Rick Newman, founder of comedy club Catch a Rising Star, dies at 81

Rick Newman, the founder of the Catch a Rising Star comedy club in New York, where a generation of comedians – Billy Crystal, Richard Lewis, Jerry Seinfeld, Robin Williams, Richard Belzer and countless others – honed their craft in 1970s, died February 20 at his home in Los Angeles. He was 81 years old.

The cause was pancreatic cancer, said his wife Krysi Newman, who, like Crystal and Lewis, noted with bewilderment and a pang of nostalgia for a bygone era that Mr Newman died the day after Belzer, the emcee longtime member of the club.

“What really connected us all back then was this place where we felt safe, where the common goal was to make people laugh. And for me, there was no better place to do that. than in New York at Catch,” Crystal said in a phone interview. “It was a gym where you worked your stuff.”

Located on First Avenue between 77th and 78th Streets on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, Mr. Newman’s club supercharged “the stand-up comedy explosion of the 1970s,” wrote Richard Zoglin in “Comedy on the Edge”, and in its heyday rivaled Studio 54 as the “celebrity icon of the drug and disco decade”.

Mr. Newman opened the club in late 1972, nine years after improv began on Manhattan’s West Side at Hell’s Kitchen. It positioned Catch in both name and vibe as a place for newcomers to hone their gear in a more welcoming location than its Crosstown rival, a fiercer environment that catered to more industry types. established.

“Improv was grittier, grittier, while Catch a Rising Star was a more intimate hangout,” Lewis said, recalling how patrons sat at tables with red-and-white checkered tablecloths. “And it’s because of Rick. He was like the loving brother we all wanted. He made you feel like you were already a star when you worked there, like anything was possible.

In 1976, a budding comic named Jerry Seinfeld chose Catch for his first stand-up try. His friend Mike Costanza drove him there. He bombed. “I got up and all I remembered were the topics I wanted to talk about,” Seinfeld later recalled. “So I just stood there and said, ‘The beach…the cars…’ I did about three minutes and got off. And the sad thing is, I don’t embellish the story to make it funny.

When Mr. Newman, who previously ran a downtown bar, took over the saloon that eventually became Catch a Rising Star, he was not planning a comedy club.

“His first idea was a western-themed antique store and restaurant, where customers could shop for antiques while ordering their steaks,” Zoglin said. writing in its history of stand-up comedy. “Then he had a better idea: a club that would showcase new talent, both singers and comedians.”

The club’s name was a variation of the Perry Como song “Catch a Falling Star”. At first, Mr Newman also booked musicians, including up-and-coming rocker Pat Benatar. Business has struggled to take hold. Crystal recalled how Mr. Newman sometimes slipped her money for gas as payment. Taxi and burgers were also commonplace.

Then, one Saturday night in 1973, David Brenner showed up.

“By then David had been on ‘The Tonight Show’ several times and was highly respected,” Mr Newman said. said Parade. “He wasn’t your father’s comedian. He was your comedian. And he was hot.

Brenner sat down at a table and Mr. Newman approached to introduce himself.

“How about you get up? ” he said.

“No, not yet,” Brenner said. “Let me watch.”

So Brenner watched. An hour and a half passed. Then he called Mr. Newman.

“I’m going to get up,” he said, “I’m going to do material.”

The public was amazed. More importantly, Brenner kept coming back to perform, likening the club to a typewriter.

“I write on stage,” Brenner told The New York Times. “I just wake up with some premise, start talking, take questions from the audience, and some nights if I’m really cooking, I’ll get 15 minutes of new material. You can’t practice on the ‘Tonight Show’ or in Vegas. Catch is a place where you can be bad, and that’s how you get good.

Brenner’s appearances inspired other comics to appear, including Andy Kaufman, who used Catch a Rising Star to try out the barely English “Foreign Man” character he later played as the mechanic Latka in the “Taxi” sitcom.

“I really didn’t know if he was passing me,” Mr. Newman told Parade. “He did Foreign Man until the audience booed and walked out. But suddenly he burst into his amazing Elvis impersonation and took us so completely by surprise that we ended up crying, we were laughing so hard.

The list of other comedians who appeared on the Catch stage is longer than a punchline: Rodney Dangerfield, Freddie Prinze, Robert Klein, Chris Rock, Eddie Murphy, Larry David, Elayne Boosler, Jay Leno, Joy Behar, Ray Romano and Adam Sandler.

Irving Newman was born in the Bronx on February 21, 1941, the youngest of four children. His father made ties in the tailoring district. Her mother was a housewife. Irving didn’t like his first name, so around age 6, he told people to call him Rick. The name stuck.

Mr. Newman excelled in drawing and planned to study graphic arts, but after graduating from high school he began working in bars, managing several before opening Catch a Rising Star.

Mr. Newman’s greatest asset as a Catch a Rising Star impresario was his personality. Budd Friedman, the founder of improv, could be gruff and intimidating, especially to newcomers. Mr. Newman could have been the host of “The Love Boat”, Lewis once said.

“The great thing about Catch a Rising Star was that the vibe was so light and so warm and filled with so much fun and joy,” Lewis said. “It was absolutely one of the great venues of my career.”

Mr. Newman took on Richard Fields as a partner in 1982, but they clashed and Fields became sole proprietor in 1986, trying to expand across the country. The original Catch location closed in 1993. Mr. Newman continued to produce other comedy projects over the years, but none were as big as Catch a Rising Star.

Survivors include his wife, the former Krysi Mulvihill, whom he married in 2003, and two children from a previous marriage to Tammy Newman.

Mr. Newman’s death, so close to Belzer’s, left Crystal thinking back to his early days at Catch, how he listened to a tape recording of his set while driving home with his wife and their baby. Crystal was then a substitute teacher. He was also at a crossroads.

“Either I’ll do this, this comedy that I always thought I could do,” Crystal said, “or I’ll take the teaching job that was just offered to me.”

He was grateful for the timing and the way he grabbed it.

“If Rick weren’t so welcoming, and if [Belzer] wasn’t as encouraging, maybe I’d just be grateful that I was a teacher and still had my health benefits,” Crystal said with a laugh.

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