Keeping a comedy venue afloat for 23 years is no joke.
Michael and Cheryl Alfano have overcome plenty of obstacles since taking over ownership of The Comedy Catch two years after it was founded by comedians Ken Sons and Les McCurdy in 1985. Despite occasional uphill battles to put bodies in seats, however, they said the experience has been worth the effort.
"It's about producing a show, watching (the audience) come in and then seeing them leave in a much better mood than when they came in," said Mr. Alfano, who aspired to make the club "an established, generational business" and landmark.
"If we had to sell tomorrow," he said, "I could hang my hat saying that we accomplished what we wanted."
In August, The Comedy Catch will celebrate its 25th anniversary with two weekends of special-engagement acts: David Alan Grier and Cledus T. Judd.
The Alfanos took over the club in 1987, a year after Mr. Sons and Mr. McCurdy moved to Brainerd Road from the original location in Dr. Sages atop the Holiday Inn downtown.
The couple came to Chattanooga in 1984 from Alexandria, La., where Mr. Alfano was working as a radio personality. Although they were patrons of The Comedy Catch at the time, when Mr. Alfono decided to leave the radio business and started looking for an investment opportunity in 1987, the plan was to buy into something less exotic, Mr. Alfano said.
"We were looking for a sandwich shop or a deli or something along that line," he said. "I was in radio, so (a comedy club) was still in the entertainment business, and it was a nightclub/bar, which my family had been involved in throughout my life. It just felt right."
Since then, running The Comedy Catch has been something of a family affair. Their son, Evan, 20, and daughter, Danielle, 21, who used to attend shows in their car seats, now work in Giggles Grill adjoining the showroom. Mr. Alfano's mother, Dolly Wagner, worked as the club's bartender for 15 years before retiring earlier this year.
During the last quarter century, a number of star comedians have taken The Comedy Catch's stage, including Jerry Seinfeld, D.L. Hughley and Tracy Morgan. It's also served as a springboard for many up-and-coming regional acts such as James Gregory, Keith Alberstadt and Pat Dixon, who have gone on to achieve notoriety.
Seeing comics achieve success can be bittersweet, if they end up turning their backs on the club, but some, like Tim Wilson, Ron White and Jeff Foxworthy, returned even after they became popular, Ms. Alfano said.
"I remember the first time (Foxworthy) was here (after) he'd gone really big, and we kept having to add shows," she said. "I think we did a dozen shows that week. We were selling out shows in an hour."
There have been plenty of high points, but the Alfanos said sticking it out hasn't always been easy in an industry that sees many clubs closing shop after just a few years. Competition from other entertainment options such as karaoke and movie theaters have hurt attendance.
Mr. Alfano, who began running the club at age 23, said he has learned the hard way that just booking someone funny isn't always enough. He said he's often gambled on rising stars only to see them snubbed by Chattanooga audiences.
Rather than back out when times became tough, the Alfanos have continued to invest in the club. In 2000, they spent about $200,000 on a renovation that increased seating by almost 50 percent (to 250) and expanded Giggles Grill into a full-service restaurant.
Even if there were times they had to smile to keep from crying, it's still been a riot overall, Mr. Alfano said.
"It's just a fun business, a fun place to work and a fun place to visit," he said.
The Comedy Catch will host two weekends of special engagements next month to celebrate 25 years of making Chattanooga laugh. Call 629-2233 for ticket information.
* Aug. 5-8: David Alan Grier, an actor/comedian best known as a cast member of the sketch comedy show "In Living Color" and as the star of the short-lived NBC comedy "DAG."
* Aug. 12-15: Cledus T. Judd, a Nashville-based comedian/singer who has been called the "Weird Al" Yankovic of country music for his song parodies.
* "(The Comedy Catch) was the first place that gave me an opportunity to actually find out if I was funny or not. It's a top-notch club. Everyone has high marks for The Comedy Catch." - Eric Foster, host of a semi-monthly comedy showcase
* "I've seen so many clubs through the years come and go. The staying power of The Comedy Catch is a testament to how well it's been run. It really has a reputation, not only as a community staple but also with fellow comedians." - Karen Mills, local touring comedian
* "I'm very fond of the Chattanooga club. It's almost like a second home for me. It's one of the few clubs in the United States that's been open 25 years, so that's quite an accomplishment. I've been coming out for 25 years, and I'll probably come out 20 more." - James Gregory, a regular headliner based in Atlanta