A reunion of laughs

Tacony native Clay Heery was at the forefront of Philadelphia's emerging comedy club scene in the late 1970s. Last weekend, he staged two shows with comics who once performed at his Comedy Factory Outlet.

By Bill McFarland

Northeast Times Staff Writer

They started out at Grandmom Minnie's and then went to the Jailhouse. In this case, however, we're not talking about a band of criminals hatching a sinister plot in the house of a relative and eventually winding up in the slammer.

We're talking about a group of aspiring stand-up comics who were lamenting the lack of local venues to ply their craft, so they created their own. The troupe's journey passed through several places before settling in at the Comedy Factory Outlet on Bank Street in Old City.

The long-extinct CFO was a mainstay of our town's exploding comedy scene in the 1980s. One of its founding members, Tacony native Clay Heery, organized a reunion of some of those comics for two shows last weekend at the Comedy Cabaret at the Ramada Northeast Philadelphia on Roosevelt Boulevard.

Once known as Capt. Cranky on John DeBella's Morning Zoo radio program at WMMR in the 1980s, Heery has graduated to bigger things.

He grew up on Tulip Street near Magee Avenue in the shadow of the Tacony-Palmyra Bridge and was educated at nearby St. Leo's Elementary School — where his mother, the late Edna Heery, taught for more than 30 years — and at Father Judge High School and Temple University.

He now lives in Malibu, Calif., and he works as a screenwriter and producer in Hollywood. Among his credits are Andrew Dice Clay's first concert DVD and the feature film Meet the Parents.

It turns out that Heery's wife, Elle, wanted to return to Philadelphia last weekend to attend a George Washington High School reunion on Saturday, and he used the occasion to plan his own reunion.

While the Comedy Factory Outlet's legacy includes an array of up-and-coming stars who performed on its stage while climbing toward greater status, including Tim Allen, Howie Mandel, Chris Rock and Rosie O'Donnell, it also was the launching pad for a lot of local acts who eventually broke nationally.

"I always knew that the talent was out there," Heery said of the idea to create such a venue. "Philadelphia has always turned out great comedic talent over the years, going back to W.C. Fields and more recently David Brenner and Bill Cosby."

The local comedy troupe formed in the late 1970s and included Heery, Grover Silcox and Steve Young, among others, and as it grew, Ben Kurland, Wayne Cotter and Todd Glass were among the others who joined the roster. They started out at Grandmom Minnie's, a small cabaret on Chestnut Street between Second and Third streets.

"Wednesday was comedy night (at Grandmom Minnie's)," recalled Heery. "Then we moved to London (at 23rd and Fairmount streets). We had Tuesday nights there. Liz Matt did a piece on us for (the television show) Evening Magazine. The next Tuesday, there was two feet of snow on the ground, and we still had two hundred people turn out.

"Then Ken Lynch from the (Evening) Bulletin told us that Cavanaugh's had a place called the Jailhouse that wasn't being used. We got Saturday nights at the Jailhouse, and things started to take off. We did two shows on Saturday nights."

The Jailhouse was actually a side room at Cavanaugh's, which was at 32nd and Market streets. The comedy venue was very narrow.

"It was a (city) block long and only ten feet wide," said Heery. "It was like performing in a subway car."

But the financial arrangements were favorable to both sides.

"It was only a dollar cover charge to get in," said Heery. "We got the door (money), and they (Cavanaugh's) got the bar (receipts)."

The troupe eventually moved to the third floor of then-City Councilman James Tayoun's Middle East Restaurant, on Chestnut Street between Front and Second streets, and they named the venue the Comedy Factory Outlet. According to Heery, June 13, 1980, was the opening night.

"Tayoun had the Old City Cabaret (on the third floor), and he couldn't get any people in there," explained Heery. "We approached him and said that we thought that we could do well there, and he was open to the idea because he was losing too much money with the cabaret. On opening night, we actually did a torch relay from Cavanaugh's to the Middle East. The Outlet became very popular (at the Middle East)."

But then dissension set in. There was a disagreement between Young and the others, and the CFO lost out on the deal.

"We hired Steve to run the place because he didn't have a (regular) job," said Heery. "The rest of us had full-time jobs while we were doing the comedy. We had an agreement with Tayoun for three months, and during that time, Steve became very friendly with Tayoun.

"A lot of people (in the troupe) became concerned because Steve was booking (other artists) into other venues at the same time, so he was voted out as manager. Tayoun sided with Steve, so we went back to the Jailhouse and started looking around for another place."

Young renamed his venue at the Middle East the Comedy Works and began to book national acts such as Jay Leno, who appeared there several times in the 1980s.

Heery and his group eventually opened up around the corner on Bank Street, which was between Front and Second streets. The club was on Bank Street between Market and Chestnut streets. The two clubs competed with each other, and while the Comedy Works may have had some bigger names, the CFO was a launching pad for local acts.

From the local comedy scene in the 1980s, both Todd Glass and Wayne Cotter have made many appearances on The Late Show with David Letterman and The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. Cotter also hosted Comic Strip Live for several years on the Fox television network and Amazing America, a long-running series on The Learning Channel.

Ben Kurland, not to be confused with an actor of the same name, appeared on numerous television shows and was hired by the U.S. Department of Defense to entertain American soldiers at USO shows all over the world.

When asked who from the local acts impressed him the most, Heery cited Adam McKay.

"He started out as the door man (at the Comedy Factory Outlet)," said Heery. "His first time on stage was at an open mike night. He never got any further than that. Now he's writing and directing movies."

McKay's journey to the movies had a few stops along the way, most notably as a writer for Saturday Night Live and a stint at Chicago's Second City comedy troupe. He also teamed with comedian Will Ferrell as writer/director for the films Anchorman, Talledega Nights and Step Brothers.

As for the kid from Tacony, Heery didn't do so badly himself. He is quite happy working as a screenwriter in Hollywood. He described his reaction when he began working in his current profession.

"I thought it was the greatest job in the world, and I actually got paid to do it," he said.

This story was published on Dec. 3, 2008, in the Northeast Times in Philadelphia, which owns the copyright. It may not be reproduced anywhere else without permission.


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