If your mother says she loves you, check it out

by Brian McKim & Traci Skene on January 5th, 2009

The Rainbow Room is closing. Right? Wrong.

The Rainbow Grill is closing. So, what’s the difference? Here’s the difference, from Jossip.com:

…High atop the 65th floor of the Rockefeller Center building is the Rainbow Room, the storied restaurant-bar-ballroom that it’s always worth telling NYC’s visitors to stop by instead of the Empire State Building. And now, it is closing.

Well, not exactly.

Don’t get confused: Citing everybody’s excuse for failure– “the economy”– owners the Cipriani family are on Jan. 12 shuttering The Rainbow Grill, the less price-y restaurant on the 65th floor, which sits adjacent to the more formal dinner-and-dancing Rainbow Room, which will remain open. So, too, will the bar area.

Why are we running this item on a blog about standup comedy? To illustrate a few things that are pertinent to the world of standup and those who inhabit it.

1. Many of the members of the MSM– from WNBC to the Associated Press to the New York Daily News– got the story… wrong, sort of. They seem to have deliberately led the public to believe that the storied Rainbow Room is disappearing, when in fact, it is the far less famous Rainbow Grill that is shutting down. It’s an important distinction that many news organizations failed to make clear. One might get the idea that they actually want folks to believe that the larger restaurant is doomed– indeed, the art accompanying many of the stories was a photograph of the Room, not the Grill! They probably think that it makes for a much better story.

2. They seem to be emphasizing the fact that it is “the economy” that is to blame for the restaurant’s demise. The owners of the Grill, the Cipriani’s, insist that’s the reason. A good case could be made that it is indeed hard economic times that is contributing to the failure of the eatery. But many of the stories bury the fact that the landlord is upping the rent from $4 million to $8.7 million. So… on the one hand, we have the owners of the restaurant saying that the poor economy is hurting business. And on the other hand, we have the landlord (Tishman-Speyer) re-appraising the property and charging more than double for the space (and, we suspect, fully expecting to get it). The economy for the Cipriani’s is supposedly bad. The outlook for Tishman-Speyer seems pretty robust. Which is it?

At any given point in time, it is “the economy” that keeps a business thriving. And, at any given point in time, it is that same economy that causes that business to go under.

So using “the economy” as an excuse for the failure of your business tells us absoulutely nothing.

And so we shouldn’t read this story as a portent of things to come.

“The sky is falling,” has passed into the English language as a common idiom indicating a hysterical or mistaken belief that disaster is imminent. (Wikipedia)

The same thing goes when we hear that a comedy club has gone under. Over the past 18 months or so, we have heard of at least six comedy clubs closing. Of those six, three of them have re-opened– one in a new location, one in the same location, one in a different venue, with different owners a new name and the same managing partner as the old venue– and a fourth will re-open in the same location, but with new partners.

The remaining two are probably disappeared for good.

At one point or another, we have had people email us about these closings and tell us that it was a sign that the economy (locally or nationally or both) was faltering or that the comedy club business in particular was in bad shape. But, in every case of which we’ve had direct knowledge of the particulars, the reasons for the club’s demise was entirely unrelated to the economy, locally or otherwise.

In one case, personal problems contributed to the closing. In another, illegal activity. In still another it was a change in the venue’s business model that left the club in the cold. And in another case, problems in the parent corporation, problems unrelated to the economy at large, were a factor.

In almost all cases, the venues were thriving.

Of course, this doesn’t stop some people from gathering up the disparate facts and assembling a doomsday case that the comedy club business is heading into a situation reminiscent of 1992, when the first signs of The Great Comedy Bust started to appear. By 1994 or so, the business had bottomed out. It was a husk compared to what it had been in 1989.

Of course, this could be 1992 all over again. But then again, it might not be.

We are counseling people to not panic. We are advising everyone to take each bit of information and regard it carefully and with cool logic. Panic is everyone’s enemy. It makes people make bad decisions. It makes people say dumb shit to the press. It plays into the hands of those in the MSM who have a template for a story and are determined to write it over and over again.

If you stumble across a bit of info, an anecdote, a news story, compare it to your own situation and see if it adds up. If it runs counter to what you know and can verify, discard it or at least regard it with skepticism. In nearly every story on the bad economy (especially in electronic journalism), an interviewee will concur with the reporter’s premise– the economy is bad. Yet, in a surprising number of those items, the interviewee, when questioned about his own circumstances, will say, “Me? I’m doing good. But everybody else is in bad shape…” Of course, he has nothing to base this on, other than the dozens of stories in the media that tells him it is so. And, again, it is counter to his own experience. He nonetheless is convinced that things are bad “out there.” And he makes decisions based not on his own observable experience, but on some vague, gloomy, manufactured story line.

Are we in denial? No. Are we panicking? Certainly not. Are we concerned? Only a moron would not be.

We’ve heard about two more clubs closing in just the past week. Two in one week! Such news makes the heart beat faster, causes the palms to sweat. Or, if we consider what we know and we don’t let our imaginations run wild, we can slow things down a bit and regard the situation calmly.

There’s an email circulating that comes from Mike Diesel, a comedian who, for ten years, booked Wiseacres at the Best Western in Tyson’s Corner, VA, and is now announcing the closing of the club.

I regret to inform everyone in the comedy community that Wiseacres Comedy Club will be no more as of Jan 2009. The owners of the hotel and the club, Ditmar Corporation, felt they wanted to renovate the club and shut it down for Jan and Feb and they think they will re-open in March, but most likely, not as a comedy club.

Diesel closes the email by saying that there “are some other possibilities for me to open another room or rooms in other locations.”

In another instance, we were informed that a room in Ocala, FL, Jokeboy’s, is closing. No reason was given. The club’s website is a dominated by a “Thanks for the laughs” message and, under that, the cryptic “Keep your eyes and ears open” and “The laughs aren’t over yet.” If the club went under due to poor economic conditions in central Florida, one would expect bitterness and resignation, not the optimism displayed here.

So, what at first might appear to be more grist for the doom rumor mill turns out to quite possibly be business as usual. Clubs close all the time. It is too easy, however, within the context of the larger narrative– that the economy is cratering– to take this news as indicative of a horrendous trend. But a bit of research yields information that isolates the events.

We lived through the bust. (We refuse to refer to it as “the first bust.”) And we saw the toll it took on the business and on some of the comics in particular. After the dust settled and the business was somewhat back on track, we talked to many comics and discovered that one of the worst aspects of the downward spiral was that comics felt isolated. They felt that the all the bad stuff was happening to them and to them alone. Further exacerbating the situation was a tendency for comics to indulge in “happy talk.”

whistle past the graveyard

1. (idiomatic, US) To attempt to stay cheerful in a dire situation; To proceed with a task, ignoring an upcoming hazard, hoping for a good outcome.

We suppose we’re proposing a happy medium between whistling past the graveyard and abject terror.

Back in the early ’90s, no one had the Internet or WWW. We got the majority of our information by talking to other comics. Quite often that information was second- or third-hand or was garbled or augmented or distorted in some way. In 2009, there’s not much of an excuse for basing one’s assumptions on third-hand accounts.

We would advise comedians against operating out of fear or desperation. (And, if we may be so bold, we advise club owners in the same way.) Be skeptical of information picked up in a green room. Be doubly skeptical of hasty conclusions.

“Trust but verify.”

–Phrase attributed to Damon Runyon and popularized by President Ronald Reagan

We want to keep the discussion open. We want to keep a handle on what’s going on out there. MySpace, Facebook and SHECKYmagazine could be valuable means to prevent all comics from feeling isolated and detached. We invite everyone to use them responsibly.