Rob Lederman: Suburban comedy king
blog by Ben Tsujimoto • January 29, 2012 @ 8:00am
Comedy clubs have come and gone in Western New York, but only one man has managed to dodge the debris and forge extensive success: Rob Lederman. The owner of Tonawanda’s Comix Cafe for 22 years and Rob’s Comedy Playhouse in Williamsville for four more, Lederman—a comic himself who once opened for Jim Carrey and Tim Allen—fully grasps both the business and the performance sides of operating a suburban comedy club.
“We’re the highest level of comedy you can get in Buffalo,” Lederman said firmly in regard to Rob’s Comedy Playhouse, which features both stand-up and improv at each of its weekend shows.
Lederman’s foray into club ownership came shortly after he failed to meet his own lofty expectations as a comedian.
“[In the ‘80s], I was a full-time touring comic, and I gave myself ‘X’ amount of time to make it, and in my world, I didn’t make it,” Lederman admitted in a chat Tuesday at the 97 Rock headquarters. “Was I headlining comedy clubs? Yes. Was I working at casinos? Yes. But I was still in a hotel room during the day where no one knew who I was, and when I went [back to Buffalo], no one knew who I was. It sucked.”
Lederman’s decision to step down from touring was a boon for Western New York, as knowledge gathered from his coast-to-coast experience laid the framework for his own suburban comedy club.
“From ’86 to ’87 when I was on the road, I was designing a comedy club,” Lederman explained. “I was working at comedy clubs all the time – I was on contract to work 50 weeks a year – so I worked every comedy club across the country. I was able to suck in what was working and what wasn’t working, and it was the suburbs and the strip plazas that were working. ”
“There was a huge gaping market in Buffalo. Florida, Detroit, Wisconsin – all these cities you could see the development already starting in the suburbs, and in Buffalo, it hadn’t.”
After pressing Lederman on why suburban comedy survived at the expense of urban clubs, he said, “The business aspect is so unbelievably important. A family that wants to see comedy in the city will probably have to pay for parking, then they’ll want to do more than just be there for an hour and a half—they’re going to want to make a commitment for a night. Then they’ll sit back and say, ‘Well, I have kids and need to find a babysitter’—they’ll make all these decisions to convince themselves not to go. If I’m in the suburbs, the show is over by 9:30, and I’ll be home by quarter to 10.”
Because he’s able to offer free parking, food and beverages from Dandelions Restaurant and ample seating—elements that were non-existent in urban clubs—business has been consistently solid for Lederman. In 2005, he earned national recognition from USA Today for the atmosphere at Comix Cafe, and to this day, he rarely fails to sell out an 8 p.m. show at the Comedy Playhouse.
“We’re busier than we’ve ever been,” Lederman noted. “Last weekend both of our shows sold out, and this weekend both of our shows sold out. The more depressing the times, the more people want to laugh and forget.”
Since his audience draws heavily from the 30-to-60 age range, the suburban mentality coalesces with Lederman’s vision for a comedy club. Does he view “Buffalo” as the sum of the city and its neighboring suburbs? It seems so. He understands, however, that there’s a significant value to the ambitions of Kristen Becker and the comedians like Chet Wild and Dan Fisher that perform regularly at the “Doin’ Time” open mic at Nietzsche’s in Allentown.
“The Nietzsche’s comedy is important for young comedians to learn all of those things [like composure on stage, making eye contact, confidence, etc]. The odd part is, these comedians will learn their skills in Buffalo, and probably the first comedy club they’ll work at is Cleveland or Syracuse.”
Lederman went on to explain, however, that there’s no logical progression from Nietzsche’s stand-up or another local restaurant’s comedy night to a gig at the Playhouse.
“If I know you started on the Nietzsche’s-level, and I know that you have not performed at a comedy club, the risk is too scary – I have too much knowledge of you. If I know nothing of you, and a booking agent says, ‘Put this guy on, he did really well in Milwaukee,’ then I’m going to put him on without any baggage.” There’s hope for the aspiring comics at Nietzsche’s and throughout Western New York, but the willingness to leave Buffalo—at least for a time—is mandatory.
A master of food analogies from his time with Channel 2’s Secret Gourmet, Lederman compared the present urban scene to suburban comedy with the following rhetorical question: “Is the owner of Hutch’s telling the guy who just graduated from ECC with his culinary degree to come in and cook at the restaurant on Saturday night?”
“The comedians are so seasoned that are coming to our club – they’re at their A-game,” Lederman explained. “They’re able to assess the crowd at an 8 o’clock show and provide the laughter that they want, then assess the [college-age] crowd at a 10 o’clock show and provide the laughter that they want. The Nietzsche’s-level comedian doesn’t have the depth yet to make everybody happy.” Lederman attracts comedians to the Playhouse with the help of an outside booking agency that carefully evaluates national acts, both stand-up and improv.
Regardless if it’s suburban or urban, professional or amateur, or geared toward younger or older, there’s solid comedy available to anyone in Western New York. A night at Nietzsche’s might be preferable to a 24-year-old living on Allen St., while a 45-year-old in Amherst might scoff at spending a full night at a hit-or-miss show of new comedians in the city. The beauty of it all is that there is a comedy scene in Buffalo where local comedians and comedy fans can unite for an evening of laughs to forget their problems.