The Business of Being Funny

So a guy walks into a bar…It’s 2008. The bar was not just a place to get a drink. It was Pj Jacokes’ office and a meeting spot for writers and comedians (who, by the way, don’t write, ‘So a guy walks into a bar…’ jokes). It was front desk, sales department, public relations – basically operation central for Jacokes’ newly opened Go Comedy! Improv Theater in Ferndale.

The opening came at time when the economy was no laughing matter and comedy clubs were seen, in some circles, as relics of the 1980s. Jacokes’, a Second City veteran, was about to swap comedy for advertising, “where comedians go to pay mortgages,” he says. 

Instead Gerald Knight, a metro Detroit live comedy fan and investor, convinced Jacokes to keep comedy going in metro Detroit, especially since Second City Detroit had closed, Second City Novi was limping along and venues for improvisation were dwindling as many local artists opted for Los Angeles or Chicago. Jacokes and later his friends and Second City alums, Tommy LeRoy and Chris DiAngelo, decided to find a way to live off of comedy that went beyond the traditional comedy club.

What they came up with was a business plan to double-book theater and to take the punch lines on the road. Besides being a venue for live shows, the theater could be used for special and corporate events, comedy classes and parties. As time went on the value of improvisational skills in the workplace, in every day life, in challenging personal times, in executive leadership grooming, allowed Go Comedy! to grow into a multi-layered business based on laughs.

From the beginning Jacokes and his partners knew the business couldn’t survive on live improv alone. 

“We haven’t quite figured out how to make a ton of money. But it’s been steady and things keep getting better,” says Jacokes, who moved to Ferndale, where his father grew up, after college. He insisted the club go there when the investor approached him.

About six years in, Go Comedy! has seven full-time employees, several part-timers and 70 actors. It’s left the confines of the bar that was the main office. The bar returned to its original purpose of serving drinks to guests attending shows, which are performed five days a week in the theater at 261 E. 9 Mile in downtown Ferndale. Next door, Go Comedy! occupies an office with a classroom and a two doors down it has another storefront which has a classroom and rehearsal space. In June, a larger and freshly renovated space with two classrooms and, if needed, rehearsal space will be a part of the mix. 

“We’re at a point now where all three spaces are full all the time. That’s great except for rehearsal space,” Jacokes says.

The classes have become as much of a moneymaker as the live shows, comprising about 30 percent of the business’ income. The bar accounts for another 30 percent and about 10 percent is corporate workshops and events, which are growing.
“It took us almost six years to get where we’re actually now soliciting corporate work, marketing our workshops instead of just fielding calls,” he says.

And the corporate client list Go Comedy! has already built makes marketing easier. “We’re happy to say we have a long list of happy clients,” Jacokes says. 

Companies and organizations such as Detroit Federal Credit Union, Google AdWords, Detroit Labs, Quicken Loans, PricewaterhouseCoopers, the Ferndale Chamber of Commerce and Downtown Development Authority, the Michigan Young Lawyers Association and teachers’ groups have all contracted with the improv group. 

Go Comedy! mixes comedy and economics in a variety of ways. Groups use the theater for customized improv workshops and meetings. A theater wedding is planned for this summer – not a first. Company actors take workshops to workplaces to show how improv is connected to employee (and human) relations and job performance. And on and offsite they perform at special events like receptions, parties, and conventions. Reportedly, a lot of good jokes came out of the Michigan Dairy Association gathering.

Wherever the venue and whatever the format, Go Comedy! is teaching the lessons of improvisation, which include: listening, public speaking, clear communication and quick, on-your-feet thinking.

“Improv, has its roots, is based on, ‘Yes, and…'” says Jacokes. “That’s sort of our business philosophy as well.”

“Comedy is the by-product of what we do,” he adds. “You don’t need to be funny to learn something at our workshops or our classes. A lot of it is about listening. We spend a lot of time on that. We give the team you’re on a common experience to work together on…We bring these groups in to have fun and to get a meaningful lesson about team building without the danger of a high ropes course.”

As much as fun and laughter is a part of the business, there is a very serious and heartfelt side to the business, explains Jacokes.

“The classes and the shows both fulfill different pieces of my soul,” he says. “It’s so cathartic. The best part is with the workshops and teaching classes, sometimes you can visibly see a change you’ve made in someone’s life.”

Classes in particular, which are limited to about 10 students and run in eight-week sessions, are a mix of personalities and reasons for being there.

“Our classes are basically about a third of people who want to perform – improv, acting, comedy. Another third are here for professional reasons, and a third are just here to make friends or try and get out of their shell,” Jacokes explains. “We have dating services that recommend improv classes and therapists sending their shyer clients to us. We’ve had people with, say Asperger’s, and what you see is the class rally around those who need it. You see the connections that are made, and that’s what improv is all about.”

It’s not at all what he expected when the business was run from the bar.

“When we first opened and the bar was my desk and this was it,” he says as he motions to the dark theater that seats about about 100, “we had no idea how it was going to pan out. I ran the classes and the corporate events and now we’ve got people who direct those … Last year we even hired an accountant. I’ve taught myself how to run a business and it is just so much fun.”

Kim North Shine is a freelance writer and Development News Editor for Metromode.

All Photos by David Lewinski Photography