Dianne Comstock — along with her husband, Kerry Comstock — is all but set to become the new owner of the Laughing Derby. Comstock has been employed at the comedy club in Mid-City Mall for 17 years under various owners and names.
The couple has secured the funds they need to buy the club and have reached an agreement with current owners. The last hurdle they need to clear is securing a lease extension from Mid-City Mall owner Sandy Metts. Comstock says the sale is not final until a meeting between her and Metts on Thursday, but Metts has indicated the lease will likely be renewed.
Once a thriving night spot during the comedy boom of the ’80s and ’90s, the club has struggled over time to find its audience and has changed hands multiple times in the last decade. The Comedy Caravan sold in early 2014 to a group that included comedians Steve Hofstetter, Jamie Utley, Chris Bowers and Tony Deardorff. The group also owns clubs in Indianapolis and Dayton.
In November, Hofstetter posted a message on his public Facebook feed announcing that he and the other owners were looking for a buyer. The message said the club was profitable, but that the owners wanted to focus on other endeavors. In the post, Hofstetter mentioned he wanted to “concentrate on television and film.”
Insider reached co-owner Utley by phone, and he expressed similar desires. “I want to go on the road full time,” he said. “I want out of the comedy club business altogether … so I can focus on the comedy.”
While fans of the club may have found the Facebook message surprising, comedy insiders, including other comedians, have been muttering about the health of the club and complaining about a lack of access for several years.
Comedian and local promoter Jacob Reiber hosts and appears in a variety of local shows, including the only-somewhat-ironic yearly “Kent Carney Awards.” Reiber often has spoken bluntly on social media about his perception that the club didn’t welcome local talent, and he suggested this has led to growth in other parts of the scene.
“We are working on building up venues like The Cure (Lounge), Monnik and continuing to improve the already strong shows at The Bard’s Town and Kaiju to bring in talent and keep Louisville vibrant,” he said.
Many local comedians still hope to see the club — under any name — flourish. Kate Sedgwick is a local comedian who has done shows at the Laughing Derby, but is also deeply involved in the local scene at other venues. “Comedy Collider,” the open mic she runs at The Bard’s Town, recently won “Best Comedy Open Mic” in Louisville Magazine’s Best of Louisville awards.
She spoke to the love many still have for the Laughing Derby. “I pretty much fell in love with comedy there,” said Sedgwick, who first worked at the Comedy Caravan as a server. “I didn’t get the guts to do (comedy) until many years later. But the first time I did a mic there was four years ago.”
While Sedgwick praised the club as being central to many locals getting their start, she did say it’s been less welcoming to those performers lately. “There used to be a lot more available for comics at the club, there used to be three or four mics a week; now there’s just one,” she said.
Despite critics suggesting the Laughing Derby wasn’t as welcoming to local comedians, Utley spoke to how locals are essential to the success of a club. “A local scene is very important to a club,” he said. “We sell food and alcohol, but the No. 1 commodity is comedy … a club needs a scene, a scene needs a club.”
Upon hearing news that it would likely sell to Comstock, Sedgwick opined: “She knows the business. She’s been there a long time. She doesn’t take shit. Should be interesting.”
Reiber said he’s glad to hear of the sale. “I hope with all my heart the new owner learns from all the past mistakes over the years made from the previous few owners to make it the best damn comedy club it can possibly be.”
Comstock has been at the forefront of an effort for the employees of the Laughing Derby to purchase the club.
“When the current owners decided they were either going to close it or sell it, we — some of the staff members — thought, ‘Let’s see if we can come up with the funding to buy it ourselves,” Comstock said.
The Go Fund Me Campaign the employees started didn’t raise much money. Comstock said there also was, at one point, a different possible buyer, but that offer fell through, which inspired her and her husband to borrow against their retirement to finance on offer.
“Well, we have actually taken the money out of the retirement,” she said. “We were, like, do we do this, do we not … we’ve discussed it long and hard. Everything is a risk. It’s come down to if nobody buys it, they are going to close it. And we just can’t let that happen.”
As a longtime employee, Comstock has worked every job in the club but comedian, and she also has experience running a restaurant, so expect to her to be a hands-on owner who is in the club often. Comstock said part of the Laughing Derby’s current woes come from ownership that is based out of town. “They do not focus on this club,” she said. “They focus on their home club, the one in Indianapolis.”
Comstock has a list of action items. “I’m thinking of naming it The Caravan. That’s what people know it as,” she said, noting that she plans to seek the blessing of both the former owners who operated the club under the name Comedy Caravan.
You also can expect Comstock to reach out to local comedians to make them feel welcome. “There’s a lot of things (the current owners) tried that do not work here,” she explained. “They have basically shut out local talent, which I don’t see as a good thing. You want support from your local talent, and you want to keep them in mind when you plan a show.”
When talking about the comedians, Comstock had a genuine warmth in her voice. “I do this because I really do love the comedians. It’s family with them. They’re drunk, disorderly, disorganized and a little bit crazy, but they are all still family. They are that crazy uncle.”
This story is ongoing, so expect updates on the fate of the Laughing Derby and the possible genesis of The Caravan.