On any performance night, if you arrive at the Comedy Caravan early, you can order a decent pour of Makers from Will Hardesty, who serves as head bartender and also happens to be one of Louisville’s funniest comedians. A small table in front of a brick stage modeled after New York’s best-known comedy clubs holds your drink, the lights dim, and a montage of film clips reminds you of what you love about great comedy. Seemingly out of context, but somehow perfect, Cab Calloway appears in front of his band singing “Minnie the Moocher.” The stage light goes up and a voice from the speaker (maybe Big John, another comedian you’d be lucky to catch that night) welcomes you to the utter hilarity of it all.
I don’t know if shows started this way 21 years ago, but the first show on that stage featured comedian George Miller and opener Heywood Banks, then a youngster. And each year since, Banks, who is now internationally celebrated, has tried to return for an anniversary performance.
Why wouldn’t you come back? This is a place to be.
Tom Sobel’s idea for the Comedy Caravan came working the college campus circuit in the late 1970s, when he saw great talent attached to names he didn’t recognize. He figured there should be a place for chops-without-a-name to perform, and thus began his journey: The first club he helped open in Louisville was called Shirley’s Comedy Club, and its first act included Emo Philips and Jay Leno.
Now running one of the finest comedy clubs in the nation, Sobel doesn’t find much challenge in featuring household names. “You don’t need to know comedy to bring in big names,” Sobel says. That only requires the bankroll. “It’s our job to find the good road acts.”
No matter the name of the comic performing, Sobel’s goal is that audiences leave telling him they’ve never laughed so hard. Often, he says, they don’t realize how much more fun a live standup act can be compared to television. The long office hours, booking challenges and task of keeping road-talent happy are all part of the job that pays off when the laughter is so loud “the walls shake.”
With the continued addition of live music — the Jazz Factory Orphans can be found at least once a month at the Caravan, performing to larger crowds than the defunct Factory held — to an annual lineup of the best road comics working, stories of memorable nights stack up for Sobel and the Caravan staff, including a performance by comedian and multiple sclerosis patient Brett Leake (the sit-down-stand-up comedian) that kept headliner Heywood Banks, Sobel and the audience in awe for his almost-10-minute performance. And then there was that time the late Ollie Joe Prader, who weighed more than 500 pounds, asked that he be welcomed to the stage by a “huge hand,” and the Caravan staff pushed out a seat shaped like a giant orange hand. Gallagher performing seven straight shows without repeating one joke was a highlight, as were moments of local pride that include HBO calling for comedian showcase examples — when Sobel, without a second thought, sent a tape of his head bartender, who competes this September in the prestigious Boston Comedy Festival.
The Mid-City Mall location on Bardstown Road draws a diverse and regular crowd from all over the region, and comics drive from all points to perform at a legendary club with a promoter who has put Louisville comics and comedy on the national map. It’s not out of the question that someday a Sobel club could open downtown, but he believes he’d never leave the location he considers Louisville’s best bohemian district.
The anniversary celebration starts with Heywood Banks on Aug. 14 (for a two-week stint) and ends with Etta May for two weeks starting Sept. 10. In between, the stage hosts some of Louisville’s best jazz, magic and comedy acts. Check out www.comedycaravan.com for times and the complete schedule.