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A man and his Castle; Mark Ridley celebrates 40 years of laughs
Forty years in any business is no laughing matter
Especially when it's a comedy club.
Mark Ridley's Comedy Castle turns 40 this weekend with four special shows by Louie Anderson, the comic and actor's first appearances there ever. In that time, the club — at its current 400-seat Royal Oak location in the former Daily Tribute pressing plant since 1990 — has been a fixture on the national comedy circuit, showcasing thousands of headliners and up-and-comers, helping launch the stand-up careers of Michiganians such as Dave Coulier and Tim Allen and hosting early performances by future stars Garry Shandling, Bob Saget, Lewis Black and many more.
It's also the only small club Kathleen Madigan regularly includes on tours of mostly larger theaters, while Ridley is widely credited with creating a three-act format that's been copied worldwide.
"Mark Ridley's Comedy Castle is the most important comedy club in Michigan and arguably the best in the country," says J. Chris Newberg, a Brother Rice High School graduate, who's also been managed by Ridley. "The club is magical for comedians and, because of his eye for talent, a special event for the audience."
"I love the Castle," adds Madigan. "Between Mark, the crowds and the staff there, it's just a great club to work. I've been coming twice a year for 20 years and it just keeps getting better. When Mark retires, I'm retiring -- but I say that every year hoping he'll retire and he doesn't!."
Ridley keeps Comedy Castle running 51 weekends every year, stopping only during Labor Day weekend. He says it seems more like 40 minutes than 40 years.
"It's absolutely flown by," says Ridley, who's 68 but adds "mentally I'm about 18.”
"I was talking about this over dinner the other night, and Kathleen Madigan, who's been coming for 25, 27 years, said, 'It just seems like yesterday you were calling your boys to get them ready for school, and now here we are.'
"There's no reason I can't make it 50 years, either."
Ridley grew up in Walled Lake and "went the whole route of being the class clown and just loving comedy." His parents regularly gave him comedy albums for birthday and holiday presents, and Ridley immersed himself in the work of Bob Newhart, Don Rickles, George Carlin and others. Ridley studied mass communications at Wayne State but found his calling after briefly living in Los Angeles. He considered a transfer into the University of Southern California's film program and visited clubs such as the Comedy Store and the Improv.
"That just gave me inspiration," recalls Ridley, who returned to Michigan to work as a waiter for a year before opening his first Comedy Castle on Jan. 4, 1979, in the basement of the Meating Place in West Bloomfield. Ridley started with open mic nights three times a week, but things shifted when Mike Binder, hipped to the club by his father, called Ridley and asked to perform there.
"It was an immediate success," Ridley recalls. "I remember pouring rain in February of 1979. I didn't take reservations, and there were 300 people trying to get in a 90-seat room. It was pretty amazing."
Timing proved to be everything for Ridley.
"It was one of 10 comedy clubs in the country at the time," he explains. "The bulk were on the East and West Coasts. There was one in Chicago. I was the ninth or 10th one to open in the country, and Binder was back in L.A., telling these guys about a club in Michigan paying money. It wasn't a big circuit back then, but (the Comedy Castle) was part of it, and people wanted to come and perform here."
'tim Allen notes that, "Mark dedicated himself to encouraging new talent and produced great comedy shows in one of the best comedy clubs in the county."
Some of Ridley's favorite memories are of big stars' early performances at the Comedy Castle — like Shandling getting just $400 for three nights. "I think his airfare was more than I was paying him," Ridley says.
Jim Carrey came in shortly after staring on TV's "In Living Color" during 1990 and "did 15 minutes that just blew me away, all his impressions and everything." Coulier was a teen upstart who honed his act at the Comedy Castle — and met future "Full House" co-star Saget there.
"The Comedy Castle was my comedy college and Mark Ridley was my professor and and mentor," says Coulier, who Ridley encouraged to hit the stages in Los Angeles when he was just 19. "Night after night we would finish our sets and discuss the jokes, the audience response and the future. And none of us knew what our futures were going to be. Without him believing in me...my career could've fizzled."
The Comedy Castle also hosted Allen's first show, which Ridley remembers as "good, but it wasn't memorable — not as memorable as Dave Coulier's first performance."
"Dave at 19 was a seasoned professional," he says. "Tim was just told by friends, 'Hey, you're pretty funny, you should try this.' But he obviously figured it out."
Allen, meanwhile, recalls that, "I closed big, i saved the best for last." He also quietly stole a floor tile from the club that sits, framed on the wall of his office "because I knew something big had happened."
Shandling and Rosie O'Donnell used the Comedy Castle to try out material before filming TV specials. Kevin James did a New Year's Eve show there just before finding out he was cast in "King of Queens."
"Richard Jeni never failed to bring the house down," Ridley remembers. "I told him once, 'You're only doing five minutes,' and he looked at me like I was crazy. But if I let Jeni go he would do three hours by himself. There was a made genius about him — he could go on and on. Same with Dennis Wolfberg."
From a performer's perspective, Lewis Black says that, "There are a few truly great comedy clubs in this country, and the Comedy Castle is one of them. It's a room where the audience comes to enjoy the work of a comic and not be a part of the show. It's an audience that is comedy smart and just flat out intelligent as well. I never had a night where I thought things went off the rails. I developed and grew as a comic there. It was always a joy to play there."
The Comedy Castle changed locations five times before settling in Royal Oak, and over the years it's been the site for episodes of HBO's Comic Relief, Showtime’s "Comedy Club Network," A&E's "Comedy on the Road with John Byner," the Comcast Comedy Spotlight and the Detroit International Comedy Festival. It also hosts numerous fundraisers for charities and offers comedy classes taught by Bill Sushart and Joel Fragomeni.
Despite a need to book a minimum of 153 acts a year, however, Ridley remains a tough judge of talent and a stringent gatekeeper of the Comedy Castle stage -- someone Coulier refers to as "a professor and mentor at the best comedy college in the world."
"He watches all the comics, and when you're starting out in Michigan, him laughing at your jokes is the only thing that matters," Newberg says. "His notes are perfect and insightful. ... One time he was trying to get me to slow down on stage because I was new and rushing and he said to me, 'If you think you're going too slow, go slower.' I say that before every set to myself, and twice before a do a TV spot."
Ridley — who keeps tabs on the comedy scene via satellite radio, TV and online comedy magazines — says he's grown used to being told "I can't believe I finally got on" by the comics who play at the Comedy Castle, especially those in the emcee and support act slots.
"I'm not doing it to be mean," says Ridley, whose sons Ryan and Adam are also in the entertainment industry as producers and writers. "I'm not saying I'm 100 percent right all the time, but I have to wait till someone feels right. I think about demographics and age groups — all that stuff comes into play until you can look at someone and go, 'Now you're ready.'
"I try to keep my finger on the pulse of who's coming up, who’s hot, what the trends are. It's always an adventure — every year is an adventure."
And if Ridley has his way, there will be more years to come. Hitting 50 with the Comedy Castle is a real goal, and Ridley, who spends about four months in Florida during the winter now, has every intention of achieving it.
"My lease is up for renewal this year, so I've been in touch with my landlord and he wanted to know if I'm ready to hang it up yet," Ridley says. "I said, 'No, I'm ready to renew.' I still love it. There's no reason to stop."
Louie Anderson and Billy Ray Bauer celebrate the 40th anniversary of Mark Ridley's Comedy Castle with four shows Friday and Saturday, Jan. 11 and 12, at the venue, 310 S. Troy St. Royal Oak. Tickets are $35. Call 248-542-9900 or visit comedycastle.com.
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