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Richie Tienken, Whose Comedy Club Propelled Careers, Dies at 75

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Richie Tienken, a founder of the influential Manhattan comedy club the Comic Strip, where Eddie Murphy, Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock and countless other leading comics did some of their earliest work, died on Feb. 27 in Ridgewood, N.J. He was 75.

His wife, Jeannie Tienken, confirmed his death and said the cause had not been determined. In recent years, he had struggled with throat cancer.

In the mid-1970s, Mr. Tienken, who owned several bars in the Bronx, went to see one of his bartenders, an aspiring comic, perform at the comedy club Catch a Rising Star, which was in Manhattan at the time. It was a Monday night — normally a slow one in the bar business — and Mr. Tienken was impressed by how packed Catch a Rising Star was, as told in his 2012 book, written with Jeffrey Gurian, “Make ‘Em Laugh: 35 Years of the Comic Strip, the Greatest Comedy Club of All Time!”

In a telephone interview, Mr. Tienken’s son Richie said another business fact was not lost on Mr. Tienken: At the time, comics weren’t generally paid (though the Comic Strip did eventually start paying modest amounts).

“He was paying bands $400 a night” at his bars, the younger Mr. Tienken said. He did the math, and he decided that opening a comedy club to compete with Catch a Rising Star and the Improv, the only other prominent comedy club in Manhattan at the time, could be profitable.

He and his partners settled on a run-down bar on Second Avenue between 80th and 81st Streets.

“The place was old — really old,” Mr. Tienken wrote in the book. “But the bathrooms were in place, which meant that the plumbing was all in.”

The Comic Strip (now known as Comic Strip Live) opened in 1976, and a long list of careers began or were propelled along there.

“Richie Tienken’s club gave me my start in comedy,” Mr. Seinfeld, who first performed there in 1976, said through a spokesman. “And he had a wonderful, fatherly way about him that gave us all a feeling of encouragement as we stumbled around his stage trying to figure out how to do it. We all loved seeing him every night, and he took good care of us.”

Mr. Seinfeld returned to the club to perform a 2017 Netflix special, “Jerry Before Seinfeld,” in which he included the first jokes he told from the Comic Strip stage.

Mr. Murphy, soon to achieve stardom on “Saturday Night Live,” was another comic who honed his stand-up at the club in its early days. Mr. Tienken and one of his co-founders, Robert Wachs, managed him for a time, and they both had producer credits on some of Mr. Murphy’s movies.

A somewhat later group included Adam Sandler, Ray Romano and Mr. Rock, who wrote the introduction for “Make ‘Em Laugh” and compared comedy clubs like Catch a Rising Star and the Comic Strip to colleges for young stand-ups.

“Catch was Yale, and the Strip was Illinois State University, Urbana,” he wrote. “Catch was stressful, like you were always on the verge of being expelled if you didn’t keep up your grades. The Strip was laid back. If you put in the work and studied, you would do well. But if you blew off a term smoking pot, it didn’t go on your permanent record.”

And Mr. Tienken?

“He had powerful shoulders and was genial,” Mr. Rock wrote, “like a bouncer who babysat on the side.”

Richard John Tienken was born on June 11, 1945, in Manhattan. His father, John, was an electrician, and his mother, Helen, was a homemaker and also worked in a department store.

He left home at 13, he said — he had stolen a car, and when reform school loomed, he hit the road to avoid it. His father was surprisingly supportive when he announced his plans.

“He said, ‘After looking into them’” — that is, reform schools — “‘I understand; here’s 50 bucks,’” Mr. Tienken recalled last year in an episode of Mr. Gurian’s video series, “Comedy Matters.”

He sold magazines and delivered groceries, and he eventually got into bar and bingo hall ownership. Then he moved into comedy.

Mr. Gurian, a writer, comic and comedy historian who worked with Mr. Tienken again on a 2016 update of the 2012 book that they called “Laughing Legends: How the Comic Strip Club Changed the Face of Comedy,” said that among Mr. Tienken’s innovations was instituting a schedule so comics would know when they were going onstage; in other clubs, they might sit around for hours not knowing when or even whether they would get stage time on a given night.

Some of the comics who came through his club were known for edgy material, but Mr. Tienken’s son Richie said his father was a fan of restraint.

“He encouraged comics to tell stories about their own life over shock value and vulgarity,” he said.

Mr. Tienken married Jeannie Nardi in 1991. In addition to her and his son Richie, Mr. Tienken, who lived in Hawthorne, N.J., is survived by another son, Jonathan; three daughters, Jacqueline, Dawn and Christina; six grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

Mr. Tienken’s club had financial troubles at times (its post-pandemic future is unclear), and in recent years he had been embroiled in legal battles with the widow of Mr. Wachs, who died in 2013. But in the video interview last year, he said Mr. Seinfeld’s recent special had given the club a financial lift.

So did a gesture by another alumnus, Mr. Sandler, who shot part of his 2018 Netflix special called “100% Fresh” there. But unlike the Seinfeld taping, that one was a surprise to Mr. Tienken; his wife kept it a secret from him.

“She said to me, ‘When you come in tonight, dress nice,’” he said.


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