall by the wayside within the first few years of trying. Indeed, those without the creative discipline and tolerance for an unsteady per diem lifestyle find out relatively soon that their abilities are better suited to other professions. Who hangs on? Besides having the artistic chops, those most likely to eventually find their way usually possess the interpersonal savvy to cultivate professional relationships, the acuity and hustle to navigate the business end of things, and the toughness to withstand repeated rejection, sometimes on a nightly basis. Alas, only a few remain standing in this Carlinian survival of the mentally fittest competition.
However, just as toughness is necessary to make it in comedy, it takes a certain amount of rational judgment to survive comedy. I used to think my dad was out of touch when the big advice he gave me after college was to know my limitations. Only when I was twelve years into a stand-up and sitcom writing “career” did I realize he may have had a point. The fact is that most mere mortals eventually come to a crossroads and have to make a decision about their dream -- to continue the struggle or walk away. It sounds easy enough, but like setting up a joke, it’s a little trickier than you’d think. Considering the enormous personal investment comedians make to achieve their dreams, not to mention the ever seductive notion of success being almost within reach, only the most practical-minded have the capacity to push the emergency ejection seat button. And to those who have that ability, God bless them, because sometimes pushing that button can be the difference in not only surviving a wrong career choice, but life itself. Not long after I got to LA in December of 1994, I bumped into Seth while hanging out at the Comedy Store. Out on the patio, amid a wall of famous comedian signatures, some of which were Pips' alumni, he casually mentioned that he and Marty had finally sold the club and had just moved to LA. Being respectful of his personal affairs, I didn't want to probe and told him I, too, had recently arrived with four sitcom specs after my Cheers script had received positive coverage from William Morris. It seemed like a normal exchange by two peers that would end with a "Good to see you, again" or "Let's do lunch sometime." But then rather awkwardly, as if trying to flex a phantom limb after the amputation of an identity, he said he knew the Hollywood sitcom writer-producer and current Cheers scribe, Jeff Abugov, and would try to introduce us. Of course, I never expected him to introduce me to Jeff. I had been in comedy long enough to know that dropping names was a tell, and in most cases, an indication of insecurity. It made sense. He no longer owned Pips, which greatly diminished his stature in comedy circles and, in all likelihood, eroded much of his confidence. Over the next couple of years, I probably saw Seth a half-a-dozen times hanging out at different LA open mics. I’m not sure if we ever said hello; my brain just remembers him standing in the back of a room with three or four other comedians waiting to perform. It almost didn’t seem fair that a man whose family had contributed to so many careers, and himself well regarded by peers, was now signing up at the local mics. It struck me as an indignity and a reminder of just how cold and ungrateful this business can be.
Meanwhile, back in Brooklyn, Pips was experiencing something of a resurgence under its new owners. But they were never able to duplicate the magical run of success the Schultz family produced decades earlier; and after another sale, Pips finally closed its doors in 2005. Did someone bother to save the dozens of comedian headshots that adorned its walls? Will anyone remember Pips' famously rough crowds once the comics who sparred with them have forgotten or passed on? How many people will recall that it was the entrepreneurial genius and loving stewardship of George, Marty, and Seth Shultz that made Pips an iconic comedy showplace and the last authentic New York comedy club in New York City? The only thing certain is the sun that was once visible from the Pip's stage through its storefront windows had set on the bay from that vantage point for the last time. Just before the end of the millennium, I briefly visited with Seth at his new apartment; he was living in a shithole on a seedy street just off Hollywood Blvd. It wasn't so unusual for a young artist’s dwelling. A studio apartment with at least one roach crawling across the refrigerator seemed fairly de rigueur. A bottle of cheap whisky next to a coffee mug on a kitchen table in the "living room" was probably pretty standard. The only thing out of the ordinary was a swanky walk-in closet which housed at least a dozen of his, pre digital, film reel canisters. Here, like a swashbuckling pirate grasping a treasure map, he showed me the reel containing his Andy Kaufman documentary and explained how he had this meeting lined up and that meeting lined up. For a moment he was back at Pips, the impresario holding court once again. But the juxtaposition of these frames ultimately told another story. It was a cautionary tale playing out right in front of my green eyes. Perhaps, if I’d been more mature, I'd have noticed the mounting scars of too many rejections hidden behind the veneer of momentary enthusiasm. Maybe if I’d looked beyond the whiskey bottle, I'd have imagined the unhealthy habits learned from an atypical family life spent hanging around a bar and itinerant comedians. Perchance I had the wisdom, I'd have understood that growing up in the shadow of legends and deciding to hitch his own wagon to a star, if he wasn't careful, could exact a steep price of castle in the sky ambitions, entitlement, impatience, bitterness, desperation, despair, depression, and finally rock bottom. The fact was he was a 40 year old man living in a dump well past the age grown men should be living in such places. He was broke, and within a decade his spirit would surrender to a similar fate. I later heard he shot himself in the backseat of a parked car in Culver City. RIP
Film short, "Kubrick, Fran and Ollie": https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZbOpkCbqHiYi