By TODD ZEIGLER
â€œThe Christmas Miracle.â€
Thatâ€™s what local comics called the Dec. 23 announcement that nationally-renowned standup comedian, author and comedy club owner Steve Hofstetter had purchased the legendary, but perennially struggling, Comedy Caravan. Hofstetter and his ownership partners, local comedian Jamie Utley and Chris Bowers and Tony Deardoff, co-owners with Hofstetter of Mortyâ€™s Comedy Joint in Indianapolis, officially took over Jan. 21
With years of onstage experience, social media followers numbering in the hundreds of thousands and three other comedy clubs under his ownership, Hofstetter brings plenty to the table as the new man in charge. He is overseeing a $100,000 renovation and complete reimagining of the Caravan, turning it into The Laughing Derby. The team expects to hire 15 new employees and projects $1.2 million in sales. Opening weekend Jan. 22-25 exceeded sales projections by 25 percent.
Buying a club was no flight of impulse for Hofstetter. He has had his eye on the Caravan for years.
â€œIâ€™ve wanted this to happen for a very long time,â€ he says. â€œI was actually the headliner during the last two transitions. When (original owner) Tom Sobel sold it, I said â€˜Why didnâ€™t you call me?â€™ He said â€˜I didnâ€™t know you wanted it.â€™ So I told Darrell (Holladay, the next owner), â€˜If you ever want to sell it and you have an offer, call me and give me a chance to match it.â€™ One day, he called me and said, â€˜This time, I really think itâ€™s going to happen.â€™â€
Reaction throughout the local comedy scene was swift and â€“ as comedians tend to be â€“ colorful. â€œCleveland Jackson, a local comedian I met here while I was coming up â€“ and weâ€™re now both headliners â€“ called me and said, â€œThanks for the Christmas present, you marvelous Jewish son of a (expletive),â€ Hofstetter says. â€œI said â€˜If Irving Berlin can write â€˜White Christmas,â€™ I can do this.â€™â€
The entrepreneurial spirit hit Hofstetter before the comedy bug. â€œMy first big thing: I was 15 years old. Do you remember â€œMagic: The Gatheringâ€? Every pack had $8 worth of cards for $3. I would buy the $3 pack, split them off, and sell them separately,â€ he says. â€œI grew up poor in New York, on subsidized school lunches. I had $1 for lunch. I bought soup. That was the first time I found a market to bring to buyers.
“I always wanted to own a club, from the first time I played a club and said, â€˜This could be done better,â€ he says. “I would always find myself in the ownerâ€™s office at the end of the week telling him how to use social media and branding. They started saying ‘Can we pay you to do this a lot?’ Thatâ€™s when I started consulting with them.”
The first club he bought was the Laughing Skull (formerly the Funny Farm) in Atlanta, that along with the Caravan being the clubs where he first started headlining. When Mortyâ€™s Comedy Joint in Indianapolis went out of business, Chris Bowers and Tony Deardorff bought it.
â€œTony is great at the bar. Heâ€™s the food and beverage guy. Chris is our ‘cruise ship director.’ Heâ€™s great at creating the customer and the comicsâ€™ experience. But they didnâ€™t have the marketing and comedian Rolodex that we had,â€ Hofstetter says. â€œSo Marshall (Childs, Hofstetterâ€™s Laughing Skull co-owner) and I came in, and they went from 250 customers a week to 600 customers a week in under a year.â€ Mortyâ€™s led to Hofstetter purchasing his third club, The Laughing Devil, in his native New York.
Now, Hofstetter aims to turn the Laughing Derbyâ€™s fortunes around by investing in the strengths of the club – and the city.
â€œThe big thing to think about: where in the city is your club located?,â€ he says. â€œThe Highlands arts district is thriving. But you canâ€™t fight the surrounding areas, where the Bob & Tom favorites are big. Louisville has an amazing urban population. We want to book comics that one demographic might like more, but everyone will enjoy. Weâ€™re proud of and careful of what we put on our stages. Our plan is â€˜Make the show amazing,â€™ and these shows are going to be unbelievably good.â€
Working the national comedy club circuit gives Hofstetter a wide view of the industry. He says that the standup comedy circuit, broadly speaking, is in better shape than itâ€™s ever been. More young comics see it as a viable career option.
