That’s the spot
A comedian and a businessman team up to open the Sacramento Comedy Spot—a place for ensemble-cast comedy and French-bread pizza
“I was knitting mittens in an igloo, and Björk saw me!”
The interrogation was on. Mel Gelbart, a one-year veteran of the Free Hooch Comedy Troupe, was onstage in the hot seat. A trio of comedians surrounded her, acting as cops investigating her offense. Each demanded her confession while subtly trying to help her guess her predetermined “crime” with improvised clues. Her offense—petting a cat at Home Depot and being seen by Ron Jeremy—had been invented by the rest of the comedians while she was out of the room. The actors worked smoothly together, easily communicating the first two clues while maintaining the goofy comedy of the police scene. Then Ron Jeremy tripped them up.
The police kept dropping clues—“He’s made a lot of movies, you know … big movies”—but Mel had clammed up. When all possible Ron Jeremy references had been exhausted, the trio yelled, “Confess!” with all the fury of Monty Python’s Spanish inquisition.
Mel took a deep breath. “Um … I was petting my cat in Home Depot, and that big hairy guy—I don’t know his name! I don’t watch a lot of porn!” Mel threw her hands over her head and squealed as the rest of the room burst into hysterics.
“That was good, guys!” director Brian Crall called from the back of the room. He was coaching the actors, a mix of comedians from the Free Hooch Comedy Troupe and the newly formed improv group Deep Fried Comedy on a Stick, during one of their semiweekly rehearsals. The group was gathered in an anonymous building on Del Paso Boulevard that soon will be known as the Sacramento Comedy Spot. Except for the energetic comedians cracking themselves up on a small thrust stage, the cavernous club was empty that night. The bare white walls and concrete floor held only a few folding chairs and a space heater.
Crall imagines the space much differently. A few days before this rehearsal, he eagerly led a reporter through the club, pointing out the areas where a kitchen, bar, bathroom and green room would go. He jumped on the stage, which was specially designed to accommodate the physical antics of his comedians, to demonstrate its bounce. He lovingly drew attention to the stylish spots of whitewashed brick that texturize the walls of the room. Like the rows of space-age, bubble-shaped lights adorning the exterior awning of the club, the wall treatment is a fashionable touch left over from the building’s previous stint as a furniture store.
Crall’s eyes were ablaze with potential. “Every time I step in here, I get so excited!” he said. “We’re so close! I keep telling the troupe to hang in there. We’ve been working so hard, and now we’re so close!”
During an earlier interview at The True Love Coffeehouse, Crall’s enthusiasm level was markedly different. Crall and his business partner, Ron Dumonchelle, walked into the cafe wearing long, tired expressions. The two had spent the afternoon trying to submit paperwork for the Sacramento Comedy Spot to the city’s Planning and Building Department.
Dumonchelle summarized their experience: “We’re dealing with three different departments—planning, health and building. Each time we go in, we see someone different. That individual’s train of thought is different, so every time, we hear something different. Today we got the information that our parking variance is going to take three months to process, and we can’t even get our plan submitted, let alone open the doors, until we have that.”
The two sighed simultaneously into their coffee drinks. This is a first business venture for Crall and a first for the two as a team. Dumonchelle owns two other businesses, including Monkey Glue Theatrical Lighting, Sacramento’s second-largest lighting company, but the unique demands of a bar/restaurant/entertainment venue are proving to be a challenge.
“You start figuring in people and food and liquor,” Dumonchelle explained, “and it’s amazing how much frustrating BS you have to go through.”
“We’re learning all this from scratch,” Crall added. “We’re not millionaires. We’re not big-business men. We’re trying to do this on a limited budget.”
“It’s not that permits are a problem in Sacramento,” Dumonchelle said. “It’s just that if I talk to three different people in the same department, I get three different answers. If I opened a business and charged you $2 for pizza and you $5 for the same pizza, I’d be out of business.”
“We just have to hang in there,” Crall said optimistically. “It’ll work itself out, and we’ll make it.”
Crall and Dumonchelle have been collaborating since their college days at California State University, Sacramento. Crall wears a baseball cap and a constant grin, radiating imagination and a boyish enthusiasm. Dumonchelle is the more reserved of the two. As they recount their history, they slip into the easy back-and-forth banter of old friends.
“My wife and Ron were friends before I knew him,” Crall explained. “In fact, my wife looks just like Ron—”
“Like brother and sister,” Dumonchelle confirmed.
“Which is really scary,” Crall joked.
“His kid looks like me, too,” Dumonchelle added, before they both said, “which is really scary.” They laughed at the familiarity of a punch line told countless times before.
A comedian, actor and playwright, Crall assembled the Free Hooch Comedy Troupe two years ago. Free Hooch performed weekly one-hour shows that mixed original sketch comedy and improv acting games. The actors met semiweekly to write and rehearse skits and performed every weekend at a series of six-month engagements at local hotels. Dumonchelle joined the troupe as a light-and-sound technician. In the first year of the troupe’s existence, Free Hooch performed 46 weekends in a row without ever repeating a skit. During that time, the troupe sold more than 3,000 tickets and built a faithful fan base in Sacramento.
“Maybe 25 percent of our audience is people who’ve been coming faithfully for two years,” Dumonchelle estimated.
“The sense I’ve gotten from people about our show is that they feel like they’re going to their buddy’s house to hang out and have a good time,” Crall said. “That’s what we try to project. It’s for the working people. We want you to get off work and say, ‘I just want to take a load off, simmer and come visit my friends.’”
About a year ago, Crall and Dumonchelle hatched the idea of building a permanent home for Free Hooch shows. “We had 80 to 100 people a night coming to our shows at the Ramada [Inn],” Crall related. “They’d drink and have fun and spend money on food. The bar was making a ton of money off us, and we’d go home with $35 each at the end of the night. We thought, ‘We have such a great product, and we’re just giving it to somebody else to make money! We might as well open a club and make the money ourselves!’”
The vision for the Sacramento Comedy Spot was born. The club will focus on ensemble-cast comedy with a weekly lineup that includes a Wednesday improv night hosted by Deep Fried Comedy on a Stick, a Thursday night stand-up comedy showcase hosted by local comedian Keith Lowell Jensen, and Friday and Saturday night shows by Free Hooch. Touring sketch troupes and occasional stand-up comics will round out the lineup. Crall also will teach on-site classes in improv acting and comedy writing, offering graduates a chance to audition for the club’s two stable troupes.
The Sacramento Comedy Spot will serve local beers and wines, as well as appetizers and Mama Rosie’s French-bread pizza. “The pizza is the hook,” Dumonchelle enthused. The original recipe was created by Crall’s mother, who still receives visits from Crall’s high-school friends hoping for a taste of her famous pizza. The Sacramento Comedy Spot will be the first venue to offer the pizza to the public.
When Crall and Dumonchelle settled on the Del Paso Boulevard location, Dumonchelle took a second mortgage on his home to finance the operation. Dumonchelle insisted that the success of his other companies keeps him from worrying about the financial risk of the new venture. “Once we get the doors open, we’ll be fine!” he said.
The duo isn’t concerned about competing with already established comedy clubs like Punch Line Comedy Club and Laughs Unlimited. “We don’t want to compete, because the other clubs have a lot more money than us,” Crall admitted.
“We’re totally different, anyway,” Dumonchelle affirmed. “The only thing we have that competes with them is the comedy showcase open-mic, but we made sure to schedule that on Thursdays when the other clubs don’t have them.”
“We don’t want to compete,” Crall concurred. “We want to be your third-favorite comedy club in Sacramento.”
Likewise, the two are confident that they can draw a crowd to the sometimes-desolate Del Paso Heights area. “Right where we’re at, there will be a theater and our comedy club,” Crall explained. “There’s a cafe opening up right next to us. It’s really well-lit, nice and safe. Del Paso isn’t dying at all. I guess it just needs folks like me and Ron to prove we can do business down there.”
“We’ve already proven we can get people to travel for our product,” Dumonchelle said. “We’ve performed way out on Fulton [Avenue] and over by Cal Expo, and we sold the house out. We’ve got a nice product in a well-lit club with a safe place to park. The stage is up. The actors are ready.”
“We’re ready to roll!” Crall enthused. “If we had all our permits approved, we could open next week. I’m so excited to get started, I can’t sleep!”