Remembering Tom Sobel: A Mic Drop Heard Across the Comedy Universe

Aug 2, 2023 at 3:55 pm
Tom Sobel and Mike Nilsson.
Tom Sobel and Mike Nilsson.

Louisville stand-up comedy impresario Tom Sobel died on Friday, July 21. He had been very ill since the start of the year, and exited the stage way too early, at age 72. Tom was a legend in the comedy industry, with a reach that expanded far beyond this part of the world. Comedians across the nation have commented on social media that they “would not be where they are today if it hadn’t been for Tom Sobel,” and I count myself among them. I recently heard my wife tell our grown daughters, “You all wouldn’t even exist if your daddy hadn’t met Tom Sobel." That is because Tom booked me to perform for the first time in Louisville, when I was a touring comedian based in Florida, in 1988. I met my wife, Sheri, a native Louisvillian, at Tom’s comedy club, and I’ve been here ever since, creating a life for myself and my family in my adopted hometown. Our romance is what brought me here, but becoming friends with Tom made me feel as if I’d been brought into his family, where I have proudly remained ever since. I think the last gig I did for Tom was in late 2022, an Elk’s Club in Peru, IN. He spent about 45 minutes describing the show space to me; the city itself, hometown of Jimmy Hoffa; of course, how to get there. He was a man nonplussed by the development of GPS. I had a great show and a lot of fun in Peru, IN. I credit Tom with all of that. No other comedy booker has ever had anywhere near that level of professionalism and enthusiasm for his work and those who worked for him. I feel guilty now for silently agonizing over the length of the phone call.

Tom Sobel had a deeply respectful and appreciative connection to nearly all the comedians he met. At the most basic level, his job was to watch a comedian’s performance, and then find a place for the performance to occur and arrange for there to be people there to experience it. He owned a booking agency called TSM Artist Management, and a comedy club called the Comedy Caravan. That club, located in the Mid-City Mall on Bardstown Road in the Highlands, first opened in 1987 as the Funny Farm. It continues to operate, under different ownership, as The Caravan. Prior to 1987, Tom booked comedians at a place called Shirley’s, in the Mall St. Matthews, and had a string of one-nighters throughout the South and Midwest. Tom’s obituary states that he produced over 400,000 comedy shows in his lifetime.

That would be a great CV for anyone in the entertainment industry, but Tom’s legacy is infinitely more substantial and profound. WAVE3 news personality Dawne Gee, a stand-up comic herself in the ’80s and ’90s, echoed a multitude of comedians when she posted this on social media: “He gave me some crazy opportunities,” she said, “he gave me unending support and I never worried about being treated fairly." Comedy veteran Jeff Jena said, “He booked my first road gig in 1980,” and recalled, “he put a lot of money into a lot of (comedians’) pockets when we were starting out…the check always cleared…he’s already setting up shows on the other side.” My take is the same. As a comedian, I will remember Tom Sobel most for the way he treated us, the performers. There were very few people in this industry who did likewise, so Tom’s fairness and compassion and respect made him a kind of comedy unicorn. I doubt there will ever be another individual in this or any other category of show business that will comport themselves the way Tom Sobel did.

Tom’s affinity for finding venues was rivaled by his ability to recognize and cultivate raw talent. He could see a comic at an open mic, give them a blunt assessment of what they were doing right and wrong, and after they had built up enough of an act to pull off 15 minutes (definitely not easy), offer them real money to open a show. Their path from there might vary, depending on the strength of the act. Some go to Peru, IN. Some end up on The Tonight Show. Tom always knew where to plug the correct performer into an available slot and make a great show out of it.

As much a salesman as a producer, Tom Sobel utilized the sales method known as the “transfer of enthusiasm." Anyone who ever spoke to Tom about comedy could feel that. He was a cheerleader for the concept of one person with a microphone spending an hour or two with an audience, and for both parties being better off once that event took place. He was one of those people you meet who have obviously found their purpose in life. Louisville comedian Bob Batch declared, “He was the best person I ever knew; the funny ones are all disciples of Tom.”

Tom’s favorite catchphrase was, “Just Keep Laffin!” and despite the corniness and poor spelling associated with that message, it becomes achingly poignant when the person who espoused it is no longer around. I'm a jaded and cynical survivor of the comedy wars myself. When I think of Tom's legacy, my memories don't necessarily produce a "LAFF," but they do have me grinning from ear to ear.

Rest well, my friend. You are missed.

Mike Nilsson is a Louisville-based writer, actor, musician, and 40-year stand-up comedy veteran.

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