Rick Bronson: King of Comedy Clubs
Building the Comic Strip franchise on affliction, audacity and ass jokes.
Illustration by Kathy Boake
It takes a lot of chutzpah to tell the owners of some of the world’s largest shopping malls that you are the only person who can run comedy clubs in their properties. But that’s exactly what Rick Bronson did with the Ghermezians – and it paid off.
Bronson, 43, now operates the Comic Strip in West Edmonton Mall and the House of Comedy at the Mall of America in the Minneapolis suburbs, which have both been great successes. So how did the stand-up comedian, who had never run a club before, pull it off?
The opportunity came in 2003, when Yuk Yuk’s moved out of West Edmonton Mall and Bronson met with Don Ghermezian, President of West Edmonton Mall, to inquire about the vacant space.
“I was really arrogant and told them, ‘If anyone could do a comedy club in the city, I’m the only guy.’ I felt that I had a lot of experience. Looking back, I think, ‘What an idiot!’ I knew nothing about food and beverage; the only thing I knew was how to make people laugh,” says Bronson.
Ghermezian knew Bronson could make people laugh, sure, but didn’t know if he could run a club. “At the time, I thought he’s a really funny guy and he’s talking a great game,” remembers the mall mogul. “But that’s what he does for a living, he gets up onstage and knows how to talk to people. But I wasn’t certain he understood the ins and outs of operating a comedy club.”
But Ghermezian was eventually won over by Bronson’s insistence. “He gave a whole lot of compelling arguments over why he could make it work and do it better than anybody else. I realized after a few minutes of talking that he was not only a funny guy, but was very intelligent as well, so we decided to take a gamble.”
For the first year, Bronson frequently acted as MC and occasional headliner using his “comedic gold material” about his experiences with Crohn’s, an inflammatory bowel disease he has had since the age of 17. “I was talking about the trials and tribulations of hospitals and surgery in a comical fashion. I had about 35 minutes in my routine just on my ass – which is impressive,” says Bronson.
The club quickly established itself in Edmonton, attracting comedians like Norm Macdonald, Brad Garrett, Rob Schneider and Caroline Rhea. “I always thought it wasn’t about the name of the club, it was about the name on the stage because that’s who’s going to put asses in seats.”
Despite the recession, Edmonton has been a great place for comedy. “We have a lot of people in the city that want to be entertained and have no problems paying for that as long as they’re getting good value for their dollar. … The club is busy and we’re looking to open more places in different markets in Canada and the U.S.,” says Bronson.
As a television host, writer, producer, magician, musician or MC, Bronson has worked with Bill Clinton, Martin Short, Lance Armstrong and The Apprentice producer, Mark Burnett. You would think someone with those credentials would be based out of a bigger city, but love kept Bronson in Edmonton.
In 1991, Bronson left his hometown of Montreal with the idea of heading to Vancouver and then eventually Los Angeles to pursue comedy, but he made a stop in Edmonton to perform at a club and met his future wife, Tammy MacPherson. So, his plans changed. Bronson based himself out of Edmonton and performed 40 weeks a year on the road.
“It was exhausting, but I don’t think I would have done anything else,” says Bronson. “There’s still no better high than being on stage and just crushing, having an audience in the palm of your hand. When you see people actually slapping their knees with laughter and you’re the reason, it’s pretty magical.”
For MacPherson, having her husband on the road wasn’t so difficult, at first. “It was fine when it was just me because I had always been very independent, but it became tough when our son was born,” she says. She would have liked it if Bronson were around more, but his job dictated that he toured clubs across North America – so they made it work with lots of phone time.
In 1997 Bronson was still doing stand-up, but was looking for another challenge, which came in the form of a travel television show called The Tourist that he created, produced and hosted. At its peak, the show could be seen in over 20 countries including the Travel Channel in the U.S. and the Life and Outdoor Life Networks in Canada. The show was about experiencing the cities of the world through the locals. It still airs in syndication.
After the travel show ended, Bronson’s life took a not-so-funny turn in 2001. His Crohn’s disease, which he had been able to control with medication, struck with a vengeance and he got deathly ill. Bronson experienced severe abdominal pain and cramping. The pain immobilized him.
“I spent two months in hospital and was getting close to my eighth major procedure. My GP still tells me to this day he thought I was going to die,” says Bronson. “I caught so many infections post-surgery. I had blockages and an abscess. I was a complete mess.”
MacPherson wasn’t faring well during this time either. “It was so stressful not knowing when he would get better. Every time he went for surgery things got worse.” At this point she knew things had to change. “He needed to get off the road as it wasn’t helping his health,” she says.
Bronson pulled through and realized he needed to find something else that would keep him close to home for the sake of his health.
“I wanted to be in a position where there could be a constant state of revenue that I didn’t necessarily have to perform to get the pay cheque,” says Bronson. That’s when Yuk Yuk’s pulled out of West Edmonton Mall, and Bronson pulled in.
Now, nine years later, he is a king of comedy clubs, with the help of his wife who acts as controller and booking agent, which allows Bronson to focus on what he does second best – marketing and schmoozing, “I love the club. It’s like opening a new business every week because I have a different product to sell.”
Bronson has an itch to get back into television, but he’s also working another deal with partners Don Ghermezian and his brother David to open a club inside American Dream at Meadowlands, the forthcoming New Jersey mega-mall that is planned to be the world’s biggest mall.
“It gets to the point where you get the machine working pretty easily and then you want another challenge,” says Bronson. “I couldn’t picture doing anything else. To me comedy is the only job I know.”
It sounds clich – and he’s the first to admit it – but Bronson sums up his philosophy like this: “There’s always a reason for laughter and, I can tell you from being ill, laughter truly is the best medicine.”