â€œWhen he started, Jerry Seinfeld didnâ€™t know what a comic was. He just wanted to be entertaining people,â€ he says. â€œNow, things like podcasting create more opportunity and the most loyal audiences you will ever see. In the recent snowstorm, 12 people came out to my show. The 12 that came all listened to my podcast. Add to that the caliber of talent, the number of stages and Youtube. If you want to buy tickets, go check the person out on Youtube. Theirs is no excuse anymore to say ‘I didnâ€™t know what I was getting.’â€
About Louisvilleâ€™s standup scene?
â€œI canâ€™t say the same,â€ he says. â€œLouisville used to be a place where comics would mentor each other. One reason I liked coming to the Caravan? There would be 20 comics at the bar. It was fun and I would get to see these local guys. Now, some people have moved. The core comics have split. I donâ€™t know what happened. Weâ€™re rebuilding the camaraderie, the mentorship, making better comics, giving them more stage time. We hope we add to what comics whoâ€™ve kept the scene going have done.â€
While larger club chains, such as former Fourth Street Live destination The Improv, may have more pull, Hofstetter will put the Laughing Derbyâ€™s feature (middle performer) roster up against any club in the world.
â€œWe treasure local talent and treat our middle acts great,â€ he says. â€Feature acts call us first. When someone buys tickets for Mitch Fatel, I want them saying â€˜Who the hell was that that opening for him?â€™ Thatâ€™s a good show.â€
The Laughing Derbyâ€™s schedule will reflect Hofstetterâ€™s goals. Previously, the club ran eight headlining shows a week, an exhausting schedule for the marquee names. Those shows will condense to Thursday through Saturday.
From there, Hofstetter says he will build the club on two levels. Level one is the headliners and feature acts. Level two â€“ the level he says he is most proud of and working very hard on â€“ is the level below that. Tuesdays and early Sundays will be open mic with the Louisville Comedy Underground, run by Adam White. Wednesdays will be revamped: newer comics and established pros working on new material.
Once a month, the club will feature a rising pro with local ties who will be allowed to book the entire nightâ€™s schedule. â€œWeâ€™ll tell them, â€˜This is your night. Book whomever you want,â€™â€ Hofstetter says. â€œThat will add up to really giving people a shot to be seen. The cream will rise to the top, the system will honor the best and teach people how to be pros.â€
Sundays will be urban showcases produced by Streatway Entertainment and Wizecrackz Media. Mondays will be jazz and magic acts. The club will also be booking corporate events, standup comedy classes and speed dating.
â€œThis is a wonderful place and weâ€™ll use every part of the buffalo,â€ Hofstetter says.
Beyond the programming, the $100,00 renovation will completely change the look and feel of the club.
â€œLook around you. This comedy club is the best comedy club of 1989,â€ Hofstetter says. â€œWe are turning the lobby into a bar. There will be chairs everywhere. No standing. The walls will be charcoal gray with a timeline of the history of Louisville comedy.
â€œThe stage: enough of this red brick (expletive). Weâ€™re painting it black,â€ he continues. â€œOur steadfast rule: no neon. Only the exit sign, because thatâ€™s a city ordinance. Weâ€™re stripping the tables down to flat wood with the logo. Weâ€™re renovating the kitchen and updating the A/V so we and others can show films. The goal is that itâ€™s not just about the show. Itâ€™s about the experience.â€
These changes will take place over time, with the small changes first. The club now pulls in half a million dollars a year. In itâ€™s heyday, it did $1 million. It should have been more then, and especially now, Hofstetter says.
â€œThatâ€™s where we believe we can go,â€ he says. â€œLouisville needs and definitely deserves it. It doesnâ€™t need to eek by. We need to be proud to say it exists. Thatâ€™s the goal.â€
Beyond performing and running his cadre of clubs, Hofstetterâ€™s â€œspideredâ€ career has included writing for Sports Illustrated, authoring three books, hosting a satellite radio program and dabbling in acting. But donâ€™t ask if he has a preference between performing and owning a business.
â€œNo on ever asks that question in the rap world,â€ he says. â€œLook: Iâ€™m happily married. I donâ€™t drink. I donâ€™t go out after shows. My one vice is dog rescue. Iâ€™m pretty healthy about time management.
â€œThe main thing is this: every comedian does something else,â€ he says. â€œI write, I perform, I produce. This business is like those Aztec four-sided pyramid with steps. You take one step up and round the corner, and youâ€™re a step higher on that side, too, as long as you continue to take steps. Every time Iâ€™m on TV, itâ€™s good for the club. Every time I kill at a club, it gets me on TV. Itâ€™s a good cycle.â€