Friday, November 7, 2008

Comedy in Bernardsville

Stand-up comedy in New Jersey started in Bernardsville. Really, they were the first.

Every night on late night talk shows, there is at least one joke about New Jersey. We are tough, and we can take it. But, our much maligned Garden State has something to be really, really proud of when it comes to the world of stand-up comedy: this is the place where audiences so appreciated the talents of people like Jerry Seinfeld, Eddie Murphy, Rosie O’Donnell, Paul Reiser, Chris Rock and dozens of other now-famous comedians that they actually paid to see them.

Yup, while the Comic Strip, the Improv and Catch A Rising Star merely gave these comedians stage time ----and nothing more---there was a bar/restaurant in New Jersey that saw the value of these very talented future stars, and paid them to come and do their shtick. That bar/restaurant was called Freddy’s back then---and it was in Bernardsville. Freddy's is even mentioned in a biography of Seinfeld---on page 180 of "Seinfeld, the Making of an American Icon."

The birthplace of paid stand-up comedy in the New York metropolitan area was in Bernardsville. In New York, these comedians got bupkis. In New Jersey, they got fifty bucks, a dinner, and----respect. In the world of future Rodney Dangerfields, respect was very much appreciated. Sometimes even more than the dinner.

There was a small back room at Freddy’s that held maybe 75 people. The bar was in the back of the room, and the comedians took the stage in the front of the room. The ‘stage’ was only six inches from the floor, and maybe 4 square feet total. But the magic was palpable. Imagine that! A club owner who valued comedians enough to pay them money.

The success of the Sunday nights at Freddy’s were a combination of location ---being across from the New Jersey transit train station, which is how most comedians could get there---no New York acts had cars in those days. Timing---it was 1980, and disco was so over it would make your teeth hurt, and audiences were looking for something different. And baby boomers were laughing hard at Saturday Night Live, and so live comedy had come in to its own.

The owners of Freddy’s had all the comedians sign their 8 x 10 black and white photo---there were shots of Jackie “The Jokeman” Martling, Seinfeld, Gilbert Gottfried, Eddie Murphy, Paul Reiser, Bob Nelson, Rosie O’Donnell ---and countless others less famous all over the walls. Who knows where those pics are now.

Today, that place is a micro-brewery, I think---the Stone Tavern Inn. But back then, the funniest people in the world entertained.

All in Bernardsville.

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